Over the past year I’ve been involved in a number of panel discussions as a panelist, host organizer and audience member.
Expert panelists are chosen for their experience, expertise, knowledge and wisdom on a particular topic. Audience members want to gain insight and understanding. As an expert who is invited to speak on a panel, your job is to contribute meaningful input that reflects your particular area.
Here are some “best practices” for experts to shine during a panel discussion:
1. Find out the topic or questions ahead of time – and prepare your answers.
Ask the panel organizer for the questions or topic ahead of time so you can prepare your answers. Don’t go into a panel discussion cold. This is an opportunity to have your voice hard and share your knowledge and wisdom. Taking the time to prepare answers will help you be more articulate in front of a live audience.
2. Avoid saying “As so-and-so just said…”
I once listened to a discussion where one “expert panelist” was so frazzled that another presenter had “stolen all the things” she was going to say, that she just kept saying “As Bob has already said…” and then went on to repeat his findings. There’s nothing that makes a panelist sound less informed! Instead of saying, “As so-and-so just said…” try these openers:
- “Building on the example given by s0-and-so, I’d like to add an example from my own experience…”
- “It seems that so-and-so and I are on the same wave length. I echo what you’re saying and I can add to it with some evidence based on my own research…”
- “Great point, so-and-so. Your insights echo findings from my own work. Your point reminds me of a study (or an example… or a “how to” tip…)
3. Showcase your unique expertise – without showing off
You’ve been invited to speak because you are a thought leader with “deep knowledge” in a particular area. Rather than offering generalizations, take this as an opportunity to showcase your unique knowledge. Come prepared with examples from your own research and experience. Give specific, rather than general answers, sharing details and evidence based on your own work.
It’s OK to be passionate, but no one likes a know-it-all. Being an expert doesn’t mean that you have all the answers or that your way of seeing things is the only “right” way. Find a balance.
4. Use a “head, hands, heart” approach to prepare answers (and back-up answers)
For every question, prepare 3 possible answers, each of which focuses on one of these areas:
A response from the head – Provide research-based evidence, empirical data or statistics.
A response from the heart – Prepare an answer that includes a personal example, a success story or a response meant to reach the emotions of the audience by motivating them or inspiring them.
A “hands-on” response – Provide practical “how to” information or give examples of how using a particular approach has been successful in a certain context.
Vary the types of answers that you give. If four out of the last five panel members have given heartfelt answers, change it up a bit by offering practical “how to” information. This helps to keep the audience emotionally and cognitively engaged.
Having different types of answers prepared for each question also helps you to avoid a situation where your mind goes blank because the presenter before you said everything you were going to say!
5. Be provocative
Giving answers that are sure to spark debate and further conversation is not a bad thing on a panel discussion. It can keep the session lively and engaging.
Before you make a controversial claim though, be sure to back up what you are saying with some solid evidence. Provide research, statistics and examples to strengthen your position in the debate.
6. Remain professional at all times
You may be part of a panel with someone you loathe or whose views are diametrically opposed to yours. Keep your cool at all times! This will help you shine as a professional. Here are some phrases to help:
- “I understand where you’re coming from, but I see it differently. The reason why is…”
- “You can absolutely do it the way that So-and-so is suggesting. Another way to approach this is…”
- “I must respectfully disagree…”
- “You know I respect you as a professional and you’ve given a lot to this field over the years. We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye and that helps keep us both on our toes. Here’s how I see this topic…”
7. Learn about your fellow panelists
Who else is on the panel? You may know the others on the panel, and you may not. Check out their backgrounds, experience, education, credentials and previous work they’ve done. Find out what matters to them. This will help you engage actively in a discussion, rather than just give your own point of view.
8. Acknowledge others’ expertise
Let your fellow panelists know that you’ve taken the time to learn about them and their work. Find a way to show appreciation for their contribution to the field. Here are some examples:
- “Jane, I read your article on this topic that was published in ABCDEFG magazine two months ago. I just wanted to say how insightful I found it.”
- “By the way, did you know that Joe won the ABCDEFG award for his work in this field last month?”
- “Don, I was reading your blog last week. I thought your article on this topic was very thoughtful and poignant.”
9. Find out how long you have to give your answers
Panel discussions rarely have enough time to go in-depth on the topics. Ask your host how long you have to answer each question. Prepare answers that will fit within the time frame. Practice your answers aloud and time yourself.
Ask if there will be a time keeper to assist you. A time keeper seated near the panelists can use different colored cards to help panelists manage their time. For example:
- A green card when there’s 1 minute left
- A yellow card when there are 30 seconds left
- A red card – You’re done. Stop speaking.
Avoid running on or taking up too much time. Honour the other panelists by leaving enough time for them to answer, too.
10. Ask about the room logistics and set up
Will you be seated at a table? In arm chairs? I was once part of a panel where there was no stage for the panelists, so in order to ensure we could be viewed from the back of the room, we sat on high bar stools! For me, since I’m 5’1″, it meant that one of my pet peeves was showcased in front a room of 150 people – my feet dangled from the chair. I delicately positioned myself so my feet tucked behind one of the legs of the stool so they weren’t floating in mid-air.
Find out if you’ll be using a mic and if so, will it be hand-held or a lapel mic? Knowing these details before hand will help you to prepare for the event.
11. Ask how you should dress
Is the event business, business casual or casual? Traditionally, darker colours are seen as being more business-like or serious. If it is, think of yourself in context of the entire panel. You may want to avoid bold patterns or colours that may visually clash with other presenters (unless it’s an aspect of cultural attire that you’re accustomed to, or expected to wear).
The issue of dress is more important is the panel is being video-taped or photographed, so you may want to ask the organizers about whether you’ll be on camera.
12. Arrive early
Ask your host when you are expected to arrive. Even if you’re told “Oh, a few minutes before will be fine,” plan to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the event. Find a good parking spot, greet the organizers and other panel members, find out where to hang your jacket, survey the room and the set up, go to the bathroom and take a few minutes to relax before you’re in front of the audience.
13. Plan to stay late
Chances are, there will be the opportunity to connect with other panelists or engage in one-to-one conversations with audience members who were particularly interested in something you said. Budget at least an hour for networking after the event eventually closes. If there are media at the event, this will also be the time they’ll want to conduct interviews. If you have to leave right away, you could miss a media opportunity.
14. Remember to thank others
Acknowledging the contributions of your fellow panel members, thanking the audience for being there, recognizing funders and showing appreciation for the organizers are all appropriate things to do at the end of a panel discussion.
Again, avoid repeating what others have said. If someone else has already thanked the other experts, add something different such as, “I echo that sentiment. As well, I’d like to thank the volunteers (or set-up crew, or administrative staff, etc…)”
15. Have fun!
Above all else, have fun and enjoy yourself! This is a great opportunity to connect with others in the field and showcase your knowledge. Enjoy your time in the spotlight!
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.