Ideally, the panel moderator has briefed you prior to the panel discussion about the room logistics: The stage, the chairs, and where you will be sitting amongst the panelists. They may even have a slide that projects all the panelists’ names, Twitter handles, and pictures, all in the order in which you are seated.
But don’t hold your breath. You may end up with a disorganized, lackadaisical moderator who says, “go ahead – sit wherever!”
If that’s the case, get there early enough to walk onto the stage and claim the best chair in the house! Place your notes, clipboard, or another piece of personal property on the chair.
Power. Sit next to (preferably to the right of) the leader of the panel: the panel moderator. This puts you in view as people look at the moderator, and a subliminal connection is made. You’ll also have easy and proximal access to the conversation gatekeeper!
Networking. Your fellow panelists are great connections, so you not only want to reach out to them before the panel and get to know them a bit better, but you’ll want to sit next to them as well. And similar to the panel moderator, you’ll want to sit to the right of the person you want to know better.
Influence. Sometimes, your objectives go beyond networking. You want to be seen as closely affiliated with another panelist. In that case, you want to sit to the right of that highly influential person.
Build Trust with Another Panelist. Sit to the right of a person when you want to generate a feeling of trust. In medieval times, people of questionable loyalty were seated on the left because right-handed people would normally thrust a dagger to the left! Hence, we now have the term “right-hand man.”
Discussion. Choose the “central seats” (those at the ends and the middle seats) when you want to be actively involved in the meeting discussion.
Confrontation. Sit the furthest away from the panelist who, you believe, has an opposing view or recommendation. This will make any differences of opinion include the rest of the panel and will keep it from looking like two people bickering.
Diversity. Take a look at the panelist lineup. Are all the women and one side and the men on another? Select a chair to mix up the visual diversity of the panel.
Exit. Sit closest to the door in the event you need to make a quick exit. This shouldn’t be an option, but sometimes, life gets in the way of your panel discussion: you’re not feeling well or expecting an urgent and important call from a loved one and need to make a quick escape.
Finally, when you don’t have a compelling reason for choosing one seat over another, sit wherever you are most comfortable on the stage!
Once you have decided on the “best chair,” take a moment to situate yourself:
Test Your Chair. Make sure the chair is set at the right height, and adjust the height or footrests as necessary.
Sit Up Tall. Trevor Currie at Podium Consulting says, “Avoid the temptation to sink back into your chair. This contracts your diaphragm and reduces your presence. Be conscious of your posture and sit closer to the front of your seat and rest your forearms on the table when you are not using your hands [that is, if you are sitting in front of a table!]”
Locate the Microphone. There are several microphone setups for a panel discussion. Find the audio-visual technician or ask the meeting organizer about the microphone – if applicable.
After you have checked in with the meeting organizer, the panel moderator, scoped out the stage and chair, go mingle with the audience in the few minutes before the panel starts!
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.