Being on a conference panel is like your first day at a new school: to succeed, you need to play nice, stay focused, know what you’re talking about, and dress sharp. The dressing sharp part is on you. For the rest, here’s how to be ready:
Don’t go in cold. Prepare 2–3 points in advance that relate to your expertise and the mission of the conference or event. Think about how you can help this audience. What do you know that they should too? If you can, mention these points in advance to the moderator –- he or she can help you make them. Also be prepared with stats, examples, or outcomes that illustrate your points. If you know a great and related joke, bring it, but don’t force the funny.
2. Be Yourself -– Your Helpful Self.
Keeping a panel discussion interesting is the moderator’s job, not yours. So don’t go in trying to be “interesting” or “memorable” -– just share what you know, and try to make it helpful. This isn’t an intellectual exercise, nor is it a chance for the audience to “meet you”; the audience is simply hoping to get some insight that can help them do their jobs better or make their lives easier. It can be all about you when you make your appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio.
3. You’re On!
Remember, the audience is always watching you (and so might cameras). So — for as long as you’re up there — look interested, nod at good points, and don’t do anything that would embarrass your mother if she were in the audience.
Speaking of your mom, some of her rules definitely apply here: speak up, sit straight up, don’t touch your face, and be courteous. (But don’t bring a sweater)
4. Stick to Your Points, Not Theirs.
If the conversation takes a turn somewhere you don’t want to go, don’t go with it. Bring it back with a phrase like:
- “That’s an important issue, but let’s remember the key point: (point)”
- “I hear you. My point of view is that (point)”
- “There’s been a lot of conversation about this, but here’s the headline: (point)”
If you’re under attack, simply defend or restate your points, but don’t go attacking back -– being a bully or purposefully combative is always a losing proposition for your credibility, unless your super PAC is doing it for you.
5. Look Here.
Unless you’ve been instructed otherwise, answer the person who asked the question. Moderator questions go back to the moderator. Audience questions go back to the audience. Your mom’s questions go back to your mom. (Why did you bring her, anyway?)
You can always shift an answer from the moderator to the audience, but be explicit about the transition: “This applies to many of you as well. . . . ”
6. Treat Your Audience Nice.
Audiences, like romantic partners, want to be acknowledged. But you can’t butter them up with flowers and candy. These are the gifts they like:
- Compliments: “Good question”
- Restating their question: “What I hear you asking is…”
- Referring to them later: “This connects to the question asked earlier…”
- Offering insight as gifts: “Here’s something you should know.”
If you do this, the audience will be on your side… at least until you move on to a new audience. Hell hath no fury like an audience scorned.
7. Awaiting Your Sentence.
Try to speak in complete sentences when answering a question so that everyone gets to hear the question — and you have time to develop an answer. On a related note, don’t cut off other people -– everyone deserves a moment to make his or her point. It’s a moderator’s job to equally distribute questions and attention. It’s your job to get out of there having clearly made your points.
8. Give It Your Best Yes.
Every yes-or-no question should have a definitive “yes,” “no,” or at least “honestly, I don’t know” answer before you elaborate. Trying to give all the answers at once or hedging your bets doesn’t make you seem wise -– it makes you seem wishy-washy. And yes, it’s okay to say you don’t know. It’s not Jeopardy, and audiences appreciate honesty.
9. Say My Name.
Memorize the moderator’s name, and use it. Collegiality –- even phony collegiality — projects confidence and a level of comfort with your own expertise.
It’s also good to publicly agree with other panelists’ points, using their names: “I really agree with what Jack said earlier about the strength of online brands, and I would add that….”
Saying “Jack’s point” instead of “what was said earlier” earns you bonus points for listening and processing along with the audience.
But don’t take chances with those names — calling a panelist by the wrong name has the same effect of calling your partner by the wrong name: You’re toast.
10. Dress Sharp.
I’ll say it anyway. Guys, I think checks are in, stripes out, but I defer to professionals.
Next Wednesday, February 29, the author of this post, public-speaking expert Joel Schwartzberg, will teach a Hired Guns Academy class on how to give presentations and speeches that make a real impact. The class is limited to 18 participants, and registration is required in advance.