How to shine during your next panel appearance

Bringing expertise is important, but it’s not everything. Here’s how to prepare for a memorable stint as a revered, yet personable, source of information.

If you’ve been asked to sit on a panel at an industry forum or some other professional event, congratulations!

The mere invitation is testament to your expertise and others’ confidence in your ability to share it. You’re doing something right already.

Don’t be fooled, though, into thinking that expertise alone will carry you through. Many a panelist has bored an audience into oblivion with information overload. Often they’re so focused on providing technically correct answers that an hour later, no one remembers a word they’ve said.

Others have the crowd listening, laughing and hanging on every anecdote. Afterward audience members line up like teenagers at a rock concert to ask questions and keep the conversation going. Best of all, the panelist’s performance casts a favorable glow over his or her organization and own career.

If you want to elevate your panel appearance to rock star status, take some time to prepare. Here are a few tips to get you ready:

1. Do some homework: Of course you should find out whether each panelist is expected to give opening remarks or just field questions. Also learn a bit about your fellow panelists and what distinguishes you from them. Ask whether there is anything specific you should cover. Learn what, in the eyes of the host, would make the panel a success.

2. As always, have key messages. Think ahead of time about what three or four messages (or even adjectives) you want your audience to come away associating with you. Write those in large print on a sheet of paper as you practice answering questions. If you want to be regarded as “innovative,” “hip” and “forward thinking” or as an “industry leader,” be sure your remarks include—or at least echo—those terms.

3. Ensure that you, your organization and the panel all come off well. It’s not as tricky as it seems, because the three are generally aligned—or at least not in direct opposition. Remember, if you spend all your time bragging about your company but the panel overall flops, in the end neither you nor your company will look good.

4. Bring stories. No matter the industry, people want to hear people talk about people. Think of at least three stories that drive home your messages. Practice telling them to be sure they’re on the mark, can be told in short order and land the way you want. More than anything else, audiences remember stories. Be sure to bring them.

5. Prepare to be spontaneous. That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. Once you’re clear on your role, your messages and your stories, practice answering as many different questions as you can—always coming back to your key messages and working in your stories along the way. The more you practice, the more natural the process will become. Soon you’ll be able to confidently handle anything that comes your way during the actual panel discussion.

If you follow these tips, your audience, your host and you will all be thrilled with your performance. More important, days and weeks after the program, your audience will still be recalling—and with luck, repeating—your words of wisdom and the stories that brought them to life.

Christina McKenna is founder and president of Bluestone Executive Communications. A version of this article first appeared on Bluestone Executive Communications’ blog.

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