How to prep for your first panel back in the real world

Please welcome the panel

As we inch towards normalcy, events are coming back. Concerts and sports are starting up and conferences aren’t far behind. The world’s largest tech conference - Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas - will be in person in 2022.

Panels are one of my favourite things at conferences. When done well, they give unexpected perspectives and cover interesting ground. When bad, they’re almost unbearable.

They are also the first public speaking gig most of us have in our career. More common than a keynote, they can invite little preparation and give the illusion of being easy. Nothing is further from the truth.

So, as we get ready to return to in-person conferences, here’s four tips on how to nail your next panel presentation. 

1. Know your role

Every panel has a range of characters. Figure out why you’ve been invited, who your peers are, and what role you want to play.

Are you an industry expert with lots of experience? Perhaps you’re from a different field and can offer contrasting views? Or maybe you’re the wildcard meant to stir it up?

The sooner you figure out your part, the sooner you can decide what about your perspective is unique and how you’re going to get that across.

2. Moderate your peers

Decent moderators do exist. But just as often, a panel is sabotaged by a host who takes too long to get started. Within a few minutes, you’ll also know which of your peers is going to blather on. Don’t contribute to - or tolerate - either. 

If your moderator is hapless, you can steer the discussion or suggest different questions. A good exercise to prepare is to write down a handful of questions you’d ask if you were moderating. Have these ready (to ask and answer yourself or pose to fellow panelists) if things get too dull.

If other panelists drag on, get comfortable interrupting and don’t feel the need to simply agree. Unless you have a build, repeating the same points is a waste of breath and time. 

3. Respect Your Audience

This means prepping like you’re doing a keynote. As you’re not responsible for a whole session, it can be tempting to not fully prepare. This is a recipe for mediocrity. 

You should understand who’s at the event, why they’re attending, and what they came to learn. If it’s a conference full of industry experts, they’ll likely want data and details. If it’s a more general crowd, keep your points high level. As with a speech, the better you know your audience, the more relevant your contribution will be. 

Think through a compelling opening and closing statement, prepare stories to share and anecdotes to spark discussion, and leave the crowd wanting more. If you’re short on oratory inspo, why not learn from the West Wing?

4. Get to the point

All the above is moot if you don’t have anything decent to say. A useful exercise for figuring out your main points is one Patrick covered before.

Write a 250 word summary then edit it down to 50 words. If you can get three things you want your audience to remember into 50 words then you’ll be able to repeat them enough so your audience remembers.

To do this, remember our rules about signposting and internalise them for a panel.

“By highlighting key points in the beginning and the end, you help the listening audience internalise your argument and follow the structure of your talk.”

Ruthlessly repeating the same points will make sure you’re the most memorable panelist the next time you’re at an in-person conference.