Prepare and be authentic
Having moderated a fair number of panel sessions through the years, I’ve come to see that the success of any panel session rests on the moderator. The stars may be the panelists but the lynchpin is the moderator. What’s key?
The moderator must understand that, ultimately, they are putting on a show. Panel sessions are quick and easy to put together and do not require the amount of work a presentation does. It also, in my opinion, is a more engaging format than a presentation. There’s the element of surprise and of the unknown as you bring different personalities together on what could be an explosive or challenging topic. There’s the repartee between the panelists. Moderators are putting on a show which means that people need to be entertained as much as they are educated. So, the best of content ineffectively delivered, will fall flat.
There are some specific things you can do, as a panelist, to prepare yourself and ensure your session delivers as expected.
Prepare for your session
This should not come as a surprise. Panelists who come on these sessions not knowing who else will be featured and not knowing the topic are largely flying by the seat of their pants and often, have a standard response to deliver to all. Boring.
Seek to answer the questions posed. Share your unique experience. Give the audience context and set the scene.
Preparation also calls for you to work to be different, more engaging, to see things from the perspective of the audience instead of the self, to provoke even and to be authentic.
Connect with other participants before the session
Often, panel sessions are set a little deeper into a conference timetable which means that if you attend earlier sessions, you not only get a feel for other speakers, you understand better the audience you will present to. Try to meet as many of the guest panelists and a few participants before your session. These are akin to temperature checks and help you deliver your material better.
Demand more of who you are, be present and engaged.
Be a clear voice
One of the most important tips is to be authentic. Don’t tell jokes if that’s not your style. Just be yourself, only better.
Demand more of who you are, be present and engaged. This means you take an active stand up there, you don’t wait for a cue to step in. You’re looking to present something unique because there is no point in stating something that’s already been said. What makes your content different is your perspective on the issue, how you bring it to life for the audience and how you’ve connected the dots, so to speak.
Stand for something. The reason you accepted this invitation is because you wanted to be noticed and you have something to say. When you are given a platform, make full use of the opportunity. Don’t waste it on glib remarks and certainly, don’t use it to echo what others say because there is no value in that. Keep clear of ordinary.
Sometimes, the audience is not necessarily looking for your answers. Answers make better sense when it’s delivered at the right time and when the audience feels it resonates with them. There needs to be an affinity between what you say and what they are going through.
Consider the use of questions that you pose to your audience as a way to reset and to get them intrigued. So come prepared to ask pertinent questions, the kind that will keep them thinking long after your session has ended.
Tell a story
When planning your session, craft a story. People love stories. Weave facts and figures into a beautiful, compelling narrative. But remember that it’s a conversation also which means no presentation nor slides.
Come prepared to network offline and online
Often, I see people are neither comfortable nor interested in networking. They forget their business cards, they hang nervously at the coffee station, they skulk in corners avoiding the crowd or they hang out with colleagues.
Networking is not simply the exchange of business cards. It’s about getting to know the other person which involves having conversations and showing curiosity about who they are. To further your efforts, follow up after the event, by dropping them an email, reminding them about what you talked about and even, connecting with them on LinkedIn.
The idea is to keep the connection alive – offer to help in specific ways, keep up to date with what they are doing and be on the lookout for things that may connect the two of you. It is a journey.
This is as valuable for panel sessions as it is for presentations. Practice makes perfect so record yourself and play it back over and over. It gives you a chance to see yourself as others perceive you.
You’ll find yourself noticing things you would not notice as you deliver your session.
Are you speaking too fast?
Is your pitch too high?
How is your body language – open or closed?
Do you appear defensive, too serious or stiff?
Do you sound nervous or unsure?
Are you looking at the audience, at the ceiling or down at the floor?
Are you making eye contact?
Are you projecting your voice?
Get the low down on the session format and logistics
These are simply the little things that together, add up to the big picture – a smooth, well-delivered session. When you know exactly how the session will run, you will breathe easier.
Try to get your own mic at the session, a shared mic disrupts the flow. Find out whether everyone will have a bottle of water there – if not, bring your own. These sessions typically take place on a platform – find out whether you enter from the front or the side. Is the platform raised or at the same level as the guests? Are the chairs arranged to face the audience or adjusted in a U-shape so the panelists are cosier and also facing each other a little?
Do you wait till the emcee announces you or are you to be seated before the session starts? Will you be introduced or should you introduce yourself? Have you given the host your profile details as you would like to be introduced? Have all the panelists arrived and if not, what’s the plan if there is a late cancellation? What is the time allocation going to be like?
Then, discover how the session will transpire. Will there be allocation for opening remarks by each guest and if so, for how long? Will questions from the floor be taken at the end or as and when they come? What happens when the session ends – do you leave the stage or do you wait for some congratulatory remarks or memento?
Ensure you are briefed beforehand
A good moderator and/or conference organiser will ensure that, once confirmed, you have the following:
- a detailed agenda outlining theme, topics and confirmed speakers;
- potential questions for discussion;
- indication of the size and composition of the audience;
- you’re introduced to the other speakers and guest panelists prior;
- you’re briefed on what to expect in terms of the session and how you are to contribute.
If you do not receive any of these, you will be going in blind. And that, in itself, is an indication that the panel session will likely not hit the desired mark.
If you can get these elements right, you are well and truly on your way to delivering an impactful session. This is far from exhaustive so please share any tips you feel will help.
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