A common question I am asked is “Should I practice for a panel discussion?” My pithy response is that it can’t hurt!
Seriously though, you should prepare answers for the questions you think the moderator will ask as well as a few curve balls that you think they might ask! Your answers should be concise and provide a bit of interest such as a short anecdote, story, example, facts, or illustration. You might even think about creating a short, “Twitterable” soundbite that audiences will remember after the panel discussion is over.
You’ll also want to think about the three messages you want the audience to know, feel, or take action on as a result of the panel discussion. How can you seamlessly weave them into one of your answers?
Finally, you want to voice them out into the world. It’s one thing to “prepare” your answers in your head. It is a different kettle of fish to articulate the words that come out of your mouth – especially stories. The first couple of times are tough….too many words, you trip over the words, you don’t exactly mean what you are saying (but there will always be one person in the room who remembers what you said…exactly!) And don’t forget that every audience member is a broadcaster via their smartphones, so it is a good idea to practice.
Find a Friend. Give them the potential questions and have them ask you the question and “role play” how that discussion might pan out for about two minutes. Then stop and ask for feedback: What do each of you think went well and what could you do differently? Incorporate the relevant feedback into the next round. Do this a few times until you feel comfortable with the words, the stories, and your key messages.
Talk to the Mirror. I used to do this all the time. Stand (or sit, depending on your role) and practice some of your answers and stories. At least you are talking to someone and you’re getting your mouth used to saying these words.
Go for a Walk. As you are briskly walking, practice some of your answers and stories. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the time will walk (or fly!) by!
Go to the Venue Early. Not only can you check out the location, stage, and seating arrangement, but you can practice a few lines to get a feel for room acoustics and ambiance. (Make sure you ask the meeting organizer/panel moderator if this is a possibility.)
NOT at Meet-Ups. I do NOT encourage practicing during any of the panel meet-ups as the audience will feel deprived of the spontaneity that happens in the moment. Sure, you can talk about your high-level points, but you want the audience to see the synergy of an unscripted conversation. Otherwise, they will know they are getting warmed-up leftovers of previous scintillating conversations.
Speaking of which, you CAN over-practice where the answers are coming out without you even thinking about them. I call this “on autopilot” and I see this with experts who are continually answering the same questions and they get bored with the answer and bored with themselves. If you find yourself bored, ask yourself, “What can I do to shake this up, spice it up, and make it more interesting for me and the audience?” I bet you can come up with a few ideas as you practice for a panel discussion.
For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative leadership panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.