Five Tips on Being an Effective Panel Speaker

June 29, 2012

Try your luck at this business riddle. If you gather four people on a panel to speak on a common topic, what do you get? A) A lively exchanged of ideas? B) Useful insights from engaging speakers? C) A fist fight? D) A study in boredom?

Too often, the answer is D, although C would certainly be entertaining. Ask any audience member who’s sat through a formal panel discussion lately. There are dozens of horror stories. I’ll never forget the panel moderator who took a cell phone call during the session (Audience takeaway – This guy is way too important to be here). And, how many times do speakers prefaced their remarks by saying, “I really haven’t prepared anything formal.” (Audience takeaway – Speaker is totally winging it.) Or, there’s the panelist who takes the opportunity to starts a soapbox rant. (Audience takeaway – Just shoot me now.)

The venerable panel discussion is a staple of business communication. Yet it is often the most misused, misunderstood and maligned tool in the communications arsenal. Pity the poor speaker who signs up to be a part of a panel discussion. They’re often oblivious to the fact that audience expectations are high (we might have even paid admission for this experience) and therefore audience members are usually fairly critical. A panel speaker might as well walk on stage naked – he or she is that vulnerable.

On the other hand, a panel gig is an opportunity for a speaker to shine. Imagine the delight of a jaded audience – expecting a five car pile-up – and now encountering a panel speaker who is prepared, energetic, tells stories and makes a connection.

So how do you get to that happy place instead of lacing up your boxing gloves? The next time you agree to sit on a panel, first realize that sitting is not the primary obligation. You are not simply a passenger on this journey. Success on a panel requires a deft blend of planning, charm, choreography, and use of on-the-spot intuition:

Winging it is Not an Option:  Trust me, you must prepare for a panel discussion. It means planning your story, coming up with an attention-grabbing headline and great, personal examples that support your point of view. Even better – pick a topic that is a little provocative or pushes the envelope to grab the attention of the audience. The reason so many panel speakers fall flat is they procrastinate and think they can be spontaneous. But, when the moment comes, the right words usually don’t.  The result is language that is less than memorable and an audience that quickly disengages.

Grab the Moment:  Unlike a speech, you do not have total control as a member of a panel. It’s unlikely that you’ll tell your story in one pop. A panel is an exercise in navigation, and requires a speaker to build perspective through smaller sound bites. You have to spot the opportunities and grab them. Opening introductions is your first chance to offer a short summary of your point-of-view, and you’re likely to be designated a slot of time that is entirely yours. Other moments you can own include relating your story to a question from the moderator, providing a build from another panelist, or using a question from the audience as a way to launch another dimension of your story.

It’s a Variety Show:  The fact that you’re one of several speakers means you can’t come off like a robotic message machine. Variety adds dimension to your story and makes you stand out. Choose your language with purpose and plan three different ways to express your story.  Pepper your sound bites with descriptive evidence that supports your position.

 Take the Bridge to Somewhere:  A “bridge” or verbal transition is your best tool for navigating a panel discussion. Phrases like, “I’d like to address that question…” Let me add something to that idea…” or “We take a different perspective at my company…” are effective ways to take control and highlight your story.

Assert Yourself:  Inevitably there’s a playground bully lurking in that jaded audience, and it’s up to you to keep him in line. Anticipate tough questions, correct inaccuracies from the floor and take control when questioning becomes difficult.   Phrases like “Let’s step back and look at the bigger picture…” can give you the ability to reframe the discussion. Most important, don’t let the hostile questioner derail the event. If you have to, take the discussion off line.

Finally, leave the cell phone at home or at least turn it off while the panel is in progress. Anything else is just bad manners.

Tom Barritt is Partner and Managing Director of Ketchum’s Communications Training Network, a team of executive media coaches. He has helped executives shape stories that get noticed for nearly three decades.