Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How to be a good panelist

In a couple weeks, I will be a panelist at a STEM conference for K-20 education at a local college.  (How did I swing that?  I wanted to go, so I asked the organizer if she needed help.  She looked at my background and this is what she came up with.)  I have never been a panelist before, but I have experienced panel discussions that were not great.  I am hoping the conference will be an opportunity to meet some local folks.  Being a panelist might give me a patina of importance when approaching strangers, so I want to avoid being the long-winded or argumentative type of panelist that can make such things painful.  Ideally, this is a chance to make myself look savvy and approachable in a group of my professional peers.

So I called my uncle the communications professor, to see what he would recommend.  Since his input was so practical, I wanted to share it.

First he recommended I reach out to the moderator, if there is one, to ask about the format for the panel.  Are the questions set?  Will this be open to audience feedback?  Are there topics we will definitely cover?  He said that email should start out as "I am on a panel you'll be moderating and I want to make your job as easy as possible..."  The response to this (which will likely be warm, if I start out like that) can help shape the rest of my preparation.

Then he recommended I think about why people are going to this panel, and who might be there.   Why would they want to hear from someone like me, and what can I add to this discussion.  In my case, I'm a little unclear on why I was invited, but I am confident I can give a different perspective then the other panelists.

And he said unless the moderator is likely to give a really swell introduction, they will likely ask each person to give a brief introduction.  It should be less than 2 min, but hopefully cover where your ideas come from and why anyone should listen to them.  Prepare that.

Based on what the moderator thinks we'll cover, he recommended I come up with some short talking points.  In an hour long session, no panelist should ever speak for more then a couple of minutes, and might only have the chance to speak a handful of times.  In order to be make those talking point effective, they should include a memorable fact, or a poignant anecdote- stories are really good for reenforcing those points.  You know how after a seminar you've been trained to supply answers that include evidence?  Like that, but more personal, and shorter.

The rest of his advice was seemingly obvious, but probably good to remember.  Don't get mad.  Listen to the other panelists.  Don't repeat their great ideas- expand on them.  Let the moderator be in charge, which means stay on time and on topic. Mostly have fun and try to learn something.

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