For the foreseeable future, panel discussions will be virtual (where everybody is geographically dispersed, connected through a digital platform) or hybrid (where there is a group of people -moderator, panelists and/or audience- meeting face-to-face while the discussion is streamed or replayed out to geographically dispersed locations). Regardless, there is a digital element where your panelists WILL be remote in a virtual panel and MAY be remote in a hybrid panel.
There are some subtle nuances panelists need to know when moving from a F2F environment to a digital environment.
Prepare. The audience knows when a panelist has just shown up without any thought or preparation. For a virtual panel, that lack of preparation becomes even more obvious. The panelists need to know the overall flow of the conversation and have several key points and takeaways for the audience. Otherwise, the conversation may degrade quickly.
Stories and examples need to be tighter and more concise. Headlines or “tweetable soundbites” are easy ways for people to remember what is being said and repeat it in the chatbox. If there is anything special or unique about the format, best to let them know beforehand!
Be Equipped. While your laptop camera is fine, an HD Webcam with good lighting makes for a better user experience. (I trained some panel moderators for Zoom, and they demanded that I go buy one!) Same thing for your audio. An external microphone is ideal.
Talk to the Camera. Place the camera at eye level and in the middle of the monitor you’re looking at during the panel. Yes, sometimes it does get in the way of your screen, but you are building trust with your audience by looking at the camera when you speak. When the camera is off to the side, up or down, it looks like you are distracted. (I use a Logitech C992 – but get the new “Brio” version – on a flexible Joby tripod, a Yeti Nano microphone, and a ring light.)
Be Additive. Especially in the easily distracted virtual world, the audience doesn’t have the patience for panelists repeating what another panelist has said. Rather than saying “Yes, I agree with my esteemed colleague, [reiteration of what was said],” say, “Yes, that is a good point AND [state your additional idea].”
Contribute. In the F2F world, it’s easy to signal to each other that you want to speak. In the virtual world, not so much. Even with high profile executives, our school conditioning kicks in and we awkwardly raise our hands to speak, expecting the panel moderator to call on us! So weird.
So I suggest panelists lean in toward the camera to indicate an interest to speak. Or agree on a sign or “tell” that you want to speak. Then a moderator can easily move the conversation by saying, “[Panelist], looks like you have something you’d like to add!”
What to Wear. There is lots of guidance on what to wear in front of a camera. Here are a few simple guidelines:
De-Clutter. Even though virtual backgrounds are the latest rage, I’m not a big fan. I get distracted when a panelist moves and explosions of color erupt from behind. Take a preview look at what your audience will see – and remove all the crap behind you. The empty glasses, the coffee cups, the dead plants, the piles of books, folders, and other extraneous stuff that you aren’t even aware of.
Silence the Ambient Noise. Stop the ceiling fan, silence your phone, and turn off your computer notifications. What about the dishwasher, the washing machine, and dryer? They all contribute to the ambient noise that can distract the panel.
Like all things moving from F2F into the digital world, it takes a bit more thought and intention to be a brilliant panelist during a virtual or hybrid panel discussion.