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July 2024
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How To Be a Powerful Panelist

Advice for shining as a brilliant conversationalist.

By Kristin Arnold


Audience watches panel of speakers and moderator onstage

Have you ever been invited to share your unique perspective or expertise at a panel discussion? Congratulations! While you may be asked to prepare some initial remarks, there is more to being a strong, engaging panelist than just showing up and presenting your wisdom. You may or may not know your fellow panelists, the questions in advance, or the direction of the conversation.

Knowing that your reputation or your company’s is on the line, it is worth taking the time to prepare to be a powerful panelist.


Get the details.
Have a quick conversation with the meeting organizer and/or the panel moderator to confirm the event details, panel objectives and format, names of your fellow panelists, audience demographics, and logistics. The panel moderator may also schedule a meet-up with you and the fellow panelists as you get closer to the event.

Think about the audience.
Imagine the types of people who are likely to attend. What would make them lean into a scintillating conversation among experts? What do they care about most about the topic? What questions would they like to have answered that they can’t get on Google?

Research your fellow panelists.
Research their work and views they hold on the topic. This will make it much easier to connect and converse with them, as well as discern the areas where you agree and disagree.

Have a goal in mind.
What do you want to achieve on this panel? Do you want to educate your audience, inspire them, or persuade them to take action? Share new insights and knowledge? Solve a particular problem? Challenge conventional wisdom?

Make a list of potential questions.
Enlist the meeting organizer, panel moderator, and well-informed colleagues to help you identify questions the audience might ask about the topic. Consider the obvious, most frequently asked questions as well as the not-so-obvious, harder, and more difficult questions that could come up.

Be thoughtful.
Based on your role, diverse viewpoint, and relatability to the audience, determine what contribution you can make to the conversation. Is there something provocative or that pushes the envelope and could grab the attention of the audience? If you are wondering if it is too controversial, seek legal advice about what can and cannot be said.

Craft three to four key messages.
Keeping your goal in mind, identify three to four crisp key messages that speak directly to your audience’s interests. You may or may not use all your key messages, but you will have some “back pocket” messages to share.

Based on your role, diverse viewpoint, and relatability to the audience, determine what contribution you can make to the conversation.

Provide examples.
With each of your key messages, identify a concrete and specific example that illustrates your point. Personal stories, best practices, demonstrations, and props can help make your ideas come to life and engage your audience. Your examples should be short, compelling, and easy to understand.

Create a headline.
Anchor your main idea in the form of a memorable theme, concept, or principle that holds your key messages together and remains long after the panel is over. It can be a word, a phrase, a favorite quote, or a catchy “headline” that captures your key point(s) and reinforces a call to action.

Create calls to action.
Think about a final takeaway, insight, or idea you want to leave the audience with. Ask the audience to do something based on what they heard. Come prepared with at least three different calls to action so you won’t be repetitive with your fellow panelists.

Practice.
If a bit nervous, role-play answering your list of potential questions with a colleague. Push yourself to answer the easy and the tough questions as concisely as possible while making sure you are giving tremendous value to the attendees.

 

Now that you have your answers, key points, headline, and calls to action, make sure the conversation is lively and informative. Listen for the panel moderator’s pre-planning messages that encourage you to engage, interact, converse, be curious, and challenge each other.

Based on how the moderator wants to facilitate the panel, here are some ideas for how to be a brilliant conversationalist:


Actively listen.
It can be easy to sit passively, waiting for your turn to show off your knowledge. But if you’re not listening carefully, you could miss key opportunities to ask follow-up questions or add on to your fellow panelists’ insights.

Don’t be shy.
The moderator may ask questions that are directed to one person or questions that are open to the entire panel. If directed to one person, let that person answer before you chime in. If the question is open to the entire panel, jump in or signal to the moderator that you wish to speak first.

Keep it short.
People prefer snappy, well-thought-out answers to interesting questions. Then “pass the ball” by asking another panelist to chime in, passing it back to the moderator or getting the audience involved.

Watch your airtime.
You do not need to answer every question. Be aware of how many times you have spoken as compared to your fellow panelists and give others a chance to weigh in.

Acknowledge others’ expertise.
Let your fellow panelists know that you took the time to learn about them and their work. For example, “Keisha, I was reading your newsletter last week and thought your point was right on the mark.”

Piggyback.
Pick up an interesting bit from another panelist and add to the idea (remember to be additive, not repetitive!). Brainstorm in the moment and bounce ideas off each other.

Link ideas.
Quickly paraphrase and/or comment on a thread of ideas or differences of opinions along with your point of view. For example, “In revealing their struggles, Keisha and Sean were highlighting the importance of … ”

Disagree respectfully.
Yes, there should be some disagreements, otherwise, it would be a mighty boring panel. Don’t disagree simply because you can. Disagree because the discussion will benefit the audience and your reputation.

Engage the audience.
You may not be the panel moderator, but you still can involve the audience in small ways without hijacking the conversation.
  • Use inclusive language. Use phrases that represent them and their interests and concerns such as: “Like many in the audience, I … ,” “We all have … ,” “Who among us has (or hasn’t) … ”
  • Shout out. Perhaps there is a subject-matter expert in the room who deserves a mention from the stage. Point to them and ask them to wave their hand, stand up, or offer a different opinion or comment on the subject.
  • Pose a provocative statement. Then ask the audience if it is true or false (fact or fiction) or if they agree or disagree.
  • Take an informal poll. This is especially helpful if you don’t know the cast of characters in the room or want to gauge the level of interest.
  • Do something. You can ask them to “Write this down … [your headline],” “Applaud if you like vanilla ice cream,” or “Stand up if you are committed to making ice cream available all summer long!”

 

Being a powerful panelist requires a combination of preparation, active listening, and conversational skills to create a panel discussion worthy of the audience’s time and attention.



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