5 Counterintuitive Ways
to be an Outstanding Conference Panellist

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Ahh, the panel discussion... a stalwart in the industry conference agenda, yet one of the most forgettable experiences an attendee is likely to have.

I can only think of one reason why conference organisers pack so many panel discussions into their agenda - and that is to help market the conference itself. Why have one thought leader shouting about the fact they've been given a speaking slot to their followers when you can have 5 without losing a second of precious conference time.

This might sound a bit harsh, but let's be honest, when was the last time you returned home from a conference thinking 'my God that panel was good - if only it had gone on for longer.'

Most of the panel discussions I've had to endure (many of them at globally recognised conferences with obscene ticket fees) have proceeded to sap the life and energy from my soul. The speakers and the moderators have some responsibility to bear for this yawn fest, but mostly it's down to the format.

5 speakers ≠ 5x the value

By the time the welcome and introductions are done, it can feel like you're nearly at the halfway point of the event and this means that no matter how good the questions the moderator has prepared are, value for the audience is likely to be scarce commodity.

Add to this the fact that speakers feel the need to not hog the mic whilst making sure they sneak at least one agenda-pushing snippet for their comms/pr team to make the whole exercise worthwhile and be overly polite to the other members of the panel to such a degree that they don't stand for anything at all.

Yet, if you get invited to be part of a panel, not only should you take the opportunity, you should respect it. Here's why:

  • If you can't stand out on a panel, you're probably not ready for a keynote.
  • It's an opportunity to get noticed by and relationships with event curators.
  • Panels are brilliant places to test and refine your content, not just with your audience, but with those joining you on stage.
  • Most thought leaders fall into the trap of thinking being on a panel is easier than delivering a keynote, so they don't prepare. And therein lies your opportunity to shine.

Tip 1: Find one thing that impresses you about every other panellist

I came up with this idea watching George Clooney on the Graham Norton show a few months back (bear with me). George Clooney is a global superstar, many of the others sharing the 'sofa' that night haven't yet reached his dizzying heights of stardom. At some point within the show, he had made a point of complimenting the work that each of them had done, and you could tell it wasn't BS because of how specific the compliment was. It was clear he had spent at least a couple of hours researching the group. If George Clooney isn't too big-time for researching the people he is going to be on a panel with, neither are you.

Now I know that every blog about how to nail a panellist will tell you to research the people you're sitting next to - mainly so you can work out how you're going to position yourself, but it doesn't have to be as strategic and clinical as that if you don't want it to be. Do this at your next panel and it will take everyone else by surprise, and you'll be remembered for it.

Leaders seek to lift others up.

Tip 2: Say hello to your audience

Why is it that when panellists get invited up on stage, they completely ignore the audience? It's as though they are not there. But they are, so acknowledge them. One of the few panels I remember was a live recording of a Secret Leaders podcast event a few years back, and one of the entrepreneurs on the panel, Alexandra Depledge MBE (the Founder of a brilliant company called Resi) made a point of saying hello to the audience as soon as she sat down. Not with some half-hearted awkward wave, but with a "hi everyone" and a beaming smile. She was the only one. It seems such a simple easy win to get the crowd onside. No one else is likely to do it, so be the person who does.

Tip 3: Sit-Up

It's hard to be an enthusiastic slouch.

Tip 4: Contrast your delivery style to the others

If the person speaking before you has gone on a rambling rant, do the opposite - hit your audience with a punchy one-liner and make a point of NOT elaborating on it (until you're asked). If the content is getting a bit technical and dry, pull people out of death by detail by telling a story. If the audience is looking bored, lighten it up with a joke (something self-deprecating is always a safe bet). If you hear BS call it out, just like Winnie Byanyima and Rutger Bregman did at Davos back in 2019.

On my programmes, this is what I call performance intelligence. It's about understanding what the audience needs at any given moment. In most cases, they need a pattern break - when the audience gets too comfortable they will switch off. A pattern break is the equivalent of a life raft that will pull your audience back into the conversation. 'But that's the moderator's job...' No, it's not. It's yours.

Tip 5: Master Transitions

When it's your turn to take the mic, see if you can connect your point to previous ones that have been made, it will make you come across more natural, and making this an intention will force you to listen which is a far better use of your time than trying to prepare your next answer. Make a point of speaking directly to the other panellists. Use their first names. Even ask them questions - you won't get a better opportunity. If you disagree with something that's said, use a transition statement like 'I know that X has put a case forward for Y happening, but actually, I think Z would be a more effective path to take. Let me explain why...'

Tip 6: How to Structure an Impromptu Answer for Impact

Position: What do you think?
Reason - Why do you think that way? 
Example - What does it remind you of?
Proposition - What should happen next?

This acronym is incredibly effective and is what you'll probably get taught if you ever do any media training. You're welcome :-).

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