One guy in the audience fell asleep. Fell asleep! He gave up half his morning to attend a panel that was supposed to make him smarter and he fell asleep. During the Q&A section, another person in the audience asked a question. The eager expression on his face quickly turned to dumbfounded as one panelist rambled aimlessly never veering anywhere near an intelligent answer.
I witnessed both of the above during a couple of recent panels I sat on. In the last few months I’ve been a member of, attended, or watched on video a number of panels on everything from digital creative to social media to crowdsourcing. Some have been great. Others less so. But it has occurred to me that there are simple steps we can all take to produce a panel that’s actually praiseworthy.
Panelists: Be prepared, don’t ramble, give your audience gifts of wisdom
I think every panelist should start by thinking, “What are the five things that people in the audience will write down, take away, and actually be able to use.” Really, this isn’t about you, it’s about them. What are you going to share? How will you make them smarter? If you think in those terms, you’ll have the focus you need to be both effective and impressive. Second, anticipate the questions the audience might ask. That way you have clear, knowledgeable — and above all brief — answers ready to go. Take these two steps as part of your preparation and you’ll avoid committing one of the two gravest sins you can commit as a panelist: rambling. (In the name of full disclosure, I must admit I’ve been guilty of this myself.) I hope it goes without saying that the very worst sin is shilling your company and its services. Please don’t be that guy. If you’re really smart and offer value – the point of being a panelist to begin with — folks will ideally come to you.
Moderators: Control the conversation and stay tuned to the audience
It’s easy to make a list of questions, put them in order and ask them one at a time. But it’s harder to control, steer and navigate the discussion from a beginning to an end with a logical flow that makes sense and takes the audience on a journey. Yet that is your role. You don’t want the panel meandering. So, you need to know when to interrupt (politely), when to stop a ramble, when to challenge a point, and how to extract contrary viewpoints from the panel members. Equally important is to sense the audience at all times. Are they interested? Or fidgety. Writing things down? Or nodding off. Prepare not only by having that all important list of questions, but a clear sense of what you want your angle to be. Think like a reporter who interviews lots of people but has in his or her mind where she wants the story to go. And if you haven’t seen it, watch Frost/Nixon. It’s a one on one, but you’ll get the point.
Audience: Get involved, have challenging questions, don’t be intimidated
I’m always surprised how few people in the audience ask questions. You came because you’re interested, right? If you don’t get what you want and need from the panel, ask. Don’t worry whether or not anyone else in the audience things your question is dumb or believes you should already know that, ask anyway. If a panelist is unclear or rambles instead of clarifies – hopefully they won’t if they read this post – ask for clarification. Better yet, if it’s allowed, feel free to enter the conversation in the middle of the panel’s discussion. It will keep them on their toes and you’ll get what you came for. Finally, give constructive feedback. If a panelist or moderator does a good job, tell them. And if they disappointed you, tell them so as well, along with a thought or two on what you think would have made it better. They’ll appreciate it. I know I would.
What do you think? Thoughts on how to be a better panelist, moderator or audience?