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How to Prepare for a Panel Discussion

You did it! Your countless hours of what may often feel like unnoticed hard work have led to you being invited to share your insights with an audience as a subject matter expert. While opportunities to share your expertise are both exciting and reassuring, we know that understanding how to prepare for a panel discussion can be quite daunting.

These discussions present an incredible opportunity to share valuable learnings and perspectives that spark conversation and inspire action. But before you hit the stage, whether it be virtually or in person, there are a few things you’ll need to know.

The Value of Panel Discussions

A panel discussion can seem like an effortless conversation when done correctly, but given the careful planning, the rehearsals, and the need for each person to bring their unique skills to the performance, you could say it resembles an orchestra. Each instrument—or panelist in this instance—plays an integral part in creating meaningful conversation that can translate into a truly powerful experience for the audience.

A strong panel showing has the potential to mobilize crowds and build new and valuable relationships. They’re also an excellent platform for you to position yourself and your organization as leaders within in your industry. Identifying your goals before your panel is a surefire way to ensure the opportunity ladders up to your objectives and adds value.

Establishing Roles

The most successful panels have one thing in common: Every participant understands their role. Much like an orchestra demands a conductor who finds the harmonies and cadences amid several moving parts, an effective moderator embraces the flow of conversation and encourages organic discussion while still managing to maintain order. A prepared moderator also accounts for varying personalities, strengths and levels of expertise among panelists to create an informative, on-topic session.

The panelists themselves are equally important. Panelists have the unique opportunity to share firsthand learnings impacting the way we view a particular industry or corner of the world. A lineup of diverse panelists is critical to creating a meaningful and productive conversation, with each contributor bringing a unique viewpoint. A memorable panelist possesses adaptable qualities and approaches each opportunity to not only share but interact.

How to Prepare for a Panel Discussion

And now, it’s time to talk about how to prepare for your big moment. Let’s get actionable!

  • Practice Makes Perfect
    When it comes to panels, practice is key – even if the conversation is unscripted. Having a strong understanding of your personal objectives will help. Be sure to clarify and rehearse your most important talking points prior to the discussion. Most panel coordinators will share the moderator’s exact questions or a rough idea of what will be covered in advance, so spend time familiarizing yourself with the material and developing responses ahead.

    And be sure to spend some time researching the other panelists who will be joining the discussion, along with their organizations. This is a great way to familiarize yourself with their background and area of expertise. Think through natural tie-ins, and when possible, reach out to schedule a coffee or a Zoom chat beforehand. This will help to establish rhythm and gain additional context for the discussion.

  • Consider Your Perspective
    Though you and your fellow panelists may hold similar titles, chances are their day-to-day looks completely different than yours. That’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s expected and is something that should be embraced. Don’t be afraid to lean into your difference in perspective to aid your insights and responses, and remember that your collective input from varying aspects of your industry will complement each other rather than conflict with each other.
  • Nail Your Introduction
    In the event that you’re given the opportunity to formally introduce yourself, have your elevator pitch ready. In some instances, you may only have enough time to share your name and title, but be ready to clearly and concisely share more about your role along with your organization’s involvement in the space.
  • Body Language
    Presenting on a panel with warm, welcoming body language sets the tone for everything that follows. Your posture should remain upright and open throughout the duration of the session. Flat feet, a straight back and open shoulders are a great start. You’ll also want to avoid fidgeting while speaking—and while listening. Lastly, you will want to make sure it’s clear who you’re speaking to at all times. Making eye contact with the moderator or fellow panelists directly will minimize confusion. If you’re participating virtually, sitting upright and addressing your responses to people by name will serve you well.
  • Keep Pace
    Your delivery as a panelist is equally as (if not more) important as the questions you answer during the session. Remember to run your own race and talk at a speed that is comfortable for you. But make an effort to match the length of your responses to the pace and cadence of the discussion. This will give your fellow panelists a chance to chime in and help the moderator keep the discussion moving forward. Lastly, don’t forget to be personable by including your own experiences and stories where you can. Remember that personal stories move people in ways facts and figures may not.
  • Engagement
    Remaining attentive during the panel is critical. There may be times where the moderator asks questions that are not clearly directed toward any particular panelist. In some cases, it might be appropriate for you to jump in and share your perspective. But you should always exercise respect for your fellow panelists—in other cases, it might be more appropriate for you to bring another panelist into the conversation by saying you’d be very interested in hearing their thoughts. This helps keep the conversation moving while ensuring everyone gets a chance to be part of the conversation.
  • Finish Strong
    Ending the discussion in a forward-thinking manner will give the audience something to reflect on after you conclude and help your topic resonate long-term. If you can, plug any relevant organizational resources and CTAs in your final response when appropriate.
  • Q&A
    There’s a strong chance your panel will have a Q&A portion following the discussion. You should be prepared to answer not just the questions you hope to be asked but any potentially difficult topics a member of the audience might ask you about. Nailing these moments can make the difference between a successful appearance and one that’s noteworthy for all the wrong reasons. Of course you’ll never be able to fully anticipate what an audience member may ask, but the more you think through possible scenarios and prepare accordingly, the less likely you are to find yourself stumped in the moment.

Learnings at a Glance:

  • Preparation is key
  • Lean into your perspective
  • Properly introduce yourself and your organization
  • Strong posture, eye contact and open body language matter
  • Keep pace and strive for a smooth, poised delivery
  • Remain engaged until the discussion concludes
  • Finish strong and leave the audience with something to think about
  • Anticipate questions from the audience

By following these tips closely, you’re destined to make your organization and yourself proud. Enjoy the process from start to finish and remember that you were selected to take part in this discussion for a reason. Trust in your voice and know that your insights and experiences are valuable–you never know who you’ll inspire next.

Photo by Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent / Pexels


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