Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from the book Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking by Poornima Vijayashanker and Karen Catlin. All of our 50/50 Pledge readers get a special 25% off discount on the book as a thank you and as a resource to help you get you up on stage sharing your knowledge.
If you feel like you need a mini-boost to get started with public speaking, consider being a guest on a panel. Panels are a great way to get more comfortable with speaking in front of audiences.
After all, you’re sharing the stage with others, and there is safety in numbers.
If you’re an experienced speaker, you can also benefit from being on a panel. We love them because they are less strenuous than preparing a full talk and presenting it alone, yet they still give us the opportunity to share our stories, learn from the other speakers, and engage the audience openly.
Even though panels require less advance work than a solo talk, you still need to prepare to join a panel. Don’t shirk, because it will show.
We’ve all experienced an unprepared panel and panelists - the introductions are long-winded, it’s clear the panelists lack rapport, and the stories told feel shallow or even boring. The moderator just can’t seem to get anywhere, and the conversation barely skims the surface of an interesting narrative.
Luckily, Poornima and Karen have seen (and been on!) captivating panels, where the panellists share interesting, valuable lessons. While panels come in all shapes and sizes, here we’ll talk about a common type of panel where a moderator guides the panelists as they share stories about their experiences - and how to really ace that common format.
How to Be a Great Panelist
Your goal as a panelist is to keep the audience entertained while imparting knowledge that helps them with their problems - just as you would during any talk. For the best possible experience, here are the three things you need to practice and be ready for: Prepare your stories; Mind your body language; and Engage with the audience and other panelists.
1. Prepare your stories
The great thing about being on a panel is that you don’t need to prepare nearly as much as you would for a talk. You’ll mostly be sharing first-person experiences, and a few lessons that came out of that experience. Ahead of time, you’ll know the theme of the panel, so you’ll have plenty of time to choose and think through how to best tell your stories. You may even receive a list of questions from your moderator along with a description of the target audience, both of which will be helping in crafting your story. Keep in mind - if you don’t get this information prior to the event, and you’d like to have it, it’s common to reach out to the moderator ahead of time and ask for it. Why not take advantage, and do everything you can to create the best possible panel you can!
Armed with that information, you can start to think about the key takeaways you want to share with the audience and the stories that will help you illustrate them. We recommend creating an outline for the points you want to make. Practice them using the ‘Get By with a Little Help from Your Friends Method’ shared in Chapter 8 of Present!, or you can get comfortable with the material and identifying improvements by recording yourself. Since you don’t control the flow of a panel in the same way as your own monologue talk, you may not be able to get through all your takeaways and stories - but that’s fine. The more prepared you are with anecdotes, the better the overall conversation will flow, thanks to you.
So, what makes a good panel story?
- Don’t be shy about sharing your failures and what you learned from them. Just like with any talk, the audience wants to learn from your mistakes so they can fast-track their own learning. Be sure to highlight what you learned too, and don’t just outline the problem. You’d be surprised how confirming telling these types of stories can be while told on a panel - don’t be surprised if your fellow panelist nod vigorously, or add-on to your story with a similar one of their own.
- Controversy makes for fantastic, memorable panels. Whenever possible, surprise the audience with a story that’s unexpected, perhaps because you took a less-traveled path or experienced an unusual turn of events.
Not too long ago, Karen was invited to speak on a panel for moms who were considering returning to the workforce after taking a leave of absence to raise their children. She was surprised at the invitation because she hadn’t taken time off after having her kids. She even pushed back, but the moderator insisted she be a panelist. Karen was a bit confused, but obliged.
At the event, Karen realized why the moderator had been so persistent - They wanted to illustrate the different paths the women took with their careers and what they learned along the way. While the other panelists had taken time off because of their children, Karen hadn’t. Karen’s story was the unexpected one. Even though she didn’t have specific strategies for returning to work, she was able to discuss the challenges of staying current in the tech industry, strategies for embracing social media, and ways to leverage and grow your network. All of these points resonated strongly and were very helpful to the moms in the audience. As this example shows, one way you as a panelist can introduce interesting controversy is to provide counterpoints to a commonly held belief.
2. Mind your body language
As panelists, we dread walking into the event and seeing a row of stools on the stage. It can be hard to seat ourselves gracefully on a stool, especially if we’re on the short side or wearing a skirt or dress. In 2011, Lady Gaga encountered this very situation when she visited Google for a town hall meeting. Wearing ultra-high heels and a short skirt, she could barely get herself seated on the stool for the interview. She quickly joked, “Google chairs are a little high,” which broke the awkwardness around the obvious challenge.
Whether you’re seated on stools or in chairs, wearing trousers or rocking a great skirt, think about what the audience is seeing. If your legs are bare, keep your feet firmly on the ground or on the stool footrest. If the seat has armrests, use them. You’ll look and feel more powerful by “filling” your chair instead of putting your hands on your lap. When the moderator asks you a question, look directly at them. Then when you answer, look at the audience and be confident in your delivery. Remind yourself that the moderator is asking the question on behalf of the audience and that she wants you to share your expertise or opinion with the audience, not just with her.
Karen was on a panel recently where one of the panelists directed her answer back to the moderator, and through her vocal infection, subtly asked for validation that her answer was acceptable. It was an unfortunate situation - Let’s just say it was less than powerful.
3. Engage with the audience and other panelists
During the panel, you want to be energetic. Make sure you smile and never, ever look bored when the other panelists are speaking. Your eyes should be on whoever is speaking: the moderator, another panelist, or the audience member asking a question. If you’re looking somewhere else, the audience may notice and wonder what they’re missing, which is distracting.
Pay attention to what the other panelists are saying so that you can refer to their answers to build on them in one of your responses, or if you’re aiming for some controversy, to politely disagree with them. Be curious about your co-panelists’ experiences and tailor your stories accordingly. Engage the audience and the other panelists with show-of-hands questions. And above all, have fun.
Want to learn more practical, actionable public speaking tips specifically geared toward tech workers? Get your copy of Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking by Poornima Vijayashanker and Karen Catlin. All 50/50 Pledge readers get a special 25% off discount!