Congratulations! You've been invited to be on a panel. Or, maybe you would like to at some point be on a panel and don't want to blow it when your time comes.
As someone who has moderated professional panels in front of large and small audiences, been a panelist myself, and been the audience member at many, many panel presentations, I can tell you that there is a difference between a good and bad panelist. And when I see a bad panelist, I think, what a wasted opportunity! Being on panels is a fabulous way to develop your career by branding yourself, claiming and showing authority in your field, sharing your expertise and opinions, and developing credibility. However, it can do the opposite for you if you are forgettable, too quiet, or not relevant. The good news is that there are several simple things you should know and prepare to make a fabulous impression on your audience, the conference or event organizer, and your peers. Let's dive in.
1. Introduce yourself clearly. A quality introduction as part of a panel has 3 parts. FIrst, CLEARLY state your name, enunciating so that people who have never heard those syllables together before will understand what you said. Do this even if you have already been introduced, it's an important part of projecting confidence and a sense of self on stage, and owning your professional presence.
The second part of your introduction on a panel should be your title that is relevant to the event, usually your job title and the company you work at. Note, if you are participating in panel related to your side hustle or volunteer work or other accomplishment like an athletic pursuit or talent, then include this as the second part of your introduction instead of your Day Job Title and company. Keep it relevant.
The third piece of your introduction is why you are here. Include this even if the moderator has given you something else to explain. Throw in a sentence about why you and your title are relevant to this event. If I were on a panel to speak about hiring at a tech conference, I might say, "I've been working with young and mid-career professionals in tech since 2012, and the majority of my business is now focused on organizational consulting for talent development."
Then, if the moderator has given you another prompt to include as part of your intro, put that in after this three-part initial introduction. Things like, "tell us your first experience with (topic related to this event)" or "Tell us how you got into (topic related to this event)" are common prompts here that you may be asked to follow up with.
2. Speak up. Speak loudly and clearly into the microphone. Hold the microphone close to your mouth. Most first-time or uncomfortable speakers are too quiet, and hold the microphone too far away from their mouth, scared of the volume of their voice. However if you do this, people will be so frustrated that they will tune you out if they can't hear you clearly, so you must be able to be heard. Project your voice as though you are speaking to the room, not the person next to you. If you know this is difficult for you, practice! You can also get support; Toastmasters is an excellent group for supporting public speaking skills.
3. Prepare in advance. Ask the moderator or event organizer for the questions that will be asked prior to the event. Read them, consider your responses and what you want to say, maybe jot down some notes to get your ideas to stick in your brain before the event. Do a bit of research so that you can cite statistics or examples or case studies in your response and add that degree of validation to your perspective. Make sure you are up to date on current events and news in your field so you can reference that in your responses where needed as well.
4. Answer the question and elaborate. A panel is interesting when the audience hears varying perspectives on a topic, so share your perspective. A good moderator will ask thoughtful questions that should prompt you to have plenty to say, but remember to not just answer the question at the minimum, share supporting points or thoughts as well. When you are asked to take a stand on an issue, take one, and back it up with why you think that. Panels are interesting when they contain well reasoned positions and diversity of thought, so don't be afraid to hold a position and express your stand on the topic.
5. Don't Dominate, Pontificate, or Sell. You are part of a panel because the audience is expecting to hear from a variety of people, you would be doing a keynote address if they wanted to hear from only you. Don't always be the first to answer a question (unless the moderator prompts you directly), and while it's important to give in-depth answers, remember to stop and allow for the other panelists room to share their voice as well. Do not go on long explanations that require whiteboarded diagrams. Do not cut off your fellow panelists or attempt to bring attention back to yourself. Do not sell your company, service or product, self, or anything else.
6. Represent your Company Well. Above all, be a professional representative. If you are accepting an invitation to be on a panel that is related to your job, make sure your boss and company know about it. You'll also want to check with your leadership to make sure you're not conflicting with any established company communications policies; there may be guidelines about what you can or can not say or share as part of a presentation like this. Know your company, you may be asked questions on the panel about the company at large and not just your area of expertise or job, so be prepared to share broadly what you can or speak to trends, culture, priorities, growth, or goals if needed. It looks awkward if, when asked, you say something like, "I'm not really sure, I just work on the engineering team."
Panel presenting is a great way to contribute to your field, demonstrate leadership on a topic, increase your network, and advance your career. Make the most of the opportunity with a bit of preparation and we'll all be grateful to you.