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Prepare to be a Brilliant Panelist

Perhaps you’ve been asked to serve as a panelist in an upcoming panel discussion…and you may be wondering, “What do I have to do to be prepared?”

That’s a GREAT question, as I have seen too many panelists do absolutely NO preparation.  Okay, they might have read the descriptive email on the flight into the city or briefly chatted with the panel moderator.  I affectionally call this the “show up and throw up strategy,” where the panelists think they can get by with sheer brilliance.

Unfortunately, it rarely works that way.  A brilliant, D.E.E.P. panelist is willing to do the work.  And it’s really not a huge lift but can make a huge difference to the audience and their perceived value.

How to Prepare to Be a Brilliant Panelist:

1) Chat with the Meeting Organizer.  Once you agree to serve on a panel, have a quick conversation with the meeting organizer and/or panel moderator to confirm the event details not mentioned in the invitation.  Find out more about what you need to ask here.

2)  Think about the audience.  After all, they are the reason you are having this awesome discussion!

In Their Shoes. Imagine the types of people (even specific individuals as a model) who are likely to attend. Think about the questions they want to have answered and/or likely to ask in the audience Q&A segment.

Social Media. Use the conference website, a blog post, social media, or other feedback tools to glean questions from the community. Ask them to submit their most pressing issues and challenges.

Interview. Ask the conference organizer for the names and contact information for three “influencers” or “heavy hitters” who may be in the audience. Ask them what they would like to hear about and what challenges they are facing.

3) Research your fellow panelists.

Google.  Google their work and views they hold on the topic. Depending on how much time you have and how critical this panel is, take the time to review their websites, social profiles, books, reviews, bios, blogs, recent presentations, media mentions, papers, etc.
Take notes. You don’t need to know everything about the panelists’ lives, but you should have a basic idea of their points of view on the topic. This will make it much easier to connect with them and discern the areas of agreement and disagreement.
4) Consider the format. 
Is it the typical panel format, or will there be some other key areas to engage with the panel moderator, your fellow panelists and/or the audience?

Chat with the meeting organizer and/or the panel moderator to determine the key fundamentals such as scope of the topic, who will be in the audience, the key objectives, etc.  You can even use this handy checklist to help guide the conversation.

From this conversation, you should have a firm grasp on why you were selected.  Your role, diverse viewpoint, and relatability to the audience. You’ll want to leverage these strengths.

5) Be thoughtful. 

Based on your role, diverse viewpoint, and relatability to the audience, determine what contribution can you make to the conversation. If controversial, talk with your legal team about what can and cannot be said.

6) Identify three key messages you believe the audience can derive great value from.

With each of these key messages, identify an example, a story, demonstration or prop that will make your idea come to life.  And don’t forget a short, “Twitterable” soundbite that audiences will remember after the panel discussion is over.

7) Think about a final takeaway, insight, or idea you want to leave the audience with.  I’m a big fan of asking the audience to do something – a “call to action” – based on what they heard.

8) If you are nervous, role-play some questions and talking points with a colleague (and/or the legal team).  Really push yourself to make sure you are giving value to the attendees.

9) If you are in a heavily regulated industry,  make sure you run it all past the legal team. 

10) Optional:  Check out the panel moderator.   Have they ever moderated a panel before?  Just because they are a nice and/or famous person doesn’t mean they have the skills to facilitate a robust panel discussion.  If you can, see if they have any video uploaded on YouTube.  How interactive are they?  Is the tone conversational?  Once you have a sense for their style, you’ll be better prepared to engage in the conversation.

All of this means you probably have to do a lot more work than you signed up for. BUT if you want to make this an outstanding, powerful panel, you will have a greater chance of success when you do the work!


Related Articles

Should I Practice for a Panel Discussion?

Panelist Preparation in Regulated Industries

8 Reasons Why You Should be a Panelist

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.


Kristin Arnold



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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
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.
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