5 Steps to Ace a Panel Discussion

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How to Prepare to Speak on a Panel

So you’ve been asked to speak on a panel, or you’re throwing your hat into the ring to sit on one at a local conference? Panel presentations are a great way to build your reputation as a thought leader and an expert in your field. And, at least on the surface, participating in a panel feels like an easier prospect than giving a solo presentation. 

But don’t get too brash. Panel participation comes with its own unique set of challenges, and just like any communication event, if you really want to stand out (in a good way!) you’ll need to dedicate some time to preparation.

3 Steps to Preparing for Your Next Panel

1.   Meet the Moderator in Advance

As soon as you can, get in touch with the panel moderator to learn about her game plan. How will she run the panel? Will she be asking specific participants to address each question, or will it be a free-flowing discussion? What topics does she want to be sure to touch on? Will she be scripting her questions in advance—and can you have a copy?

By getting this rundown from the moderator, you not only give yourself the opportunity to mentally prepare for the day-of environment, but you also learn how to focus your content preparation. It’s like having a study guide for a final exam. While you still want to be sure you’re familiar with all the material, you know which topics and ideas to really home in on as you prepare.

2.   Get to Know Your Co-Presenters

Next, get familiar with your co-presenters and their work. At the very least, research them online to learn what they do, how they do it, and why. What are their fields of expertise? Where does your knowledge overlap with theirs, and where does it diverge?

Best case scenario, you’ll be able to talk with them—either on the phone or in person—before the event. This gives you the opportunity to get to know each other’s communication styles, and it allows you to break the ice so that you’re not meeting for the first time on stage in front of hundreds of people.

The better you can get to know your fellow panelists, the smoother the panel will run. You’ll have a sense of what the others will say about certain topics, you’ll know whom you can defer to when a question is outside of your realm of expertise, and you’ll know whom you might be able to support when theyneed a little backup. As a result, your audience will perceive all of you as stronger communicators and leaders.

3.   Prep Your Talking Points

Once you’ve gotten the scoop from your moderator and at least researched your fellow panelists, spend some time putting your own talking points together. Based on what you anticipate will come up in the session, make a list of key points to touch on as well as relevant facts, statistics and citations you can use to bolster your credibility. Just like when you’re giving a solo presentation—but even more important on a panel—knowing your material inside and out allows you to be confident and flexible, giving elegant answers to even the unexpected questions.

And 2 Steps to Being Captivating on Stage

You have your talking points ready, you’ve met your fellow panelists, and you’ve powwowed with your moderator. Now all that’s left to do is get up there and sound like an expert, right?

It’s not quite that simple. Yes, the most important thing you can do is answer questions smartly and contribute relevant insights to the conversation, but to be really effective, you’ve got to do more than just talk.

1.   Listen

When you’ve prepared your talking points and you’ve got your statistics up your sleeve, it can be easy to sit passively, waiting your turn to show off your knowledge. But if you’re not listening carefully, you’re likely to miss key opportunities to ask follow-up questions or add on to your fellow panelists’ insights—or, worse, miss the point of a question and give a rambling, irrelevant answer in an attempt to cover up your uncertainty.

So as your moderator and fellow speakers are talking, be sure you’re listening actively—not just hearing, but really listening.Absorb what each speaker is saying so you’ll be able to respond accurately and intelligently and ensure every contribution you make adds clear value to the conversation.

2.   Track Your Time

You’ve seen this dynamic in every meeting and group discussion you’ve ever been part of: one or two people dominate the conversation, while others struggle to get a word in edgewise. But in a truly successful panel, each speaker has the opportunity to weigh in fairly evenly. To make sure that happens, Duke University marketing strategist Dorie Clark suggests keeping fairly close track of the time balance on stage.

If you know that you tend to be verbose, especially under stress, consciously try to limit your remarks. Be aware of how many times you’ve spoken, as compared with others, and if you’re a serial offender, you may consider setting a timer on your smartphone or watch so that you can stop yourself at the 30-second mark to let others weigh in.

Dorie Clark, Harvard Business Review

If you’re a big talker, you can take your awareness a step further: if you notice one of your panelists hasn’t said much yet, toss the conversation directly to him with an “I think so-and-so knows a lot about this. What do you think, so-and-so?” Conversely, if you’re one of the quieter ones, be ready to assert yourself to be sure your voice is heard.

Ultimately, neither the ramblers nor the wallflowers will impress the audience. So be sure you’re putting your best foot forward on stage—and empowering your co-presenters to do the same.