The only thing worse than a dull speech is a dull panel discussion, where the misery is multiplied by the number of bad panelists. We’re accustomed to planning carefully for a big speech, but when it comes to serving on panels, it’s tempting to just “wing it.” But that does a major disservice to the audience. Being a good panelist is about more than just showing up and answering questions. It requires forethought and preparation. It’s not just the moderator’s responsibility.
Of course, the responsibility for a panel discussion’s success falls first and foremost on the moderator. A good moderator will thoroughly brief the panelists, providing the questions or topic areas ahead of time. They’ll coordinate with the group so that the discussion comes across as a unified narrative and not a bunch of random, unconnected points of view. And they’ll keep things moving along and on topic.
But you can’t always count on having a good moderator. And even when you do, every panelist has a role in the panel’s overall success.
Here are seven things you can do to ensure that you hold up your end of the panel discussion bargain.
1. Know Your Audience
As with a speech, the better you know your audience, the more relevant your contribution will be. So work with the moderator to understand the context of the event, who the audience is, and what they know about the topic. And find out about their concerns, doubts, expectations and mood. That will be critical to shaping both the content and tone of your remarks. Do some research of your own if you have to.
2. Understand Your Role
You’re just one piece of the puzzle; make sure you understand how you fit in. Why were you invited? What specific perspective does the moderator hope you can add. Look at the other panelists. What can you contribute that they can’t, and vice-versa? If you don’t have their bios, look them up on LinkedIn and research them online. If the moderator organizes a call or video chat before the event, take that opportunity to help iron out roles. Find out what’s going to be asked and feel free to suggest topics or questions that you think are relevant.
3. Have a Goal
Be strategic. Go into the panel discussion with a specific goal in mind. Do you want to:
• Solve a particular problem the audience has?
• Showcase your expertise or your organization’s capabilities?
• Challenge conventional wisdom?
Figure out what you want to accomplish, and direct everything you say toward that goal. (But beware of overt “selling.” You’re there to help and inform the audience.)
4. Stick to Your Messages
Taken together, your remarks should amount to more than a bunch of disjointed responses to questions—they should tell a cohesive story. So boil down your content to a few key messages. Thread them through your commentary and find a way to pivot back to them. And if a question is not a good fit for your expertise or priorities, it’s fine to defer to your fellow panelists.
5. Prepare Stories
Stories resonate like nothing else. If you want to be remembered and you want your ideas to stick, few things beat a well-told story. Come prepared with anecdotes, examples and stories that capture your points. That will be a lot more effective than dumping a ton of data and information on your audience. Remember to be succinct, though. Keep your stories short and focused so you don’t dominate the conversation.
6. Listen to the Other Panelists
When the other panelists are talking, don’t just spend that time rehearsing your next bon mot. Listen to what they have to say and extend the conversation. Refer to points a fellow panelist has made and build on them (or point out areas where you respectfully disagree). This makes for a more fluid and engaging discussion.
7. Keep Your Energy Up
Of course, keeping your energy up is essential, especially if you’re stuck in the typical panel setup—seated behind a table. A table creates a literal and figurative barrier between the panel and the audience. The best panels I’ve seen ditch the table and use stools instead of chairs. Ask about the set-up in advance and see if the organizers are willing to make this adjustment. If you have to be seated, don’t slouch or lean back. That will drain the energy right out of you. Lean in and stay physically engaged.
Make Your Next Panel a Success
The best panel discussions are spirited affairs, with high energy, focused content, and easy give-and-take among the participants. The more you take a personal stake in its success, the more your audience will appreciate it.