As I coach panelists to prepare for an upcoming panel discussion, there are a dozen common misconceptions about panel discussions that I think we need to clarify:
Be Smart. There is a reason why the meeting organizer invited you to participate on this panel. Find out why. It may be because you are an expert or practitioner in your field but that doesn’t mean you have to be the smartest person on the panel! Don’t try to be the know-it-all and answer every question.
Be Right. Most panels strive to be an interesting discussion among smart people with different opinions about the topic. You will offer one possible scenario and others may disagree with you. Rather than thinking that you are “right” and they are “wrong,” be curious about their perspectives. It makes for a much more interesting panel!
Promote Yourself. There is a reason why you said “Yes!” to the panel, and it probably has something to do with promoting yourself or your company. We all know that. There are ways to subtly promote yourself and your company without shamelessly hawking your wares.
Just Show Up. Some panelists believe they can participate without much preparation, thinking they can simply “wing it.” Effective panelists prepare by researching the topic, understanding the format, and coordinating with other panelists.
Stick to the Basics. Panelists might assume the audience has limited knowledge of the topic and start with topic fundamentals. Panelists should gauge the audience’s familiarity and adjust their level of detail accordingly.
Script Yourself. If you are being asked to give some initial remarks, you may want to practice your opening remarks as well as your key messages connected to a concise story. However, the point of the panel is to have a discussion, so once you practiced using a script and know what you want to say, leave the script at home; don’t use it as a crutch.
Just Answer the Questions. Most panelists don’t realize they have been invited to a discussion rather than a Q&A with the moderator. This means you can interact with the moderator, your fellow panelists, and the audience!
Share Too Much. Panelists may think they need to speak at length to convey their expertise while presenting tons of information, data, and statistics. Too much information can overwhelm the audience. Panelists should focus on key points and actionable insights. Consider the panel a “teaser” for audience members to follow up with you later if they want more information.
Avoid Controversy. Some panelists avoid controversial topics or disagreements as they think it is inappropriate. Constructive disagreements and diverse viewpoints can make panel discussions more lively and informative.
Rely on Jargon. Panelists may assume everyone understands industry-specific jargon and use it as a conversation shortcut. Understand who is in your audience and if unsure if they don’t know what your jargonistic acrostic means, define it!
Eyes on the Speaker. Panelists often forget that the audience is looking at them all the time – even when they are not speaking. Think about your non-verbal communication – body language, eye contact, and gestures – all convey your interest in the topic, your fellow panelists, and the audience.
Lots of Time. Panelists may think there is tons of time, but when you do the math and look at the agenda, time will fly by! Being mindful of time keeps the discussion on track and respectful to the audience.
To ensure a successful panel discussion, panelists should be aware of these misconceptions and actively work to avoid them. Effective communication, collaboration, and preparation are key to making panel discussions lively and informative.
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KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.