9 ways to be an outstanding panelist

Though you’re sharing the stage and speaking time with several other presenters, talking on a panel can be tough. Here’s how you can come through with flying colors.


Moderators aren’t the only ones with a tough job to do during a speaking engagement.

Panelists also carry the burden of listening carefully to what their co-panelists are saying in order to form relevant responses, interjecting as appropriate to make sure their views get heard and packing a lot of value into a short speaking session.

Many presenting best practices also apply to panelists, but here are nine more considerations that can help you stand apart from those who are speaking on the same panel:

1. Figure out what your audience craves.

Prepare for your panel just as you would any other presentation. Clarify what might captivate your audience and come prepared with compelling support points.

Leadership author Kristi Hedges advises people to “practice your speaking part like a keynote” and says you should “think through a compelling opening and closing statement, prepare stories to share, [and] bring pithy anecdotes to spark discussion.”

2. Go back to your main messages.

If the moderator or another panelist says something off-topic, quickly evaluate whether it’s worth your time to respond to it. Too often, panelists spend time on topics of secondary importance simply because they came up—not because they’re of high significance.

If your precious talk-time isn’t best spent on those topics, acknowledge them quickly, if necessary, and transition back to your key points with lines such as, “But the broader point is…” or, “What we regard as far more important is …”

3. Don’t bury the lede.

Many of the techniques I detail in “The Media Training Bible also apply to panel presentations, especially the tactic of reversing the usual communications formula. You typically speak in chronological order—beginning, middle and end. For panels, like media interviews, you should flip the formula.

Start at the end—which is where your punchline usually lives—and then go back and offer additional context (typically found in the beginning and middle) as time allows. That way, if the moderator or a panelist interjects before you’ve concluded your thought, you’ve already stated your most important point.

One great exercise is to write out a list of possible questions, then practice answering each of them using only one sentence. Doing so will force your headline to the top and will help you avoid burying the lede.

4. Avoid filibusters.

Don’t be a nightmarish panelist who dominates talk-time at the expense of other panelists.

Audiences often resent such overbearing displays. The true measure of great panelists isn’t how much of the clock they got to use, but rather how they took advantage of every turn to speak.

5. Expand, but don’t repeat.

Marketing specialist Guy Kawasaki advises panelists to “never say, ‘I agree with [name of previous panelist].'” Kawasaki argues that panelists who all say the same thing are redundant, bore the audience and call into question why the panel didn’t have a greater diversity of views.

There might be times when you agree with the moderator or fellow panelists. In those cases, expand upon their remarks, rather than simply agree with them. Use phrases such as these to further the conversation:

  • “I agree with that, but there’s one additional strategy that has been crucial for my firm.”
  • “Here’s what I’d add to what Marco just said.”
  • “I did the same thing, but for different reasons.”
  • “There’s another angle through which I’d encourage you to look at this.”
  • “As an engineer, I have a different view of this topic.”

6. Don’t wait for an invitation.

For most panels, it’s appropriate to jump in if you disagree with or want to add something to what another panelist just said.

However, let the person speaking conclude their thought first, as audiences can turn on chronic interrupters.

Here are a few useful phrases:

  • “May I add something here?”
  • “I’d like to respond to something Paula just said.” “Our experience has been the opposite of that, so I’d like to offer a contrasting view.”
  • “Another perspective on that point might be useful here.”
  • “I disagree with that, because…”

7. Look at the audience.

Panelists typically look at the moderator (or other panelists) when answering questions, ignoring other people in the room.

Instead of viewing the audience as a passive body watching somebody else’s discussion, look for opportunities to direct your answers to them. Do so by offering consumer tips, discussing how your topic is relevant to their lives, giving a call to action or sharing a moving anecdote.

When listening to other panelists, however, it’s best to direct your eye contact toward them.

8. Nab an end seat.

Moderators generally sit in an end seat in order to see the entire panel in one eye sweep. Snagging the opposite end seat, if possible, can give you the same advantage.

9. Pay attention to body language.

The audience can see you when you’re not speaking. Unless you want to be seen as contrary, avoid looking distracted, letting your eyes wander around the room or shaking your head when others are speaking.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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