Why you should be speaking on panels (And how to be an awesome panelist!)

Getting comfortable with public speaking is a must if you want to raise your profile as an emerging leader or expert in your field. But speaking at industry or conferences and professional events can be intimidating, so here’s a great way to ease into it: Be a panelist.

Even if you can’t see the benefit for yourself, consider this: Panels are dominated by baby boomers, senior executives and white dudes. There is a very real need for more diverse panelists, in terms of gender, career phase, generation and ethnicity. The audience needs to see people like you, so do us all a favor and accept when you’re invited to be a panelist and, when you’re not invited… volunteer!

Once you’re confirmed as a panelist, here are six ways to knock it out of the park:

1.) Do your homework
First, ask for the questions in advance, and second, make sure you know who the panelists are. Sounds basic, right? Here’s a snapshot of the moment, last week, when I realized I had neglected to do my homework:

WEDC panel

As the moderator introduced the panel, it occurred to me that I was sharing the stage with a medical center CEO, two army Major Generals, and the CEO of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Not only was I was going to have to speak first, they were giving me ten minutes.

Don’t be like me. Do your homework! Know the agenda and the questions, prepare a few key thoughts in response to each question, and get familiar with the resumes of your co-panelists before you open your mouth.

2.) Prepare but don’t over-prepare
Have you ever watched a panel where someone read off their notes? If so, you’ll know how awkward and wooden it can look. It’s always good to prepare some high-level thoughts, but don’t memorize them or read off a script. Throw away the script and wing it. You’ll appear that much more authentic.

3.) Give specific examples, not general advice
“Fail forward” is solid advice, but nowhere near as memorable as a real-life example of failure. For example, when I got fired from my first job I was told “You’ll only ever be successful in a highly structured environment.” Such was my lack-of self-awareness that I didn’t even know what that meant! But the shock and anger from that failure catalyzed me, and I vowed never to let it happen again. At my next temp job, I worked hard to understand my role, add value and anticipate my boss’ needs. Soon she was calling me “indispensable” and preparing a full-time job offer.

Generalizations and advice have their place, but in a panel setting they can also be utterly forgettable. If you want that advice to be memorable, back them up with specific examples from your real-world experience.

4.) Tell stories
Audiences are eager to learn more about who you are, so don’t disappoint them: Get personal! I once saw Nehal Mehta of Symantec hold up pictures of her kids to make a great analogy about why it’s okay to promote your accomplishments at work. There was a long line to speak to her after the panel because people could relate to her experience.

Like every good movie, good stories start by setting the scene, then there’s some tension, which is ultimately resolved by the final act. Use the “SPAR” model to tell a good, short story: 

S – What was the Situation?
P – What was the Problem?
A – What Action did you take?
R – What was the Result?

5.) Build upon, but don’t repeat, comments from other panelists
I’m sure you’ve seen this happen on a panel: Bob says one thing, Barbara seconds it, then Bill and Belinda agree. Boring! Don’t be afraid to disagree with other panelists or share a passionate opinion or at the very least, build constructively – and differently – upon their comments.

 6.) Keep it real!
Above all, don’t be afraid to talk about your failures, and be vulnerable and authentic. I just told you I got fired from my first job, and you’re still reading this! Your audience has challenges, too – they won’t relate to you if come across as a stunningly successful perfectionist.

The Takeaway
So what are you waiting for? You’ve got this! Go get yourself on a panel and have fun. Here’s a summary of the six ways to knock it out of the park, to help you prepare:

  1. Know the agenda, questions and panelists in advance
  2. Prepare but don’t over-prepare
  3. Give specific examples, not general advice
  4. Tell personal stories, using the SPAR model
  5. Build upon, but don’t repeat, comments from other panelists
  6. Keep it real! Be vulnerable and authentic


Photo credit: Dawn Pumpelly.

Jo Miller

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.net and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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