How many of us have been to a conference or event where you could not hear the panelists, either because of the less than desirable audio quality or because each person seemed to be talking to himself? How about when panelists use PowerPoint slides packed with practically illegible graphs or useless data? The first time you encounter this, you may think that it is an aberration. Unfortunately, the more you conferences you attend, the more common you realize this is.
Participating on a panel, a conference or another organization's event is a terrific way to highlight your expertise. You can claim your share of the spotlight, but don't have the pressure of having to hold an audience's attention for an extended length of time. However, many a seasoned professional has fallen into the trap of thinking she can wing it, but speaking on a panel requires experience and preparation. This makes the experience more effective and satisfying as a marketing tactic for the panelist as well as more informative and enjoyable for the audience.
Fortunately, preparation and planning can transform these presentation opportunities into an opportunity to display your knowledge and stage presence. Here are some things to consider when you are invited to serve as a panelist:
In advance, it is important to know your audience and what they are hoping to gain from the experience. Days in advance (at least) talk with the moderator regarding what kinds of questions will be asked, or request a list of the questions. Also, find out who will be introducing the panelists, and make sure you have a provided them a write-up about you the way you want your expertise to be described.
Before the event you should also speak with any people you know who plan to attend. This way you can find out what they hope to gain from the event so that you can tailor your presentation. It also creates the opportunity for you to refer to them by name from the dais and personalize what you are saying.
If you are the moderator, you will want to have a conference call with the panelists so that each person knows what they are responsible for. By doing this, you can minimize repetition and help panelists understand what they should focus on.
Whether panelist or moderator or both, outline the points you want to make, even if you do not plan to use an outline during the panel. This helps you clarify in your own mind what you want to discuss and forces you to think about the best way to present this information. Under each bullet point, you should identify short examples that illustrate your points. Thinking this through in advance will ensure that you have relevant examples. Furthermore, you should think about how to present these examples in the audience’s language. If you are speaking to a non-legal audience, side-stepping legal or industry jargon, and consider what definitions you will need to spell out. Additionally, if you have a lot of information you’d like to cover, you can distill your points and provide references for those who would like more information.
Once you have created a clear plan, rehearse what you would like to say. Even if you do not intend to memorize it and say it in exactly the same manner, practicing gives you confidence and allows you to feel more comfortable improvising. Even the most experienced professionals can freeze in the moment. Verbalizing your thoughts will enable you to be yourself and familiar with your points, without sounding rehearsed.
If you are preparing a Power Point presentation to accompany your points, be sure the graphs, charts and information included is relevant and easy to understand. Keep in mind, too, that the focus should be on you and what you are saying. Your audience should be relying on you as the expert, not reading a full explanation on the screen.
Theoretically, it's the organizer's responsibility to make sure that the room is set up and that the equipment is working, but do not rely on this. Get to the venue early and make sure the audio-visual equipment is set up and working including the microphones. This is particularly important if you are the first one to speak. With everything in working order from the get-go, you can get a strong start.
From the audience's perspective, the panelists' table can quickly look cluttered. Just before the panel is slated to start, if no one else is on top of it, ask that the remains of any meal be removed and check that the tablecloth is straight.
Most events have stationary microphones on the panelists' table. Don't presume that just because you are sitting at the table with microphones, everyone can hear you. If you are sharing a microphone, pull it over to you to speak directly into it. If it's in front of you, lean into it. If no one else is using the microphone properly and you are, you will be the one the audience remembers.
When it's time for you to talk, dive right in. Avoid the temptation to thank the organization. This is a waste of time that you could be using to share your expertise. Let your confidence as an expert translate into energy that reflects a solid belief in what you have to say.
Be engaged not only in the presentation you are giving, but in when other panelists are speaking as well. The audience will respond to your energy. People are watching you throughout the presentation. You can show stage presence by sitting up straight, leaning forward and showing that you are listening to the other panelists. Do not slouch in your chair, stare off into space or read your notes when other panelists are speaking.
When commenting on other panelists' thoughts, use their names. Smile and be expressive. Also, keep your comments relatively short. Two minutes seems a lot longer to someone listening in the audience than it does to you when you are talking. Always be respectful. Do not interrupt other panelists or make personal attacks.
As the moderator, it’s your role to maintain audience attention. You do this by speaking clearly into the microphone and looking at the panelists when you pose questions. In advance of the event, think of comments that can help you segue from a panelist's answer to asking the next question. This is helpful if a panelist is speaking too long. To avoid these situations altogether, speak with the panelists before the event starts to be sure they are aware of the time limits.
As the moderator, you should also have your own questions prepared so that you can come to the rescue if no one in the audience has one. Often people in the audience are afraid to begin the Q&A session. If you ask the first question, often others will follow.
As a panelist, when fielding questions from the moderator or audience, repeat or rephrase them. People may not be able to hear the moderator or the person asking the question. Repeating the question makes it so that everyone knows the questions and also gives you a chance to gather your thoughts. If an audience member asks you a question, when you respond, direct your eyes and answer to him or her for at least several seconds.
From a marketing and public relations perspective, leverage your participation on a panel, whether you're serving as the moderator or a panelist. You can do this by placing an announcement or press release on your website, drafting a media pitch and focusing on garnering media interviews related to the panel focus, or getting the word out via social media.
Serving as an expert panelist greatly benefits you by contributing to your visibility and credibility in ways that ultimately accelerate your firm's revenue growth. With forethought and preparation, you can maximize what both you and the audience take away from the presentation.
Sharon Berman is principal of Berbay Corp. Marketing and Public Relations, specializing in working with law firms. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310/405-7345. The website is www.berbay.com.