One of my favorite panelists of all time was something of a discipline problem. He made funny faces at the other panelists. He slumped theatrically when he disagreed with someone. He got so animated when his turn came that he nearly fell out of his chair.
The people in that audience couldn’t take their eyes off Mr. Personality, who was really quite the expert at working the room.
While this might sound like a panel moderator’s worst nightmare, I welcomed his (fundamentally good-natured) antics and worked them into the flow. I noticed that everybody on stage was rising to the occasion. The exchanges got crisper, wittier, more entertaining. We got a lot of laughs and a lot of rapt attention.
I thought fondly of that particular Bad Boy Panelist (and how effectively he used his misbehavior) as I crafted the following list of suggestions for being a standout panelist. “Go big or go home” is the thinking here. Here’s how:
Don’t be on time. Show up early instead. Take whatever time your moderator said to be there and apply the Marine standard of punctuality (“15 minutes early is on time, but on time is late”). Use that extra time to chat up the moderator and other early-bird panelists. Get a sense of the room and the staging. Call dibs on the best chair.
Write your own intro and have it handy. Make it three bullet points (max), including your current position and expertise, plus a few pithy career highlights. If the moderator is introducing you, just hand it over ahead of time (and spare everyone another Reading of the Bio). If you’re doing your own intro, those handy bullets will curb your urge to ramble on. Nobody cares that you graduated summa cum laude but your Mom.
Create a commanding presence on stage. Imagine what Aunt Margaret would say about your posture up there under the big lights. Sit up straighter, toward the edge of your chair, and lean slightly forward toward the audience. Speak clearly and project to the back of the room. No mumbling!
BYOTP (Bring Your Own Talking Points). Come equipped with a few great anecdotes and some controversial ideas to toss out on the topic. Having these at the ready can really help when you need to redirect a lame question into a smart, snappy answer. (“That’s a great question, Wally, but the real issue is…”)
Play well with others (but best with the audience). Look engaged and interested in what the other panelists are saying (even when you aren’t). Ask your own follow-up questions. Moderators love to have panelists interacting and challenging each other. And feel free to politely interrupt a long-winded panelist (“Can I chime in here with another thought?”) Whenever you speak, turn away from the moderator and toward the audience to include them. Make eye contact. Nod and smile. Ask for a show of hands (“Who else is fed up with all this hype about the cloud?!”)
Ease up and crack wise. Any show of wit or humor on stage is a godsend. Listen to the other panelists’ answers and watch for a good place to inject one of those clever stories you thought up in advance. Or make your moderator’s day with a candid story about something that went horribly wrong (and how you fixed it, of course).
Finally, hang out afterwards and make friends. I judge a successful panel by how many people come up afterwards to swarm the speakers (my Gold Standard is at least five). Plan on staying around for 15-30 minutes to exchange cards and shake hands. You worked hard for your fame and glory, so make the most of it.