How to Shine on a Panel Discussion

Recently, I attended and spoke at SXSW, the highly-anticipated yearly conference covering everything from marketing and entertainment to technology, style and law. It gave me a chance to consider what makes a good panelist.

As founder of an alternative law firm, ZentLaw, and Foxwordy, a private collaboration network for lawyers, I was invited to speak on topics related to legal technology, entrepreneurship, women in technology and legal issues for startups. It was a rewarding experience, and I was struck by how panel discussions and other speaking engagements are influenced for better or for worse by the actions of the speakers.

Many people fear public speaking. In fact, a survey by Chapman University found that public speaking remains the number-one fear among Americans, ranked higher than ghosts and zombies! This fear is largely unwarranted, however, as I have found there are simple ways to help you shine on a panel. Here are seven points I follow to ensure success.

Be Prepared for Anything: Prepare how you want the conversation to go but understand that topics can go in a myriad of different directions. Audiences can get lost trying to follow. Know your other panelists – their experiences, strengths and various perspectives – and figure out together how to frame the topic and steer the conversation so it is clear and cohesive. Taking care of this preparation in advance will give your audience the benefit of a panel discussion that flows well.

Identify the Takeaway Messages: Determine among each panelist the message he or she would like the audience to remember. Keep in mind that people tend to remember things in threes; have each panelist identify one to three key takeaways they want to impart. The discussion should touch on each important topic. Also, build in time for questions after the talk along with backup ideas if there aren’t enough to fill the time. Make sure that the conversation continues and the audience gets value out of it.

Have a Positive Attitude: There’s perhaps no bigger turnoff for an audience than a panelist who doesn’t seem to be enjoying themselves. Just because you are a subject matter expert does not mean you should seem arrogant or condescending individuals or the audience as a whole. Keep your tone of voice light and your body language friendly. Renowned psychologist Albert Mehrabian studied body language and found that it accounts for 55 percent of what an audience will remember and believe – not words or how they are spoken. Remember, you are there to be a resource. Also, acknowledge people’s contributions with statements like, “I’m glad you asked that question,” so they feel like what they have to say is valuable. In addition, acknowledge fellow panelists with lead-in statements such as, “that’s a great point, and to add to that..”, then proceed to make your point.

Tweet, Post and Gram: Social media is a huge asset. Share the event you are attending and speaking at a week before the event. Talk about the topic right before the panel starts to generate interest. While waiting for your panel to start, take a selfie, or have someone take a photo, and promote your panel, the event, your fellow panelists and those who invited you. Consistent promotion on social media is part of being a good corporate citizen so spread the love. It’s also a great time to get photos of you “in action” for future use.

Ban the Floral Prints and Loud Suits: Be conscious of what you’re wearing, including colors, hair accessories and jewelry. Optics matter, and wearing very bright colors can be distracting. A good rule of thumb is to wear something a newscaster would. Dress comfortably in your normal style, but make sure your words are what capture the audience’s attention.

Speak Slower Than Usual: I naturally speak fast so when I speak publicly, I consciously remind myself to slow it down in order for the audience to effectively process what I’m sharing. This is very important on a panel as people tend to get nervous. Just take a deep breath, smile and slow down. Make eye contact with the audience and allow for intentional pauses to emphasize a point and allow the audience to understand and process what you’re saying. Don’t talk over fellow panelists or monopolize the time, but do cue them up so they can weigh in on what’s relevant from their perspectives.

Plan to Interact After the Panel: Conferences are busy, and not everyone has an endless amount of time to chat after a panel. However, panelists should not rush out once the talk concludes. Being hurried and inaccessible can negate the impressions from the discussion. Plan to interact with the audience and answer additional questions for a modest period of time.

Most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself – even the best public speakers get nervous from time to time. The key is to be aware of what about it scares you (speaking live, being on camera, etc.), take the time to prepare, follow best practices, and embrace the experience.

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