Each week, Dear Gracie answers questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from our network of more than 44,000 ProfNet experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you've been wondering that none of your friends can answer? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
I've been invited to speak on a panel at a conference. It will be recorded and later shown on TV and to other industry professionals. Any tips for how to rock on a panel?
Dear Panel Prepper,
Here is advice from 12 ProfNet experts who are experienced panelists and communicators:
How to Prepare
"There is no such thing as an impromptu speaking engagement," says Robb Leer, media consultant and coach, and founder and president of Leer Communication & Consultants; a PR, marketing and media relations company. "Anyone who stands up to address an audience does so drawing from their own experiences and knowledge."
"So if you've been invited to be a panelist," he continues, "do your homework, collect your thoughts and practice in advance how you want to say them. Be clear about what you represent and believe."
"Know your topic cold," agrees John Buchanan, chief marketing officer for the law firm Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin PC. Preparation includes rehearsing your answers to panel questions, and even writing down full answers or at least highlighting critical points.
Understand and speak to your audience, says Bill Corbett, president of Corbett Public Relations. Be aware of the event organizers and what types of people and businesses will be represented in the audience. Also, be aware of any current events, trends or breaking news regarding the panel's subject matter.
Try to rehearse with the entire panel and moderator at least once or twice if you can, continues Buchanan. An outline of the panel that includes all questions from the moderator and what the panelists might say will also help the conversation go smoothly.
Although a table in front of the panelists might be more traditional, suggest a "talk show" format, says Buchanan. "Sitting 'out in the open' makes the panel more interesting and takes away from the 'panel-audience barrier' of a table," he says.
Do not be surprised by changes in the moderator's personality the day of the panel. "An amiable person may become a tough investigate reporter on camera," says Leer.
Definitely write out your panel introduction, which will promote you and your expertise, explains Leer. Keep it under 20 seconds.
Know the technology you want to use, says Patrick Richey, debate coach at Middle Tennessee State University. You should know how to use the tech equipment in your office, but you should also know how it will work specifically at the event. For example, is the software compatible with the venue's IT capabilities?
Furthermore, understand how social media, including Twitter, is changing the way panels are conducted, says Jason Wonacott, founder and CEO of Wonacott Communications, LLC.
Buchanan advises bringing your speaking notes, business cards, marketing materials (which are useful for business-development panels) and mints.
Richey also suggests bringing a bottle of water, copies of your speech outline with contact information included (to give to audience members) and a binder or portfolio to keep notes in (since it looks more professional than a stack of crumpled papers).
Corbett points that it is better to drink water out of a glass, if possible, as it will make you seem more professional. "A water bottle or soda doesn't portray the best image," he says.
Remember to wear comfortable and well-fitted clothing, especially if the panel will be broadcast on TV, says Leer. "Black suits or white clothing may distort skin color due to light absorption and reflection. Blue is best."
(Also, check out Dear Gracie: Tips for How to Appear on Camera)
How to Speak
"The most important consideration when contributing to a panel discussion is not when to start talking, but when to stop," says Patrick Schwerdtfeger, author of "Marketing Shortcuts for the Self-Employed" (John Wily & Sons, Inc.; 2011) and a regular speaker for Bloomberg TV. "The goal is to make your point in 15 seconds or less. Doing so will make you appear intelligent and concise."
"Each time you speak, get to your main point fast!" says Kelly Lane, consultant at Levenson & Brinker Public Relations. If a speaker "builds up" to the point, they could be interrupted by the moderator or another speaker and may never get to it.
The key is to remain calm, says Richey. Speak with a normal, friendly tone; and stay confident, but casual.
"Clarity and sincerity -- not volume -- convey conviction," agrees Leer.
"Speak slowly and with inflections so you don't put your audience to sleep," echoes Elaine Fantle Shimberg, a medical writer who has appeared on a number of panels for the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
"If you have a microphone, make sure everyone can hear," adds Corbett.
Don't be afraid to repeat your key talking points, says Leer. Use short, declarative sentences to stress your points.
"Demonstrate your expertise and knowledge on the subject using examples to relate," says Corbett. But don't go overboard with numbers or statistics; they should be used sparingly or to drive home a point.
Also, avoid acronyms or complicated terminology, says Leer.
