Panel Discussion? Don’t Forget the Audience.
I’ve sat through a lot of panel discussions, and I’ve been on a number of panels too.
While you may find it easy to shine when you’re the only person on stage, how confident are you at fielding questions, participating in discussion and showing yourself in the best possible light in a group setting?
Here’s some advice for you if you’re on one of these panels or a member of the audience.
If you’re on the panel:
- If you’re on an elevated platform or stage, keep your knees together, don’t fidget and preferably don’t cross your legs as it looks untidy. Instead, sit with your knees together, toes pointing either towards the audience or the chairperson;
- Just because you’re sitting behind a table it doesn’t mean the audience can’t see you legs. Keep them closed!
- Remember to always speak into the mic, if there is one;
- Don’t forget that all eyes are on you, even when you’re not speaking. Don’t scratch, pick your nose or check your watch or mobile!
- Smile. Life is good!
- If you like, make notes when someone else is speaking as this can enhance their self-esteem (i.e. make them think what they’re saying must be interesting). Do this with pen and paper, or they may think you’re answering email or playing Angry Birds;
- Face the person on the panel who is speaking but when it’s your turn to speak direct most of your attention towards the audience to help them feel ‘present’ with the discussion. You’re more likely to get interesting and useful interaction from an audience who feels included;
- If you’re lukewarm towards your audience don’t be surprised if they’re lukewarm towards you. Give them as much ‘full frontal’ (not just your face, twist your body towards them too if you can, bearing mind that you’re probably sitting down, possibly behind a table). They’ll warm to you if you show them that you like them;
- Most chairpeople are not very good at their job. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s my experience. If your chairperson asked insightful questions, you’re lucky. Usually, questions are bland and no gritty discussion takes place. Being aware of this common potential problem in advance means you can prepare yourself with interesting comments and facts and drop these verbal bomblets into the conversation wherever you can.
- Make an effort to be interesting, even when the questions aren’t;
- Chairpeople are often biased towards the person they find most interesting, sometimes the person they know. Don’t lose out because of this. If you sense the chairperson isn’t bringing you into the conversation as much as you’d like, raise a hand or make eye contact to indicate that you’d like to contribute your opinion.
- Don’t but in when another speaker is holding forth, but interject with ‘can I just add here’ when there is a natural pause;
- If you want to be really smart about it, engage the audience by asking them what they think. A good chairperson should do this, but often they don’t. A chairperson should be a friend to the audience and represent their point of view. Sadly, I rarely see this happen. Most are ill-prepared and over-whelmed with the task at hand, so take matters into your own hands if you need to!
- When you get a question from the floor, thank the delegate for the excellent question and when you’ve answered ask them if you answered your question to their satisfaction. You might also ask them what they think the answer to their question is.
- Don’t under-estimate how much nerve it can take an auidence member to ask a question. They are not the public speaker, you are, and they may be sitting with colleagues or clients whom they respect and feel nervous about looking ridiculous in front of them. Always praise those who have the courage to ask a question. They truly deserve it.
If you’re in the audience:
- Panel members genuinely appreciate your questions, but they can be nervous too! Some speakers are happy to speak about material they have prepared but dread being asked a question that might show them up as a charlatan or fraud. When you ask a question, do so compassionately. This means courteously, clearly and without trying to be too clever or too confrontational;
- Spend a little time in advance framing your question so you don’t ramble. Keep it clear and succinct or the chairperson might embarrass you (and everyone else) by telling you to hurry up (this has happened to me and it’s not a good feeling!);
- It can be stressful if you don’t like attention, but when you’ve asked your question do listen to the answer and graciously thank the panel for their response (even if you don’t 100% agree with or like what they’ve said). Panel members have egos too and need encouragement to give of their best;
- It may feel a little corny, but if you admire a member of the panel or learnt something from what they said, briefly tell them so. It takes a lot of energy on the part of the panel member to share what they know in front of an interactive audience. Any praise will be appreciated.