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Presentation skills: panel discussions

Ask the Experts

Q. I've learned that in my new job I'll have to take part in panel discussions from time to time. I haven't done this before, and I'm wondering if there are any special ways to prepare myself.

A. First, remember that the fundamentals of effective presentations still apply, starting with your preparation. That includes setting objectives, audience analysis, rehearsal, preparing for Q&A's, and more. And it means working on your non-verbal communication skills—your voice, gestures, and eye focus.

That said, panels differ from solo presentations in several ways. A panel is essentially a group discussion, so there's more chance your message can be diluted, mixed in with points made by the other speakers. It thus becomes even more important in a panel setting to clarify your goals, to be concise, to use vivid language—including sound bites—and to stay on message. Without overdoing it, reinforce your messages at times during the discussion if you sense they're not getting across as effectively as you'd like.

"The way you're introduced establishes your credentials as someone qualified to speak on this panel."

You can't control everything that happens in a panel discussion, but you can control some things. You can and should control your introduction. The way you're introduced establishes your credentials as someone qualified to speak on this panel and this topic. Highlight the most relevant points in your resume and recent job experience. Put them in a summary, and give it to the moderator.

Your preparation should focus on both the overall goals of the panel and your own role in helping to achieve them. Are you on the panel mainly to provide information, or to serve as an example or advocate, persuading your audience to support an action or point of view? Are the topics likely to spark controversy or debate? If so, you'll need to have responses ready for aggressive or even hostile questioning. Handling Q&A's is a separate skill entirely (To learn more about this special skill read our article on handling Q&A's.)

Different panels operate within different rules. Some panels, for example, expect consistency and conformity of opinion among the panel members. Other times, it's expected that panel members will disagree and even aggressively debate the topics under discussion. In any case, as a panel member you have an opportunity to project an image that serves as a potent persuasive tool. Your image also can create a lasting memory among your listeners. So while you're preparing, ask yourself: how can I bend and flex my style to the panel's rules and the needs of the moment? For example, would it be best to be patient, empathetic, aggressive, attacking, concise, folksy?

Be alert to the opportunities that open up during the discussion. You may want to piggyback on a comment made by someone else. Or, you may find it necessary to disagree with another panelist. If so, do it politely. Raising the volume only creates heat, not light. Be ready also to ask questions that drive other panelists towards your position, or to underscore the flaws in theirs.

Learn what you can about the other panelists. If possible, meet with the other panel members in advance. Get a sense of their styles and personalities. Determine what areas they plan to cover. You may, for example, want to coordinate with another panelist if you're both planning to cover the same or a similar topic.

Find out how much time the panel has. Will the panelists be expected to open with brief, prepared remarks? If so, find out, in least in general, what the others plan to say in their opening statements, to avoid any possible conflict.

Be open to the fact that each panel member has different strengths and perspectives. Remember that as a group, you're working off one another. Determine how you can best collaborate with the other panelists. Avoid commenting gratuitously on another panelist's remarks, unless you can add something of value based on your own expertise.

Listen actively when another panelist is speaking. Listen carefully as well to questions that come from the audience. That can tell you how well your own and the others' remarks are resonating with the audience.

On meeting day, arrive early to check out the logistics-the room set-up, lighting, microphones, and any equipment you'll be using. Spend some time chatting with the other panel members. The more comfortable you are with each other, the better.

As with all presentations, it all comes back to the need for the right preparation. Now, go out and wow them!

This question was answered by Frank Carillo, president, Executive Communications Group. Our consultants are ready to answer any questions you have about presenting in real-life situations. We respond to all questions. Your question could be featured in our next Ask the Experts column.


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