When in doubt: "Use self deprecating humor to lighten the mood and relate to the audience," says Rob Gelphman, chair of the Marketing Work Group at Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA).
Leer concurs: "Don't develop a different persona for the panel. It's OK to laugh at yourself."
And remember, the focus should be on education, and not making a commercial for your products or services, says Shel Horowitz, seasoned panelist and author of "Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet."
"Know the difference between talking about yourself and staying on topic," says Wonacott.
How to Interact
"It's good to know who you will be sitting with and how you stack up against them. That way, you can try to find your differentiation point," says Brendan Kownacki, media strategist at Merge Creative Media and a regular panelist on the Washington, D.C.-based morning TV show "Let's Talk Live."
"On a panel, you want to carve out a niche area for yourself that establishes your specific character and expertise," he continues. "This will even allow others on the panel to look for your response if the discussion heads down a certain path."
The best panelists are the ones who truly take the time to understand where the other panelists are coming from beforehand, versus just positioning themselves and their product or services, agrees Robb Hecht, client strategy director at IMC Strategy Lab, a digital marketing agency.
"That said," he continues, "the best panels are those in which one panelist is passionate and adamant about taking a really alternative view," because it keeps the audience engaged.
"It's always positive to remember that the rest of the panel is there for mutual benefit to all," says Kownacki. "Play off the other panelists and look them in the eye as you do it, and don't forget that the audience is almost always the final member of the panel."
So pay attention to the other panelists and the moderator during the panel, says Buchanan. "Don't daydream while others are speaking."
Always look interested in the conversation, as the camera may be on you, adds Leer.
Expect interruptions, as panels can spark random responses, Leer continues. Wait for the commotion to calm down. Stay focused, and never lose your cool. Don't allow yourself to be drawn into conversations about other topics.
"You're never wrong to be polite and patient, even if the event is growing intense," he says. "Be the cool one on the panel. The hysterical one is only remembered afterwards in the bar as the goof ball."
To respond to other panelists, Buchanan suggests using phrases like:
- "While I appreciate that point of view, I have a completely different one."
- "You have a valid point, but I think that the real issue is..."
- "I'm going to play devil's advocate on this issue by saying..."
How to Handle Questions From the Audience
"When answering a question from the audience, first recap the question to make sure the other audience members hear the question, and then look the person asking the question straight in the eye and answer him or her," says Buchanan.
Pause briefly before answering difficult questions to avoid "ums" and "ers," says Leer.
"Panels are often created to drive the complimentary skills of all concerned, so if you're ever feeling stumped, you can throw it to someone else beside you, and that's not a cop-out," says Kownacki.
Moreover, make sure to give other panelists space to respond, says Horowitz. "For example, if I answered one question first, I'll let one or other two panelists start the next round of answers before I chime in," he says.
"Do not take more time than is necessary to answer a question," says Gelphman. "Think in terms of adding value to the conversation. If you have nothing to say, than don't say anything. If a straight "yes" or "no" is the best response, than stick with that."
But never say "no comment," says Leer. "People perceive this as a 'guilty as charged' answer."
And never lie either, he adds. "Make your answers straightforward and clear, but don't say more than you want to say."
Buchanan agrees that the best thing is to be honest. When asked a difficult question, he suggests saying something like "I'm not really sure how to answer that question. Let me give it some thought. I think it's important, however, to remember that…" and then follow that up with a comment you think is relevant.
Turn the question around make a point related to what they ask, says Gelphman. Say something like "You bring up an interesting point about X" and then frame their question in a broader sense.
"Don't duck or make anybody feel stupid for asking a weird question," says Leer. Make comments like: "I've never looked at it that way before" or "That's interesting."
And ask for clarification from the audience member if you need to, says Horowitz. If it's still unclear, defer to the moderator.
Being invited to be a panelist is a communication privilege, an opportunity, says Leer. "Embrace the moment, enjoy it, and arrive with a plan and a few talking points in your pocket."
"Effective public speakers don't get tripped up by events like this. They handle these events effortlessly as savvy communicators -- not because they are smarter or more gifted -- no, it's just that they have prepared themselves for this moment," Leer adds.
And perhaps most importantly, Shimberg reminds us: "Never accept being the 4 p.m. presenter on a Friday, on the last day of a three-day conference!"