How to Rock in a Panel Discussion

panelJoanne was one part excited and one part nervous. She had been asked to speak on a panel discussion, and jumped at the chance. Afterward she realized that she wasn’t sure exactly how to ace this special presentation.

Together we came up with the following checklist to help her on her way to success.

Before the panel discussion:

Œ        Know the subject matter really well. If the subject matter is something that you are not thoroughly versed in, it might be better to pass. If you really know the content well, then go ahead and accept. It’s great exposure for your ideas and for yourself and your organization. Be sure to have the newest facts and figures; even if you are an expert bone up on current events in your field.

Œ        Get the facts. Be sure to find out the purpose of the panel discussion and what questions will be asked. Also see if you can determine the likely tone of this event; is it a collegial discussion or likely to be a heated debate? Will the audience likely be friendly or hostile and quick to challenge speakers? How have previous discussions gone?

Œ        Prepare and rehearse as you would for a keynote. Even though time is shorter on a panel discussion, every minute counts. You may have to deliver your message in several chunks as you have the floor, so be well rehearsed, and remain flexible.

Œ        Write your own introduction and provide it to the moderator. Don’t leave this to chance or hope it will end up well. If they get your intro wrong you can easily start out of the wrong foot. Be sure the moderator knows how to say your name. Bring an extra copy of your intro in case the moderator needs it.

Œ        Prepare and rehearse your opening and closing remarks. Pretend like these are the only things you will have to say. Make sure they stand alone, and make sense to your audience. Edit and wordsmith until you can hit the time requirements. Record yourself and listen back. Is it clear? Interesting? Make you want to hear more? If not, keep polishing.

Œ        Check out the other panelists. If you don’t already know the other panelists, you can use social media to find out about their expertise and opinions. You can read articles or blogs they have written, and possibly see them in action on You Tube.  This way you will come into the debate or discussion with the knowledge of what opinions they are likely to put forth and how forcefully they are likely to defend their positions.

During the panel discussion:

Œ        Speak to the audience, not the moderator.  Unless you are told otherwise, assume you should be speaking to the audience most of the time. You can address comments or questions to the other panelists, which can keep the discussion lively, but don’t forget who the audience really is.

Œ        Never forget you are “on stage.” Don’t look bored, or annoyed by another speaker’s opinions. Assume that you are being observed at every moment, and maintain a neutral, interested face and body language.

Œ        Stick to high level language. Your time will be short, and you might get cut off at any time, so deliver broad comments first, hitting the most important points quickly. Then add illustrations, stories, anecdotes or details if time permits.

Œ        Add interesting facts, stories and anecdotes. Prepare several interesting highlights that the audience is likely to enjoy, and that help make your point memorable. You probably won’t get to all of them, but if you are well prepared you can use them if the discussion warrants.

Œ        Be respectful. You don’t have to agree with everyone else, in fact that would be pretty boring, but disagree in a cordial, respectful way. Don’t show undue emotion, and don’t take anything personally. Be so cordial and so professional that you could go out for lunch with the panelists after the discussion and not feel uncomfortable.

Joanne took these ideas to heart and prepared well for her upcoming panel discussion. It went so well she is looking forward to another opportunity like this.

For more information on speaking on a panel discussion:

How to Kick Butt on a Panel by Guy Kawasaki

How to Prepare For and Stand Out During a Panel Discussion

Ten Tips for Speaking on a Panel by Ian Griffin