I’m a paid professional speaker and also a fanatic for professional development. I’ve attended over 100 conferences / panels in the last few years and speak several times a month, everywhere from industry conferences, to business events, to the Democratic National Convention. Being a panelist that delivers value is a craft, one that I’ve studied by observing as many panels as I can. It’s also an area I’ve worked on through trial and error by being on nearly 100 panels myself. When you are invited to speak, do you have a desired outcome in mind? If you don’t, you should. Every time you have the opportunity to be in front of an audience, you are getting exposure (free PR) for your business, personal mission and brand. Don’t make it a wasted opportunity.
Here is how you can excel on your panel and increase your chances of being asked to do more:
Know what's in it for you. Why you are doing the panel? Is it to strengthen your resume? Represent your company? An act of service? A blend? Be very clear on why you are speaking and concentrate on that “why” to guide your preparation.
Request the questions in advance. The best thing you can do for your audience and your personal brand is come prepared! Get as much info upfront as you can. This helps you to prepare focused answers that leverage your expertise/experience. Have notes handy or practice points you want to hit.
Have an agenda. Can't get the questions in advance? You should still have points you want to hit that align with your mission / purpose and the panels. At the very least, spend 10-15 minutes thinking about the topic and what you might be asked. Are there several people on this panel? How is their expertise different from yours? Take note of who each panelist is and look up their work to help create your agenda.
Make a strong introduction. Who are you? What do you stand for? Why does this audience care? Introduce yourself with purpose and narrow down to one or two places where the audience can learn more about you. Example: "I'm.... and you can follow my diversity and digital media tweets at @linadarrisaw and check out my career coaching business at www.thecsuitecoach.com.” If you answer those questions in your introduction, people will be able to easily find you later. If you receive questions individually at the end of the panel, your audience will be equipped to be more targeted in their asks of you.
Understand that less is more. A panel is different than a keynote. You are sharing the stage. Don't be the panelist that drones on nonstop. Be concise and make your points quickly. Do this out of respect for the other panelists, as well as to keep your audience engaged. The listeners may want their questions answered too, so avoid killing time by making sure your responses are succinct and impactful.
Contribute! You were invited to share your subject matter expertise, so share it! A great moderator should encourage equal participation by all panelists, but sometimes you’re stuck with a moderator who doesn’t do that. Find meaningful ways to insert yourself, to “piggyback” off that last point, and to share your knowledge.
Be relatable. Depending on subject matter, anecdotes are usually a win and encouraged! The key is making sure your personal story has a takeaway that can be applicable to a wide audience. Don't tell a story that no one can connect to.
Absolutely be nothing other than yourself. Ok, so this may be the most important point to remember... sometimes another panelist can do something very dynamic (and authentic to them) that garners a great reaction from the crowd. Perhaps they’ve freestyled, broken into song, spit out some compelling statistics, been incredibly funny or shared a really deep and moving personal story. The crowd goes wild. Now you are doubting yourself, you want the validation of a standing ovation and overwhelming applause, so you forego your agenda and try to replicate what the other speaker has just done. My goodness, this is the WORST thing you could ever do. Please don’t do this. You don’t know how much that person practiced their story or stylistic elements and you trying to replicate it on the fly can be disastrous at worst and awkward at best. Furthermore, it can appear that you are in competition with a peer, live in front of an audience. That is not a good scenario for anyone. Instead, be secure in your own expertise, accomplishments, and personality and stick with the agenda you planned and deliver your speaking points in your style. Sometimes you will get the overwhelming crowd response and sometimes you won’t. Be ok with that.
Brand yourself. Ask for video or photo every time you speak or bring a friend to handle it for you. Panels are often unpaid opportunities, but keynotes aren’t. Build up your portfolio and credibility as a speaker by leveraging the “receipts” that you are indeed very good at what you do.
Whether or not you plan to be a serial panelist or professional speaker, in everything you do, be confident. If you don't know the answer, don't share one. If you trip up over your words, start over and keep it moving. Prepare so you are always on your A game. Know who you are and what you represent and just be that.