When you reach a certain stage in your career or your business begins to get some attention in the press, you will start getting invitations to share your expertise and experience at conferences and events. One of the most common invitations that smart, interesting folks receive is the panelist request. An event organizer is pulling together a panel to discuss a particular topic and he is looking for people with an interesting point of view or relationship to the topic and you get the call.
These invitations are flattering and they can be a great opportunity to build your profile and share your knowledge and insight. And they can also a complete waste of time because they are often moderated poorly and populated by self-promoting gasbags who are looking for a soapbox.
Participating in a panel discussion can be challenging so the next time you’re invited to speak on a panel, try out these tips to make sure you and the audience get the most out of the experience.
BEFORE YOU SAY YES…
- Understand the audience. Before you even agree to participate in a panel, talk to the organizer and/or moderator about the audience. Who will be in the audience and what is the level of their experience and expertise? Why are they attending the conference and/or panel? Ask to see the invite list to get a sense for what type of organizations and positions will be represented in the audience. Conference organizers often talk about their aspirational, not actual, audience. Make sure you’re clear on who you’re going to be speaking to and whether or not you have something to offer them before you say yes.
- Ask about objectives. Talk to the moderator about the objectives for the discussion. Find out what she is hoping to have each panelist contribute. Ask specifically what she hopes the audience will do, what they need to know to do that and how she would like them to feel during the panel discussion. You want to feel confident that you have something meaningful to contribute.
- Clarify expectations. When you’re speaking with the moderator, clarify what’s expected of you in terms of the format. Is it a true panel discussion or is it a series of short presentations from each of the panelists? Are interruptions and counterpoints encouraged or frowned upon? Make sure you are comfortable with the format before you agree to participate.
- Research the expertise of your fellow panelists. Be clear on what each person on the panel will likely contribute to the panel discussion and how your content will augment the expertise of the others. Sometimes the best reason to participate on a panel is to network with your fellow panelists. If you make them shine, you’ll be sure to catch some of their reflected light.
ONCE YOU’VE AGREED TO PARTICIPATE…
- Plan and prioritize. Once you’re clear on the nature of the audience, the likely contribution of your fellow panelists and the objectives associated with the panel, it’s time to plan and prioritize your points. Don’t try to cover the whole waterfront. Ask yourself which ideas will best serve your audience and prepare short vignettes and crisp examples to illustrate them and subtly showcase your experience.
- Contribute thoughtfully. Add dynamism to the discussion by building on other people’s contributions. The moderator is not the only one who can ask questions. Pose questions to the other panelists, either for clarity or to draw out other points of view. Engage others in your responses by giving specific panelists a heads up that you’d love to hear their thoughts after you’ve shared your ideas about a topic. Politely and respectfully provide a counterpoint when you disagree with something said. Nod in affirmation when you agree with another panelist. And don’t be afraid to take some leadership in drawing people who haven’t said much into the conversation. And be sure to monitor your own contribution. Don’t speak for the sake of speaking, no one likes a self-promoting blowhard. And beware of anxiety; it makes some people ramble. When you have nothing new to add, say that you agree with the others so the discussion can move along.
- Use your eyes and hands. Eye contact is even more important than you think. When responding to a question from the moderator, look at him first and then move to the audience and your fellow panelists. As you do so, be mindful of the position of the microphone. Don’t move your head so much that—in an effort to be an eye contact hero—you move away from the microphone and can’t be heard. Finish your response by looking at the moderator to signal you are done. And don’t forget about your hands. Rest your forearms on the table, not under the table, and use them to gesture as you make key points and acknowledge the moderator or your fellow panelists.
- Sit smart. Sit in the seat the furthest away from the moderator because it gives you the best vantage point to look at the moderator, the audience and your fellow panelists in a natural and fluid way. If you’re stuck in the middle, it’s tough to monitor the facial expressions of your fellow panelists. And get there early enough to go up and claim your chair. Make sure it is the right height and adjust if necessary. Push your notes far enough away that they are easy to see. It helps to bring a closed binder to set your notes on so they’re easier to see. Make sure you’re setting yourself up to have a strong, confident presence on the panel. It’s easy to shrink back in this format. Avoid the temptation to sink back into your chair. This contracts your diaphragm and reduces your presence. Be conscious of your posture and sit closer to the front of your seat and rest your forearms on the table when you are not using your hands. If you’re a woman and undecided about what to wear, be sure to ask about the physical set up. Will it be talk show style in easy chairs or a more traditional panel set up with chairs at a skirted table? Some set ups are more conducive to skirts than others!
The bottom line is this: panel discussions can be incredibly dull. It's best to ask questions and be prepared so you can have some fun and enjoy the contribution of the other panelists and the moderator. Audiences will enjoy the discussion if you do.