It's tempting to believe that participating in a panel discussion is easier than making a presentation.
After all, you're just going to sit there and answer someone else's questions, am I right?
When it goes well, a panel discussion can be a lively way to learn about a topic and hear different perspectives. But if you're like most of us, you've been in the audience for panels that weren't terribly engaging … if not downright terrible.
The organizer or moderator may deserve some of the blame for that. Yet even with a weak moderator, quality panelists who are prepared for the assignment can make the event worthwhile.
What should you be doing to prepare if you're a panelist? Here are seven tips to help you make the most of the experience for yourself and the audience:
Of course, sometimes we say yes to an invitation without thinking a great deal about why. "They asked. So I said sure."
Even if that's the case, it's not too late for you to understand how you can enlighten an audience and why participating in a panel will be beneficial for you. Having that in mind helps you build rapport and use your time and answers well.
Get in touch and find out as much as you can about how the moderator plans to run the program. Some questions you might wants answers for include:
This doesn't have to be extensive but find out a little about the people you'll be sharing the stage with. If you can watch video clips of them in action, that can be helpful. For example, you might notice that a moderator is not particularly assertive—so you could make a note to insert yourself into a discussion and not wait for the moderator’s cue.
Knowing about the other panelists helps you see where your contributions can fit in. You can look for where you might agree or disagree or how your expertise complements theirs.
Once you know more about the topics the moderator has in mind, you can refresh yourself on key information you'd like to have at the ready.
One advantage of identifying your opportunity (Tip #1) is that it can give shape to the information you want to include. That way you won't be overwhelmed by the task of collecting the facts—and the audience is less likely to be overwhelmed and forget what you say. (You might consider preparing key talking points, much as you would for a media interview.)
A story or example can go long way toward making information accessible and memorable for audiences. Plus, stories amp up your entertainment factor—and who doesn't like panelists who entertain them?
Don't assume the stories you need will come to you in the moment. As you think about the key points you want to make, think also of the stories and examples that can enhance them. You may not be able to tell all of your stories but have them in mind.
Perhaps your moderator will provide you with a set of questions in advance. Fine. Still, you're not off the hook. Also, brainstorm:
Any time you're faced with Q&A, a little prep goes a long way. And as you work out the answers, consider length (as in, not too long) and how you can give the short answer first.
And make a plan for doing so. Maybe there's a controversy you'd rather not address. Or maybe you think people are spending too much time focusing on x when they really should be learning more about y.
If your concern about a topic is high, this might be a place to enlist some help from a colleague or public relations pro. You might also want to review the techniques taught in media training for bridging to topics you DO want to discuss.
This article from the Harvard Business Review provides tips similar to ours, with one panelist’s perspective on how they’ve applied for her.
It can help to understand what makes a good panel discussion and why some fall flat. Here's our take on that.
Wondering about the role of the moderator in panel discussions? We see them as the audience's advocate or stand-in. Here's the advice we give.
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