March 29, 2012

How to make your panel more fun

Image courtesy of Sarah Dawn Nichols
Last time I attended a panel discussion at a conference, I had a revelation: Panels lack humor.

Sure, a couple of people on the panel made jokes here and there, and the audience laughed from time to time. But overall, panels tend to be less cohesive and less relaxed than typical presentations, and the first thing to go is the humor. Here are a couple of reasons why:

The presenters haven't met before.
The presenters haven't practiced.
The presenters haven't practiced together.
The moderator is winging it.
The moderator doesn't know how to moderate.

These are the main reasons that panels often come across as stiff and awkward rather than relaxed and fun. When people sit on a panel who don't know each other, have never spoken, and are being guided by someone who also didn't prepare well, it's hard to have a good time.

Speakers are stressed about competing for minutes, about interruptions, about making all their points, about anticipating the moderator's questions. A panel requires a prepared yet more flexible and spontaneous approach than most presentations, and this can throw off a speaker.

There are a lot of great articles about what to do once you're on the stage, which I'll reference at the end, but I'd like to talk about what you can do in advance to create a panel environment that's more relaxed and more conducive to fun and humor:

1. Learn about the other panelists in advance.

Connect with them on social media, read their blogs, and look at speaker videos if you can find some. Find out what you can about their ideas, their personalities and their positions on the topics you'll be discussing on the panel.

2. Have a conversation with the moderator.

If the moderator doesn't reach out to you first, reach out to her. Ask her what kinds of questions she might ask, what kinds of topics she'd like to cover, how she expects to structure the conversation, and any other questions you might have. If your moderator isn't that prepared, well, you might help spur that process along by asking the questions.

If your moderator is your only contact with the event, then also make sure to ask questions about who's expected to attend, so you can learn a thing or two about the prospective audience. If you have a contact besides the moderator, ask that person.

3. Meet your co-panelists in person.

This is not always possible, but if you can get together for a quick drink the night before your panel, or take a few minutes for a brief gathering during lunch at the conference, you will feel infinitely more relaxed. I spoke on a panel once where we actually had a rehearsal session, just to meet each other, go over the moderator's points and get a general feel for how the event was going to go. As I said, this is not always possible, but do your best to meet each speaker and the moderator in advance, even if you have to meet them separately.

4. Ask the audience questions

If you're unable to get advance information about your audience -- and even if you are -- don't be afraid to ask your audience a question or two when it's your turn to speak. Asking for audience participation is always good practice in a presentation, and it's good practice on a panel as well.

Panels seem to shun audience participation, perhaps because speakers fear losing any of their precious minutes to audience interaction. But don't forget -- it's not about you. It's always about the audience and what they need, want and care about. Pay attention to this and you can't go wrong.

I'm going to stop here, because as I said above, there are plenty of articles about what to do once you're on the stage. By taking the time to get to know your fellow panelists and moderator, you reduce the anxiety of the unknown.

When you have a sense of camaraderie with your fellow speakers, you'll find it much easier for natural and organic humor and fun to emerge, just like in any other presentation.

Here's more info about speaking on panels:

Kathy Reiffenstein: Ten tips for speaking on a panel

Ian Griffin: Ten tips for speaking on a panel

And for moderators:

Rebecca Morgan: What's the value of a master moderator?

Rebecca Morgan: How to effectively moderate a panel

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