What Panelists Should Know to Prepare for a Panel Discussion

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Prepare for a Panel Discussion

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. If they have not contacted you after a brief period of time, take the initiative to reach out to them before the event. At the very least, they will be delighted you are being so proactive (a rarity, to be sure!). This will allow you to prepare far more effectively by understanding their expectations and how they intend to run the session.

Here is a detailed checklist for you to discuss with the meeting organizer and/or panel moderator:

Event Details

  • The Event. The panel discussion is typically one session within an entire event. Determine where the panel is situated in the event agenda, and what comes before and after the panel discussion. Take a look at the event website and marketing materials. Does the event have a theme? How does the panel fit into the entire agenda?
  • Sponsoring Organization. Review the mission of the business, association, or organization that is hosting the event and/or panel. What are their goals for the panel? Ask about their past experiences of having panels on their program—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Panel Details

  • Panel Dates, Start and End Times, and Location. Block this day on your schedule and plan to get to the venue well ahead of the start time.
  • Panel Title, Topic, and Objectives. Clarify the stated objectives for the panel—especially if marketing material has already been published. What do the organizers want the audience to know, feel, or do about the topic?
  • Context. Why did the organizers select this topic? Why are we having this discussion now?
  • Scope. Especially when the topic is in a heavily regulated industry or sensitive subject, ask about the scope and boundaries of the topic.
    • Is the intent to dig deep or keep it superficial? What are the guardrails to the discussion? Anything off-limits?  Words or phrases to avoid?
    • What is the position of the other panelists?
  • Panel Format. Understand their vision for the panel. More presentation or discussion? How formal or informal? Traditional or more unique? Structured debate or conversational? Opinion or evidence-based?
  • Presentation. Will you be required to provide a brief presentation as part of the introduction or will the format go straight into discussion? If expected to give a presentation, will you be allowed to use supporting slides?
  • Moderator Style. Does the moderator prefer more control over the questions or a more conversational approach allowing interruptions and counterpoints?
  • Panel Questions. Will you be given a list of questions the moderator intends to ask?
    • Is the panel moderator interested in getting a list of potential questions? At the very least, what are the first one or two questions they intend to ask? What will be the final question? How will the audience be allowed to ask questions? Anytime or at the end? Will they call on specific panelists to answer specific questions and/or are you expected to answer questions directed to the entire panel?
    • Is there an expectation that questions should be answered in a specific amount of time e.g. two minutes? Will there be a timer system? (e.g. a visible timer or colored cards?)
  • Audience. Ask for the audience demographics and estimated size so you can tailor your comments and bring the appropriate number of handouts, books, etc.
    • What is the expected level of expertise in the room around the panel topic? Beginner? Moderate? Seasoned veteran? What are the types of organizations and positions that will be represented in the room? (Can you take a peek at the invitee list?) Why do you think they are attending the event and/or panel? What are their key interests, needs, and concerns? What questions are they hoping to be answered?
    • What will be the impact of the panelists’ comments on their work and lives?
  • Panelists. Get the names, short bios, and website information for invited panelists and why they were selected.
    • What is the point of view they are likely to contribute to the panel? What role are you expected to play? The Sage? Relator? Exotic? Wild Card? Is there a specific point of view you expect me to take/share?
    • Do not presume you can connect with other panelists via email, LinkedIn, or other platforms—ask.
  • Ground Rules. Are there any specific ground rules or expectations about how you want this panel to run? How can we best support each other?
  • Success Criteria. Ask about who and how they will determine and evaluate the success of the panel. Evaluation forms? Hallway buzz?

Panel Logistics

  • Honorarium/Travel. If applicable, how and by when do they want you to submit the invoice and/or expense receipts?
  • Room Logistics. In order for you to dress accordingly, what is the room size and layout, platform configuration, lighting, and color of the backdrop? What is the furniture configuration, type of chairs, table, water, and expected temperature in the room? How will the panelists get on and off the stage?
  • Technology. Will we be using any type of technology (e.g. a polling app or the ability to crowdsource questions)?
  • Meeting Staffer. Will there be a staff person in the room should we need anything? How do we identify them (usually a specific color shirt)?
  • Green Room. Will there be a “green room” to meet up before the panel discussion?
  • A/V Support. Will there be a professional A/V technician? Will we be using the internal house system?
  • Microphones. What kind of microphones will we be using? (This may affect what you choose to wear, as lavaliere microphones need a place to clip the microphone and the belt pack).
  • Presentations. Ask for specific instructions and restrictions on slides, e.g., time frames, slideshow format, getting the slideshows to them, etc.
  • Promotion. Offer to help get the word out to promote the panel. Who and/or how will the panel be promoted? What is the social hashtag? Are there any expectations to participate in interviews? Podcasts? Other PR?
  • Self-Promotion. Get a clear understanding of the degree to which you can promote yourself, a product, or a service, as well as the use of social media. Since the event photography isn’t necessarily focused on you, make sure to ask if you can have a friend take advantage of these photo opportunities.
  • Recording. Ask if the panel will be recorded (audio and/or video) or live-streamed. If yes, ask for a form to grant digital rights and a digital copy or link to replay (only if you want to give them the rights to record).
  • Attire. What is the expected attire/dress for the conference? Is it business, business casual, or casual?
  • Make-Up Artist. Will there be a make-up artist and/or hairstylist?
  • Contingencies. Discuss various issues or problems that may arise. Consider the “if this, then that” and have a plan:
    • If we start late, are we going to end on time or use the full allotment of time? How do I signal to the moderator I want to talk? If the A/V and/or power goes out, what is our backup? What if I have to cancel at the last minute?
    • Other potential concerns or scenarios.

Additional Remote Panel Logistics

  • Platform. What is the technology platform we will be using? Is there a designated “green room” before we go live?
  • Technology Dry Run. Will there be a meet-up so we can test the camera, audio, lighting, backgrounds, etc.?
  • Remote Audience Engagement. Will those viewing from remote locations be able to ask questions, chat with themselves, etc.?

Moderator Meet Ups

  • Pre-Event Call. Will there be a short conference or video call to allow everyone to connect and hear the same information?
  • Quick Meet-Up. Where do you register?  Will there be a meet-up prior to the start to review the format and discuss any last-minute issues?

From this conversation, you should have a firm grasp on all the logistics, as well as why you were selected, your role, and the flow of the panel. As a result, there will probably be some things you need to deliver to the meeting organizer and/or panel moderator:

  • Your photo and short bio to include in promotional materials
  • A brief, interesting, and relevant introduction (three sentences)
  • Your list of potential questions about the topic

Access a handy panelist checklist here to help guide the conversation.

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To order your copy of The Powerful Panelist: Everything You Need to Know to be a Capable and Confident Panelist in a Panel Discussion visit this link.

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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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