Panel Despite my intention not to blog tonight, I cannot resist.

Today I moderated a very good panel at a conference, and while this experience is fresh in my mind, I want to explain how to kick butt on a panel. At any given conference, there are about three keynote speakers and twenty five panelists, so the odds are much higher that you’ll be a panelist than a keynote speaker. Thus, I hope this entry appeals to a broader audience.

Superficially, a panel looks easy. There are four or five other people on it–all of whom you think you’re smarter than–and it only lasts sixty minutes. How hard could it be? Herein lies the problem: everyone thinks a panel is easy so they don’t take it seriously. A panel is actually a better opportunity to position yourself than a keynote because you are juxtaposed to four or five people in real time–whereas keynotes are sequential. If you want to stand head and shoulders above the other panelists, here’s what to do:

  1. Know the subject. I hope you’re getting as tired of duhisms as I am, but this needs to be said. If you’re invited to a panel on wireless security, and you don’t know much about the subject, then you should decline. I don’t care how wonderful the opportunity seems to be. If you can help it, never provide an audience the opportunity to truly know that you’re clueless.
  2. Control your introduction. The first mistake that most panelists make is that they assume the moderator has an up-to-date and accurate bio. Odds are that the moderator either knows nothing about you or has done a Google search and printed a bio that is inaccurate. Before the panel starts, hand the moderator a three sentence description of who you are and tell her to read it verbatim.
  3. Speak up. The optimal distance between your lips and the microphone is one inch. You’re sitting down. You’re hunched over. You’re not projecting. So get close to the mike and speak up. Assume there’s a fifty-one years old geezer in the back with a hearing aid like me.
  4. Entertain, don’t just inform. As in keynotes, the your goal is to entertain, not only inform. The funnier you are, the more people will think you’re smart because it takes great intelligence to be funny. I’d go so far as to pick a friendly fight with the moderator or another panelist. Let it rip. Have fun. Think of a panel as friendly, though emotional, conversation in front of 500 of your closest friends.
  5. Tell the truth, especially when the truth is obvious. If you’re lucky, and there’s a good moderator, that moderator will try to pin you to the wall with tough, embarrassing questions. This is a good thing because it provides an opportunity to (a) be funny and (b) show that you’re a straight shooter. “The truth will get you glee.” If everybody knows the truth, don’t even try to fudge. It would be far better to say, “I take the 5th amendment.” That will get a laugh.
  6. Answer the question that’s posed, but never limit yourself to the question that’s posed. When asked a question, answer the question (unless you have to take the 5th). Answer it as fast as possible, but then feel free to take the conversation in a direction that you want. For example, let’s say that the moderator asks, “Do you think cell phones will get viruses soon?” It’s perfectly okay to answer, “Yes, I think this is an issue, but the real issue that faces most of use is the lack of good cell phone coverage,” if that’s what you really want to talk about.
  7. Be plain, simple, and short. Let’s assume you are on a panel of experts. Let’s further assume the moderator is an expert. The moderator asks a question. You think that you’re answering her and the other panelists–all experts, so you launch into alphabet soup, acronym du jour. Big mistake. The audience is, well, the audience. Not the moderator nor the panelists. Reduce the most complex and technical issues to something plain, simple, and short, and you’ll position yourself as (a) unselfish and (b) a star.
  8. Never look bored. This may be one of the hardest aspects of a panel. Let’s say the other panelists launch into a long, boring, jargon-filled response. The temptation is to whip out a Blackberry at worst or to look bored at best. Don’t do it. Fake rapt interest because the moment you look bored, a photographer is going to snap a picture or the camera man is going to put your face on the ten foot screen. You’ve go it made if you can fake sincerity. :-)
  9. Never look at the moderator. The moderator is asking the questions, but he is merely a proxy for the audience. When you answer, don’t look at the moderator. Look at the audience because the audience doesn’t want to see the side of your head. (FYI, a good moderator will not make eye contact with you–forcing you to look away from him and look at the audience.) (Someday I may write an entry about how to be a good moderator because most people incorrectly think it’s so easy to be one.)
  10. Never say, “I agree with (name of previous panelist).” A moderator will often ask everyone to answer the same question. If you’re not the first one to answer, there’s the temptation to say, “I agree with what my colleague just said…” That’s a dumbass response. Come up with something different, and if you’re not quick enough on your feet to do this, don’t go on the panel. At the very least say, “I think that question has been answered. For the audience’s sake, let’s move on.”

Yours, in moderation,


Written at: Atherton, California.