How to Rock as a Panelist

At some point in your career, you may be asked to be a part of a panel discussion. Leaders are often invited to be on panels as a part of a town hall, employee meeting, training program, or some other internal or external function. You might also be asked to be part of an expert panel consisting of specialists from your profession.

A panelist is kind of a middle ground between being a presenter and being an audience member. While you’re on the stage and expected to have something interesting to contribute, you’re part of a small group and don’t have to be the sole center of attention.

Because of this difference, it can be tempting to underestimate the impact you can have as a panelist, as well as the potential for embarrassing yourself.

For presentations, most of us have had some find of formal training and understand the need to prepare and practice. We all have a healthy fear of presenting. There are all kinds of courses, books, and articles dedicated to presentation skills.

I can’t recall ever seeing anything on how to be an effective panelist.

What would your reaction be if you went to a program and the keynote speaker dozed off a few times, acted like they just showed up with no preparation, or didn’t even speak?

You’d be appalled, right? Well, unfortunately, I’ve seen panelists commit all of these as well as:

– showing up late

– leaving early

– not paying attention to what their fellow panelists are saying

– acting bored

– not understanding a question before answering it with a rambling, irrelevant discourse

Don’t let this happen to you! If you’re asked to be a panelist, don’t get lulled into thinking you can just show up and wing it. It’s NOT as easy as it looks.

Here are some tips that will not only help you avoid these panelist blunders but help you stand out and shine:

1. Prepare for it the same as you would for a formal presentation.
You should be able to anticipate what your audience would be interested and what questions they are likely to ask. Do your homework. Come prepared with a few interesting stories about your background, lessons learned, important advice, or provocative opinions. It’s similar to the way politicians are prepared for a press conference – they know the answers to questions before they are asked, and many of their answers are quotable “sound bytes”.

2. Understand the question.
Make sure you understand what the moderator or audience member is asking. If you’re not sure, paraphrase the question and check for understanding. By repeating the question, you’ll make sure the rest of the audience hears it as well. It also gives you time to think about your answer.

3. Keep your answers short, succinct, and sweet.
Keep in mind that when someone asks a question, they usually don’t just want to hear one perspective. That’s the whole point of a panel, to get multiple perspectives. So if you take too much time, and then your fellow panelist do the same, you’ll bore your audience to death and not leave enough time for other questions. For example, if the moderator asks “tell us about your background”, keep it to a few interesting tidbits – don’t cover your entire resume.

4. Be a Team Player.
Pay attention to your fellow panelist’s comments and answers, don’t be an answer hog, and don’t diss a fellow panelist. On the other hand, if there’s an answer hog on your panel, you can respectfully assert yourself in order to ensure all panelists get a chance to be heard. A good moderator should take care of this for you, but not always. A good panelist not only shines, they have the leadership ability to make the entire panel shine. It’s OK to respectfully disagree with another panelist, kid around, and even ask your own questions.

5. Bring your A game.
Get some sleep the night before. If you have to, slam down a strong coffee or an energy drink – anything to keep you on your toes, awake, and energetic. Even if you’re not answering a question, probably half of the audience is still watching you. In fact, assume someone is taking your picture with a cell phone at any moment.

Answer questions with passion, enthusiasm, and conviction, and listen to others with genuine interest. Speak up so the back row can hear you and make eye contact with the audience.

6. Extend yourself to your audience.
Book an extra 15 minutes before and after the session to hang around and talk to audience members. If you’ve followed the tips above, you’ll always have a line of participants wanting to ask a follow-up question or just introduce themselves.

If you make a promise to follow-up on something (like an answer to a question), make sure you do. It’s an opportunity to reinforce your reputation as someone how does what they say they’re going to do.

How about you? Any panelist tips (or horror stories) that you can share?