How to be an Influential Panelist: 10 Steps for Sharing the Stage and Winning Your Audience

Most panelists are used to speaking about their area of expertise and are fairly comfortable being on stage. But speaking on a panel and sharing the spotlight with other equally experienced experts is different than commanding the room yourself. What makes for success in an individual presentation (namely, having the focus entirely on you, having full control of the content and audience involvement, and having full responsibility for the outcome) will be the demise of any panel. Imagine if everyone on the panel acted like this was their show?

When it comes to being an effective panel member, sharing the stage with tact and courtesy is critical to the group’s success. You must know when to let the spotlight shine on you and when to let it shine on others. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead. Following are some suggestions that will make your panel experience a successful one for you, your fellow panelists and most important, your audience.

Before the Panel Presentation

1. Know your audience, moderator and other panelists: Preparation is always essential. Therefore, begin by analyzing the audience—who this group is and what they want from the panel. In the short time you will have to speak, what is the most important thing you can tell them that will help them succeed? Also, get to know the moderator, as well as the other panel members. If you don’t know them already, look them up online and insist on a pre-briefing meeting via phone. Find out their area of expertise, how their knowledge is complimentary to yours, and what you can do to help each other succeed.  

2. Prepare your content: Once you know how your particular expertise fits into the overall panel, prepare an outline of your notes, taking the time for special preparation of your “Touch Points.” These are those juicy rhetorical devices that build your case and engage and excite your audience. Come up with a quote or two, an analogy, a story or example, facts and statistics, and even a joke. You may never have the time or opportunity to use everything, but you want to be ready to recall and deliver that eloquent rhetorical jewel at just the right time. Your audience will love you for this. (Note: Never use PowerPoint or other visual aids when on a panel. The beauty of a panel discussion is the lively, spontaneous nature of a conversation by a group of experts. So while taking the time to prepare and fill your tool box is essential, don’t over prepare.)

3. Brush up on your delivery skills: A panel is a mini presentation, and the same public speaking skills that make you successful in other presentation venues apply here as well. But keep in mind you will need to adapt your skills to this less formal, shared communication environment, so you may use your skills differently. Pay careful attention to the following clusters of delivery skills: Physical Presence (eye contact, facial expression, posture, gesture and movement), Vocal Resonance (pronunciation, enunciation, volume, rate of speech, pitch, inflection, strategic pauses), and Distinctive Language (concise sentences, powerful and emotional words, avoidance of non-words like “um” and “ah,” and avoidance of jargon and slang). Search any of these terms on my blog and you’ll find a wealth of information to help you.

During the Panel Presentation

4. Choose to be congenial and controversial: The goal of most panels is to educate, enlighten, inspire and explore many sides of an issue to set the stage for action. To achieve this, panel members often play two important roles: advocate and devil’s advocate. While it’s critical to be diplomatic and respectful, don’t be afraid to bring up something controversial or respond with a strong point of view. The audience loves it when experts are in agreement on certain issues yet able to respectfully butt heads on other issues.

5. Stay attentive and involved: When you are speaking, make sure you address the audience directly, rather than speak to the moderator or other panelists. And since you are always on stage, remember that the audience is watching you even when you are not speaking. Therefore, pay special attention to your body, mind, and spirit during these times. Stay attentive, sit up straight, make eye contact with the audience, and look interested in what others are saying. Smile and nod often. The moments when you’re not speaking count as much as when you are.

6. Take control when needed: Being a panel member is a lot like playing jazz. You are an expert in your area and know your instrument, but you also know exactly how to improvise with the other musicians and panelists. One good tool to use is “bridging language,” as in, “To build on what you are saying Mark…,” or “If I can add to that Jan…,” or “What you’re saying, Lucy, makes me think of…” Always be a good role model for the other panelists by using presentation tools like this that set the bar high.

7. End on a high note: If the moderator asks you to give a last comment, use one of the great touch points you’ve prepared. Use a quote, metaphor, or shocking statistic, or bring it back to where the conversation began and refer to the opening. Make an effort to make your final words memorable and you will stand out.

After the Panel Presentation

8. Be available: The moderator will wrap up the presentation and tell the audience where they can find you online to continue the conversation. If time permits stay around and meet members of the audience and answer questions personally.

9. Show your gratitude: Send a thank you to the moderator and the other panelists. Let them know you enjoyed sharing the stage with them and learning their points of view. Offer to be of service to them in the future. You never know where your next lead will come from.

10. Make notes on this panel experience: What went well? What did you enjoy? What would you like to improve? How were you received? What is one thing you would do differently next time? Keep a feedback log of your panel experience so your skills continue to broaden and grow.

Experienced panel members know how to not only make themselves look good, but also make everyone else on the panel look good too. Therefore, organize your content and polish your delivery skills, and remember to elevate each panel member by showing respect, highlighting their achievements when you can, and reinforcing to the audience that you feel privileged to be on this panel with such an esteemed group. A little preparation and humility go a long way when it comes to successfully sharing the stage.

About the Author

Angela DeFinis is an expert in professional public speaking. As a presentation skills trainer, speech coach and founder/CEO of DeFinis Communications, she has spent over twenty-five years helping business professionals find solutions to their communication challenges and develop a broader repertoire of potent speaking skills. Her message and approach create positive, personal, and lasting change.

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