Tips for Being a Successful Speaker on a Panel Session

A few years ago, I wrote a post about what it takes to be a good moderator on a panel session. While the stars of any panel session are the guests featured, the lynchpin is the moderator.

I had not realised the critical nature of that role until I took on the task of becoming one. Doing background research on the role, I soon realised how important the moderator is to the success of the show.

Bottom line, people are watching a show and they need to be entertained as much as they need to be educated.

Yes, the show… because that’s exactly what it is. It’s a more engaging format, there are more players (and therefore, more interesting things to develop?) and there’s repartee. Bottom line, people are watching a show and they need to be entertained as much as they need to be educated.

Content ineffectively delivered just will not cut it.

It will be good to read that post if only to guide you as to your expectations of what your moderator needs to do both in the lead-up to the session and at the session itself.

This post, however, is about how to wow your audience at your panel session.

  1. Prepare for your session

This should not come as a surprise. Too often, I have seen guests who come on these sessions who have no idea who else will be on the session, much less what the topic for discussion is. Which means that they are either going to fly by the seat of their pants or they’ve prepared some standard spiel to deliver to all and sundry. Boring.

  1. Connect with the other guests before the session

Where possible, if the panel session is a few sessions into the conference, it is the perfect opportunity to get a feel for the audience, the other speakers and the event vibe. If you are early enough to catch one or two sessions prior to yours as well as have the chance to mingle during the breaks, it will give you an opportunity to connect with your audience and hear the kind of conversations they are having.

This is priceless in helping you adjust the comments you plan to make during your session. You are, after all, going for a tailored approach and these temperature checks are therefore important.

  1. Be true to yourself

One of the most important tips is to be real. Don’t plan to tell jokes if that’s not your style. Just be yourself, but better. Demand more of who you really are and ensure you shine when you are up on that platform.

  1. Aim to ask questions

Sometimes, the audience is not necessarily looking for your answers. Answers make sense when it’s delivered well and when the audience feels it resonates with them… that there’s an affinity between what you say and what they are going through.

Sometimes, the audience may be more intrigued by the kind of questions that you pose instead. So come prepared to ask a few pertinent questions. The kind of questions that will keep them thinking long after your session has ended.

  1. Get interesting facts, figures or anecdotes that will intrigue or be of value

When you plan your session, be prepared to craft a story. People love stories. Weave the facts and figures into a beautiful, compelling narrative. It will captivate.

  1. Come prepared to network offline and online

Having been to so many conferences and seminars through the years, I can safely say that many people are not really good at networking. They forget their business cards, they hang nervously at the coffee station, they skulk in corners avoiding the crowds. Networking is not about exchanging business cards. It’s about getting to know the other person and having no agenda. Sure, you have a business or you have your products. But you are not here to push them to strangers!

When you add the infinite number of ways we connect via social media and apps, you’ll see that many are more confortable posting updates, connecting with new people online than they are in person. It’s easier and you can switch it off anytime.

Face to face is much harder. But it can also be much easier. It’s really about changing your mindset about what’s involved and what you have to gain from what you undertake.

Not only should you welcome the opportunity to meet new people at these events (and what that may bring to your life), you should follow up your meetings online once the event is over. Reach out to them on LinkedIn, drop them an email, remind them about what you talked about… connect.

Keep the connection alive, offer to help, find ways to keep in touch by keeping up to date with what they do. With the wealth of information at our fingertips now, it’s not a hard ask.

  1. Practise beforehand

Practice makes perfect. Tape yourself and play it back. Over and over. It gives you a chance to see you as others perceive you.

  • Are you speaking too fast?
  • Is your pitch too high?
  • How is your body language – open or closed?
  • Do you appear defensive/too serious/stiff?
  • Do you sound nervous or unsure?
  • Are you looking at the audience, at the ceiling or down at the floor? Are you making eye contact?
  • Do you project your voice?
  1. Use notes

If you’re doing this for the first time, notes help. They point you to where you need to go… they are a quick way to refresh your thoughts. Paper is unsightly and also hard to manage when sitting on a comfy sofa chair. So, cue cards that fit neatly in your palm and are sturdy to touch, are a much better option.

  1. Get the low down on the logistics

When you know exactly how things will happen, you breathe easier.

  • Do you have your own mic? Ensure it or it’s death to the session;
  • Find out whether everyone has a bottle of water; if not, bring one from the refreshments counter;
  • Will there be a platform where the session takes place – do you enter from the front or side?
  • Do you wait till the MC announces you or are you to be seated before the session starts?
  • Do you introduce yourself or are you introduced?
  • Have you given them your profile details as you would like to be introduced?
  • Are all the guest speakers here – is anyone late or has anyone cancelled? Is there a plan for a late cancellation – what is the time allocation going to be like?
  • How will the session transpire? Will there be time for allocation for opening remarks by each guest and if so, for how long?
  • Will there be questions from the floor at the end or are they taken as and when they come?
  • What happens when the session ends – do you leave the stage or do you wait for some congratulary remarks or memento?
  1. Be a clear voice

Stand for something. Don’t waste your time on politeness and deference. This is not to be confused with being rude or arrogant. The whole reason you accepted this invitation is because you wanted to be noticed. You wanted the platform. Once you are given the platform, make full use of the opportunity. Make no glib remarks. Don’t seek to reconfirm what others have said. Further, if you don’t have the answers (there are times you will not have the answers to all the questions), then be prepared to ask the right questions that you feel the audience needs to focus on.

Keep clear of ordinary.

Without any sort of guidance, you will be going in blind. And that, in itself, is an indication that the panel session will likely not hit the desired mark.

  1. Adjust your message depending on the size of the panel

The idea here is that when there are too many people on the panel, it is a much harder job for you to make any impression. The combination of too short a session, the time it takes for all the guests to warm up in their roles and how vocal each guest will be means you have to strive harder when there are too many guests on board.

With many guests, you have less time; so, you need to ensure your messages are short and punchy. You also need to focus on your one primary message so that you can do all you can to drive that point home with the relevant supporting arguments.

  1. Ensure you are briefed beforehand

A good moderator and/or conference organiser will ensure, once you are confirmed for a panel session, that :

  • a detailed agenda is provided;
  • that you have received all the questions that will be for discussion;
  • indication of the size and composition of the audience is given;
  • you are introduced to the other speakers and guest panelists;
  • you are briefed on what to expect in terms of how the session will run and how you are expected to contribute.

Without any sort of guidance, you will be going in blind. And that, in itself, is an indication that the panel session will likely not hit the desired mark.

  1. Don’t pitch

It’s not the place for it. Enough said.

  1. Focus on providing solutions

Let your one guiding rule be that you are here to help people figure their way out of problems. Your job is to help them identify the right problems they need to focus on and provide possible solutions to consider (in as much as your experience allows for this). Your job is also to help them think about the right sort of issues they need to consider. Bring as much practical focus to your input as you can. Leave theory out.

  1. It’s a conversation

Don’t present slides. Don’t prepare a presentation.

This is far from exhaustive, but I would be happy to hear from you if you’ve got more to add to this list. If you can get these elements right, you are well and truly on your way to making impact.


About rowena morais

Media Communications and Editorial Specialist. With my strong professional network of contacts, I help individuals and organisations, particularly those within Human Resource and Technology, strengthen their skill-base and brand through compelling writing, beautiful design, content marketing and publishing. Let's talk.

One response to “Tips for Being a Successful Speaker on a Panel Session

  1. Pingback: How to raise your visibility : You need to start speaking publicly at third party events | Rowena Morais

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