In my last post about tips for panel discussions, I teased that proper preparation was critical to putting on a good presentation. This post gets into the details. I strongly advise having a facilitator or administrator in a position of power who can lay down the law on how things will run. If you open it up to all the panelists to decide on format and operational structure, you'll waste a lot of time and end up with a poorly defined format.
As with any presentation involving a guest speaker, start by making sure the presenters know what the audience saw as a session description. Each panelist needs to understand attendee expectations so that they can deliver on the promotional promises that were made.
The next item to nail down is a format. I'm usually not a fan of panels that consist of "sequential presentations" where each panelist clicks through their own sequence of slides and gives a mini-presentation. But you might let each participant have an introductory statement or opportunity to establish their viewpoint. If so, be specific about exactly how many minutes each person has for their opening gambit. Tell them they need to practice out loud and come in on time. Be strict about this part. PANELISTS TEND TO RAMBLE.
In an open discussion format, work out an agenda of topic items that you will talk about. Make sure all panelists have an opportunity to prepare comments and stories about each of the points (or tell you which ones are not relevant to them so they don't get called on for that part of the talk). Find out from your panelists if there are any taboo subjects they don't want to discuss. This is a great time to work out specific questions that you will pose to panelists. You might ask them to contribute sample questions they want to be asked in order to give them a launching point for a statement. Try not to surprise your panelists during the event… A good panel is prepared for the subject and comfortable talking about it.
If you are a panelist, remind yourself that there is going to be a lot of "swirling conversation" going on. Attendees can find it difficult to pull specifics from the conversation. You will stand out if you can work out a few concise, powerful statements that make a strong point on their own. Go for something tweetable… Are you saying something that would make an attendee perk up and instantly tweet the short and pithy nugget of brilliance you just shared?
Another thing to work out is how structured you want the flow. Some panels are strongly controlled by the facilitator, calling on each panelist, who then hands back to the moderator when they finish talking. Other panels have participants jumping in and commenting on what other panelists are saying. Either way is fine as long as everybody knows the format and is ready to participate in the agreed-upon manner.
Decide whether the moderator will introduce panelists or have panelists introduce themselves. Again, either approach is fine as long as everyone is on the same page and knows what will happen in the session. Avoid long introductions! Audiences hate ten minutes of introductory comments about the career and qualifications of five people sitting in front of them. Name, company, and role are usually sufficient. If appropriate, you might add one more sentence about why each person has a relevant viewpoint.
PANELISTS TEND TO RAMBLE… If you let panelists introduce themselves, give them a structure to follow and tell them to keep it short. Given the opportunity, panelists will almost always start with a marketing pitch about their company. This is death on a panel. Make a combined pact to avoid organizational marketing. Add the pitches in a handout or web page that attendees can access. Then each person can add as much about their background and their company as they want.
In my next post, I'll offer suggestions on what to cover in a panel rehearsal and how to encourage consistency and group cohesiveness in presentation style.