5 Ways to Rock Your Panel Discussion (and some advice directly from Oprah Winfrey)

It all starts so well… the exciting anticipation of a confluence of ideas… the CCO of mega-manufacturing company X speaking on a panel with the head of privacy at technology company Y and the internal audit lead of company Z…  Then the hour-long discussion starts.  Within minutes you find yourself staring at your watch.  Time stretches out before you… no matter how interesting the brands being represented are, the content is already dragging.  Why is it that so many panel discussions are so boring, and how do you make sure if you’re on a panel or leading a panel that the content is interesting? 

Starting Sunday, like many of you, I’ll be at the SCCE’s Compliance and Ethics Institute in Las Vegas.  (If you’re there, come say hi at Booth 113 – Spark Compliance Consulting!).  If you’re on a panel there or anywhere, here are five ways to rock it so you’re memorable, interesting, and likely to be asked to do it again:

1.      Ensure proper introductions

A good panel moderator will prepare a short introduction for each panel member.  If you are the moderator, send one-minute introductory text to each participant to ensure you’re focusing on the most relevant parts of his or her career. 

If you’re on a panel and the moderator is winging it, be sure to send a three-to-four sentence paragraph to the moderator laying out your introduction.  You don’t want to be surprised, and more importantly, you want to ensure your most critical biographical information is presented.  If the audience doesn’t already know the relevant experience of you as the presenter, they will be less inclined to listen to you than if they are primed to be impressed.

2.      You never get a second chance to make a first impression

If you are the moderator, be sure to prepare a first question for each participant that will showcase his or her areas of expertise.  Too many moderators ask open-ended questions like, “So Joe, tell me about your experience…” or “Sheila, I understand you run a compliance program.  Tell me about that…”  These questions do not set panelists up for success.  Create an experience-specific question for panelists and send it to them beforehand so they can start successfully.

If you’re on a panel and the moderator hasn’t created an opening question, don’t be shy about sending a couple of choices to the moderator with a note saying, “I love the topic about which we’re speaking.  I was thinking it might be good if you ask me one of the following questions so we can spark a discussion right away…”  You’ll be doing yourself a favor, as well as the moderator.

3.      Ask and answer the questions the audience wants to ask

In July, I had the enormous privilege of going on a cruise to Alaska with Oprah Winfrey.  She did a presentation on the cruise where she talked at length about her career.  When talking about the success of her show, she said that she wasn’t just a naturally-gifted interviewer – she always put herself in the shoes of her audience and asked the questions they wanted to ask.  She was always polite, but she didn’t shy away from asking the tough questions the audience would ask if they had the microphone.

Too many compliance-oriented presentations are banal discussions of comfortable talking points.  If you’re the moderator, ask the questions people in the audience are asking in their heads.  If you’re on the panel, think about what people in the audience want to know and then preface the discussion with statements like, “I know you may all be wondering…” or “If I were in the audience I’d want to know…”  By acknowledging what the audience wants to know (even if it is difficult to discuss or is controversial), you’ll engage with the audience on a much deeper level.

Kristy, Jonathan and Oprah pre-dinner.jpg

 

4.      Ask the Audience

While it is important for moderators and panelists to anticipate what the audience wants to know, there’s nothing like asking the audience for their questions and answering them directly.  If a panelist makes an interesting statement, audience members may want to follow-up with a question.  Skipping the Q&A can frustrate the audience.  If you’re a moderator, ensure that at least 10-minutes is dedicated to this task.  If you’re a panelist, look at the audience and offer to answer questions toward the end of the presentation.

5.      Prepare for Silence

As important as it is to allow the audience to ask questions, sometimes the panel will be met with silence.  Perhaps the audience is shy and doesn’t want to appear unknowledgeable around their peers.  Perhaps the audience is bored and knows the information you’ve been discussing.  No matter the reason, there may be times when the audience doesn’t want to ask questions.  In this case, it is critical that the moderator have a list of pre-determined topics to bring about discussion between the panelists.

If you’re a panelist, prepare two or three questions for your co-panelists so that you can facilitate discussion if a dreaded lull occurs within the presentation.  The audience may not realize you’re saving the day, but the presentation will keep moving and remain relevant because of your preparation.

Panel discussions can be riveting and fascinating, but they require correct preparation and proper flow to be engaging.  By knowing the rules of the road, you can be a great moderator or panelist. Who knows?  You may even find yourself “the Oprah of Compliance.”