How to Kick Butt On a Panel

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,

Guy

Written at: Atherton, California.

By | 2016-10-24T14:29:22+00:00 January 18th, 2006|Categories: Pitching and Presenting|32 Comments

About the Author:

Guy Kawasaki is the chief evangelist of Canva, an online graphic design tool. Formerly, he was an advisor to the Motorola business unit of Google and chief evangelist of Apple. He is also the author of The Art of Social Media, The Art of the Start, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, Enchantment, and nine other books. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.

32 Comments

  1. What Is New January 18, 2006 at 11:55 pm - Reply

    Public relations, standing ovations and more advice

    Have you ever gone through your RSS reader and stopped at one particular blog feed because the person…

  2. Martin Oetting January 19, 2006 at 12:30 am - Reply

    “It’s perfectly okay to answer, “Yes, I think this is an issue, but the real issue that faces…“” – I don’t know, I always thought people annoying who would answer like that, because it seemed like they aren’t really responding to the issue? If someone says “Yes, I think that’s an issue”, I’d personally want to know how that person intends to deal with that isse. But generally, thanks again for an immensely helpful post!

  3. Javier Cabrera (ClearYourMind) January 19, 2006 at 4:45 am - Reply

    Great article, but I will love to see an example of point number five, Entertain, don’t just inform.
    I’m a fun guy, but when it comes to be entertain I’m terrible; people will start trowing things to me and they may chase me to my car to beat me, so I won’t be doing that, but for the habit of seeing and reading examples,
    I will love to see some “guerrilla-instant” examples to be performed when the audience is so quiet you can even heard them breathe.
    As always, you keep making me think new things Guy!

  4. Job Secrets Revealed weblog January 19, 2006 at 4:55 am - Reply

    New ideas for panel interviews

    Guy Kawasaki has written some great tips on how to kick butt on a panel but I think some of his ideas translate perfectly for dealing with panel interviews as well you decide:
    Let the Good Times Roll by Guy Kawasaki: How to Kick Butt On a…

  5. Lady January 19, 2006 at 7:09 am - Reply

    extremely interesting article and blog…will visit again. 🙂

  6. panlibus January 19, 2006 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Library 2.0, and what not to do on panels

    Guy Kawasaki, Technology Evangelist number 1, writes in a post to his new and (so far) extremely interesting blog; “Never say, ‘I agree with (name of previous panelist).’” Good advice, to be sure, and I’d normally agree with him….

  7. Marty Fahncke January 19, 2006 at 8:40 am - Reply

    Great comments Guy! I’ve moderated dozens of panels over the years, with a wide range of quality in the panelists. In the future, I’ll be providing your post to every one of my panelists! It should go a long way to helping me, them, and most important, the AUDIENCE!

  8. Kendall January 19, 2006 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    With regards to the funny factor. I know that i’m definitely more apt to be engaged in a presentation or panel discussion if there is some humor involved, but unfortunately some people just aren’t funny. Would it be worse to try to shoe-horn in some humor if you’re just not a funny person. That generally feels really contrived and almost always leave everyone, including the speaker, in an awkward moment.

  9. Doug Fleener January 19, 2006 at 3:11 pm - Reply

    Great tips. Last year I was on a panel discussion at CES and they asked each of us to do a brief introduction. When we go to the fifth person I knew we were in trouble when he announced he had put together a “short” PowerPoint about what his company does. Not surprisingly, by the end of the session I believe there were more people on the panel than in the audience. Obviously the panelist shouldn’t have done it and the moderator should have stopped it.
    In regards to the tips, I would add more. Be passionate. I’m amazed at the number of panelist who actually seem bored with the topic. If you can’t be passionate about the topic then don’t be on the panel. It’s funny how some of the most passionate panelist are also the most entertaining. Hmmm.

  10. olivier blanchard January 19, 2006 at 5:25 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the killer posts this week, Guy. These are dead-on-target! Definitely being prepared, formulating clear answers, keeping it short and speaking to the audience work super well. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to use humor in a number of public appearances, and that’s always been a huge plus.

  11. scotthodge.org January 19, 2006 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    How To Kick Butt On a Panel

    I’m really enjoying Guy Kawasaki’s blog… He had a great post this past Wednesday on how to kick butt on a panel. It’s good stuff! Here are his 10 suggestions: Know the subject. Control your introduction Speak up Entertain, don’t

  12. Servant of Chaos January 20, 2006 at 4:21 am - Reply

    I also like “get in quick and answer some early questions”. There is nothing worse than being in the audience and watching someone who has nothing to say. Comedians often “die” on stage, but panelists suffering “panel-fright” are rarely asked again.

  13. Servant of Chaos January 20, 2006 at 4:41 am - Reply

    First Derek Story

    When I was at high school I had a great mathematics teacher called Derek Long. He was a man for whom every equation held a story — and the story hardly ever related to science — it was always a

  14. Faruk Ateş January 20, 2006 at 6:53 am - Reply

    Good read, Guy. All very good suggestions.
    This will definitely help me on my first panelling gig, which will be at the upcoming SXSW Interactive conference. Good place to start, right? 😉
    Moderating is, if you ask me, far more difficult than just being part of the panel. It takes a great deal more focus, as you need to pay attention to time (don’t let one panelist have a 10-minute monologue), the audience (who’s next for a question?) and the panelists (who could answer this best, who seems to have an answer ready?) — and so much more. Plus, you need to know the subject matter at least as well as the panelists do, in most cases.

