Panel discussions have become a popular format at many conferences and events in industries such as financial services, and we often get asked to prepare people to be ready to get the best out of them. Here are some of the key do’s and don’ts that emerge when we run these sessions – when we video participants, they are frequently surprised at how boring they look and sound the first time around! It soon makes people realise that you can’t just ‘turn up and hope for the best’.
In many ways getting ready for a panel discussion is similar to the media training process you might go through to prepare for a high-level press or broadcast interview. Plan the key points you want to make, anticipate which issues are likely to come up and what is likely to be of particular interest to the audience. However there are differences, and the dynamic is different. Check the duration and format with the organisers, and if possible ensure you speak to the moderator beforehand so you can get an idea of what kind of points he or she wants to bring out in the discussion, and can suggest topics you think would be of value. Find out what you can about the other panellists, so you can get an idea of what their position is likely to be, especially on any contentious issues. Often you will have the chance to set out your position at the beginning of the session, so prepare punchy opening and closing statements. This will make you look and sound knowledgeable and interesting, and will also help you clarify beforehand in your own mind what is really important for you.
During the discussion don’t be afraid to engage with what others have said, either to strongly agree or (politely) disagree. This will make the whole event more lively for the audience, rather than feeling like a succession of individual statements from participants, which may bear little relation to each other. Try to stand out from the crowd by making your contribution as lively as possible; use vivid language rather than impenetrable industry jargon, adding personal stories and anecdotes to bring the issues alive when you can.
The moment every panellist dreads is when the question they really wanted to answer gets put to another contributor instead, leaving them with nothing to add. Then they find they are pitched a tricky question on an issue on which they have nothing to say. If this happens to you, keep your answer brief, then don’t be afraid to move the discussion back to more comfortable territory, with a phrase such as ‘but I wanted to come back to a point that was raised earlier …’. Neither you nor the audience benefits from listening to you waffling and prevaricating on an issue you know little about.