When I receive RSVPs from experts invited to take part in a conference panel session, the replies typically smell of:

•Excitement: for having a new platform where they can contribute their ideas and thoughts.
•Validation: of their position within their respected industries.
•And nervousness:which is not entirely unexpected.

To prepare, panelists will make sure they know the questions, and design the subsequent answers well in advance. But that is not enough to generate a memorable impression on the audience, which many forget is the ultimate success factor of any moderated discussion.

To help you become an engaging panelist, the first thing you should know is that there are no rules!

However, here are my 5 top tips on helping you engage the audience and guarantee future invitations:

1.Your Moderator is your best friend. You would be surprised at how many panelists rock up to their sessions without having the faintest idea of what to expect. A good Moderator will have taken you through the questions, the format and any other special considerations a couple of weeks before you take the stage. This is also important to create some rapport before the session because you can’t fake chemistry. If you have not been contacted by the Moderator, ask the conference organizer to connect you.

2.Design your own questions. Remember, it’s a discussion, not an interview! Even though it is the Moderator’s job to design the questions, there’s nothing stopping you from proposing your own questions (to show you in the best light). For example, if you are partaking in a panel about Workplace Competencies, and your company has launched a gamification initiative to up-skill employees, then go ahead and ask the Moderator to question you about that.

3.Incorporate your audience’s views. Chat with some of the audience members prior to taking the stage. Hear their views, and when the time comes during the panel, reference them. For example, you can say “I was talking to Sami from the Red Company about this during the break, and he thinks that the industry is actually going in the other direction”. This benefits you in a couple of ways: first of all, you are regarded as someone who is agile and up to speed on the market, and second of all it gets the audience to lean in and look forward to other live updates (who doesn’t like to be referenced among their peers?)

4.Disrupt the conversation. Because most panels end with an audience Q&A, attendees at an unengaging panel become complaisant and practically zone out until the floor is opened to their questions. Work with the Moderator to take questions during the panel to keep the audience (and the other panelists) on their toes. Additionally, this is one of the best time management techniques because it allows you to engage the audience while ending the segment on your term, instead of what usually happens which is dedicating the last 10 minutes or so to questions and then running the risk of going overtime or having the audience feel left out.

5.Be inquisitive. Some of the best panels I have moderated are ones where panelists probed one another. Debate is highly encouraged because it gives the audience the variety of views that they have come to hear (nobody wants to listen to a group of people who are all in agreement). The next time a fellow panelist says something intriguing, pursue it. Leave it to the Moderator to manage this debate so that it’s both enlightening and entertaining.

Successful panels always put the audience’s interest first, which is taking away as much knowledge and views as possible from a panel of experts. And remember, the only rules are those that you make, so make them to your own advantage.

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