  15. Brian's Blog January 20, 2006 at 7:22 am - Reply

    Kawasaki on panels

    Guy Kawasaki makes a few interesting points about getting the most from speaking on a panel:
    1. Know the subject.
    2. Control your introduction.
    3. Speak up.
    4. Entertain, dont just inform.
    5. Tell the truth, especially when the truth …

  16. Steve Dispensa January 20, 2006 at 9:04 am - Reply

    I agree with Kendall. 🙂
    It’s a bad idea for un-funny people to try to be funny. Humor takes good timing and good taste, and lots of practice. Bad humor makes the audience uncomfortable on your behalf. Not a good outcome.

  17. BobM January 20, 2006 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    I certainly won’t argue with #3, “Speak Up,” but putting your mouth one inch from most mikes is a great way to subject your audience to those exquisitely annoying blasts that come from the plosive letters “p” and “b.” Personally, being not too far from geezerhood myself, I hate those far more than having to listen hard to catch a quiet talker.
    Most mikes are cardioids, and are most sensitive to what they’re pointing directly at. Unless the PA gain is set way low, you should be able to be heard just fine while six to eight inches from the mike. If not, bug the audio guy.

  18. Dan January 21, 2006 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    How ’bout a follow-up on how to be a great moderator?

  19. Beaconfire Wire January 25, 2006 at 9:59 am - Reply

    Kawasaki’s Tips for Conference Speakers

    Beaconfire is once again co-sponsoring NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference. This year, the keynote speaker is Guy Kawasaki, a well-known Silicon Valley innovator. With plenty of time before the conference, Guy has helpfully blogged tips for conferen…

  20. Carolyn Elefant January 25, 2006 at 10:55 am - Reply

    Generally, these are good tips, but I don’t agree with the recommendation No. 5 – “answer the question, but don’t limit yourself.” I have always hated when politicians do that in debate and I don’t like it on panels either. In fact, that’s why I hate going to panel talks in general – no one gets enough time and everyone on the panel wants to talk about their interest rather than what the audience wants to hear.

  21. Beaconfire Wire January 25, 2006 at 12:51 pm - Reply

    Kawasaki’s Tips for Conference Speakers

    Beaconfire is once again co-sponsoring NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference. This year, the keynote speaker is Guy Kawasaki, a well-known Silicon Valley innovator. With plenty of time before the conference, Guy has helpfully blogged tips for conferen…

  22. Anders Kyhlstedt January 28, 2006 at 7:36 am - Reply

    “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.”
    Please do; I would love to read it!
    /Anders

  23. SXSW Baby! January 30, 2006 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    Panelists: This one’s for you

    Concise, good advice for anyone moderating or speaking on a SXSW panel: How to kick butt on a panel. Courtesy of Guy Kawasaki, who knows a thing or two about butt-kicking.

  24. anonymous coward February 4, 2006 at 8:45 am - Reply

    great stuff, but i agree with carolyn’s dislike of number 5. as a journalist and moderator, i constantly deal with speakers who segue into pet topics. if i am writing about it, i edit it out; if i’m moderating, i bring them back on topic or cut to another speaker. speakers who dislike the thread should explicitly and honestly propose new ones, rather than try that tired old segue trick.

  25. Chris Edwards March 3, 2006 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    I’m curious about the eye contact thing: do you mean, never make eye contact with the moderator or just when speaking? Or is this point only aimed at panels where the moderator is asking all the questions rather than having questions from the audience?
    I’ve done quite a few now, and if you are taking questions from the audience as part of the mix, you absolutely need some level of eye contact with panelists – just not the one in full flow at that moment. As a moderator, if you’ve got someone ready to disagree with a point being made, you want to know who that is. Although, I admit, you can pick up a lot of that by body language if people on the panel aren’t sticking their hand up or looking at you – that lunge for the mike seems almost instinctive.
    On the subject of guerilla presentations, I have had the lucky happenstance where, because not everyone wanted to do a presentation on what was to be a position-statement-plus Qs panel, everyone decided they would really rather do it as a Q&A only. It made quite a difference to the more regular where everyone thinks they will make a splash by trying to hold on to the mike for longer than their alloted three or five minutes.

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  27. kelly April 10, 2006 at 1:45 am - Reply

    I certainly won’t argue with #3, “Speak Up,” but putting your mouth one inch from most mikes is a great way to subject your audience to those exquisitely annoying blasts that come from the plosive letters “p” and “b.” Personally, being not too far from geezerhood myself, I hate those far more than having to listen hard to catch a quiet talker.
    Most mikes are cardioids, and are most sensitive to what they’re pointing directly at. Unless the PA gain is set way low, you should be able to be heard just fine while six to eight inches from the mike. If not, bug the audio guy.

  28. Richard May 1, 2006 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    I have followed Guy’s advice for many years and have the highest respect for him. These are great notes… but let’s keep ageism out of it… 51 does not a geezer make…
    Other than that, these are words to live by.

  29. AbbAcuccio October 20, 2006 at 8:01 am - Reply

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  30. Acronym December 11, 2006 at 4:50 am - Reply

    Panel discussions 101

    Nearly every conference has them: the dreaded panel discussion. And although there are many brave association professionals out there finding new and better ways to educate their members, the fact is that sometimes a panel discussion really is the best…

  31. The Net-Savvy Executive January 31, 2007 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    TIMA social media panel in Raleigh, 2/21

    On February 21, I’ll be moderating a panel on listening to social media at the Triangle Interactive Marketing Association meeting in Raleigh, NC. It’s an important topic that more people need to understand, even if it’s not the easiest topic…

  32. The Security Catalyst February 25, 2007 at 8:28 am - Reply

    Good explanation of why panels suck – and what to do about it

    It struck me as a fitting follow-up to the reader question from the other day and the subsequent discussion on the catalyst community forum (registration required, please use: Firstname.Lastname when making a new account).A lot of us are plain unhappy …

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