Most people know how to give a presentation because nearly every internal meeting involves some type of presentation. Thus, if you're asked to give a presentation or a speech at an industry conference, you're familiar with the format.
Not so with being a panelist. I can't remember ever attending an internal meeting that involved a panel. Not surprisingly, panelists at industry conferences often seem ill-at-ease and uncomfortable. Or they try to hog the stage and give a presentation.
And that's too bad, because being on a conference panel is an incredible opportunity to increase your own visibility and get your company's message across. Unfortunately, it's an opportunity that's all-too-often squandered.
Here are some pointers based upon my experience serving on dozens of industry panels:
1. Research the audience.
Some trade conferences are mostly other vendors like yourself. Other conferences are full of potential customers. Still others consist of potential business partners or investors. The more you learn about your audience, the better you'll be able to use this opportunity effectively.
2. Decide on your message.
Once you know the audience, decide on what you want to communicate. Do you want them to see you as a content expert, see your products as uniquely valuable, see your company as a flexible partner, or something altogether different? Which message is most important?
3. Craft some message nuggets.
On a panel, you only "have the floor" for a few minutes at a time, interspersed with remarks from the other panelists. That's very different from a presentation where you can develop an idea gradually while providing background and supporting data.
To get your message across during a panel discussion, you need short, memorable "message nuggets" that can be easily worked into a conversation. Because this concept is so essential, I've added a longer explanation, with examples, at the end of the post.
4. Query the moderator beforehand.
If possible, get a list of questions or topics that the moderator plans to introduce into the discussion. Look for places where you will able to insert or segue to one of your "nuggets." Mentally rehearse your response to the moderator's question.
5. Prep up the moderator.
Don't just give the moderator your standard bio. Provide the moderator with an introduction that predisposes the audience to be receptive to the messages you've decided to communicate. In most cases, you'll want to emphasize what you have in common with the audience.
6. Dress simply and appropriately.
Unless there's some reason for wearing something distinctive (like your company sells thigh-high boots), err on the side of dressing conservatively. Avoid lapel buttons, bulky items in pockets, big jewelry and sunglasses. Remove your conference nametag.
7. Get yourself relaxed and ready.
Arrive early and get a feel for the surroundings. If you have a few moments in private, practice a few relaxing exercises before your appearance, like rolling your neck, swinging your arms, stretching and so forth. Take a deep breath, hold it for 5 seconds, then slowly exhale.
8. Adopt a confident, respectful posture.
Sit up straight but lean slightly forward. Listen actively when others are speaking. Keep your eyes on them. Don't slouch, fidget, grip the table, clasp your hands, scratch yourself, check your watch or anything else that might distract the audience.
9. Speak to the audience not the moderator.
Even though the moderator has asked the questions, you're there to talk to the audience, not the moderator. As you speak, look audience members in the eye, moving from person to person. Let your hands move naturally to supplement whatever you're saying.
Key Concept: The Message Nugget
A message nugget is more than just a sound bite; it's a brief story, observation or remark that's memorable and concisely communicates your intended message. It's easier to demonstrate than explain, so here goes.
Suppose you're the marketing director of a software startup and you've been invited to be on a conference panel entitled "Branding Online." The audience is mostly marketing executives who work in high tech firms.
Normally, the message you'd want to communicate as a panelist is that your company is an industry leader. However, unbeknownst to anyone else at the conference, your company has run out of money and you'll probably be laid off. (!!!)
In this case, the "big win" for you as a panelist would be to have some of those executives express interest in you and your ideas, thereby creating a conversation that could eventually lead to a job offer. Since that's your big win, you need nuggets that will work your real agenda, which is getting a new job.
To do this, you craft nuggets similar to the stories you'd tell in a job interview. You emphasize actions that you've taken personally to make your company successful. (Even though it's not, but nobody knows that.) Therefore, your nuggets might be:
- "By using social media to get customers involved in naming our new product line gave us extra momentum when we launched the brand. Today's online customers want to be part of your brand."
- "When I incorporated data from customer service into our brand analysis, I realized that slow response times were damaging our brand image. Online branding is all about service."
Given the panel topic, it should be easy to segue into those nuggets, thereby making an impression on the audience that might easily result in a job offer.