How to prepare for a panel

By: Andrés Oliveros

If you develop an expertise, others will appreciate learning from you. Participating in a panel is a good way to share some of these hard-earned insights.

In this article, I want to share some ideas on how to better prepare yourself for that moment. In some ways, this post is very similar to this other where I shared suggestions on how to prepare for a TED-style talk: both aim to help you stand out in real communication situations.

The power of focusing in real scenarios

When was the last time you tried to learn a language? For me, that happened in 2011 when I started Italian classes. My plan, before opening Astrolab, was to pursue a Ph.D. in constitutional history at the University of Pisa.

I remember that in my first week of classes, this Italian lady asked us to imagine a real-life scenario:

You’re in a restaurant. How do you order food? Go.

The brain, so it seems, learns better when faced with real situations. The path to becoming more influential is very similar. Learning storytelling and persuasion tools without having a specific scenario in mind can be unproductive and abstract.

That’s why Matt Abrahams’ book Think Faster, Talk Smarter (2023) seemed so relevant to me.

Abrahams, a professor of strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business since 2011, devotes the entire second part of his book to providing clues on how to navigate real-life situations:

  • Small talk
  • Toasts, tributes, introductions
  • Pitches
  • Q&A Sessions
  • Feedback
  • Apologies

The panel is another real situation—less common, but also important in the professional context.

Panels in your career

For those in more public roles, participating in a panel can be an important opportunity to build your personal brand but also as a way of sharing with others.

Typically, panels exist at events such as:

  • Annual business or leadership meetings in a large organization
  • IT, HR, or finance conventions
  • Specialized congresses in your industry (medicine, supply chain, marketing)

In a panel, two or three people with similar experiences are interviewed by a moderator, and then they collectively answer questions from the audience. Unlike a keynote, a panel usually has a more relaxed setting, and it’s an excellent way to work on your public speaking skills without having to give a full lecture or talk.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to participate as a panelist in two conferences:

  • Adelante, organized by the Latino Student Organization of Harvard Business School
  • Whalac, organized by various Latino associations at Wharton, the business school of the University of Pennsylvania

 

I’ll spend the rest of this blog post sharing some insights on how to prepare better for a panel. I hope they’re relevant for you!

How to prepare for a panel

1. Do your research

Once you accept the invitation to participate in a panel, spend time learning more about the event (look, for example, for past versions of the same conference), about the audience, and about the other panel guests.

And perhaps a bit more: What is the dress code? What other events has the team organized? Where would the panel take place (physically)?

Whalac was going to be an in-person event, and it would take place at the incredible Harrison Auditorium, part of the Penn Museum.

Next, your job is getting to know the moderator and the panelists. A few weeks before Whalac, I received an email from the organizer, copying the moderator and the other two panelists. That email sparked an online meeting where the four of us could get to know each other.

There, I discovered that the other two panelists were fintech experts. Each of us brought up two or three topics we would like to discuss in relation to the central theme. That helped ensure that our contributions were complementary rather than repetitive.

The Adelante event was online. Prior to it, I dedicated time to check my internet connection, my microphone, the external camera, and coordinated with my wife to ensure the children were relatively quiet (it was on a Saturday).

How to prepare for a panel

2. Get the questions

Ideally, get the questions you’re going to be asked beforehand. The most typical approach is to ask the moderator about this: usually, the answer is yes, gladly. They also prepare themselves by doing research on you.

If you don’t have them or couldn’t talk to the other panel participants before the event, you have two sources of information: the panel title / conference title, and your particular expertise. What topics lie in between? Why were you invited? That’s where the questions will likely go (hopefully).

The email with the Whalac’s panel questions. Neat!

3. Work on your intro

Both at Adelante and at Whalac, the moderators asked us to introduce ourselves personally. In both spaces, I spoke about my transition from law to Astrolab, my decision to study a master’s at Penn, and my interest in bringing Astrolab to the United States.

Personally, I have the habit of writing down what I’m going to say. That helps me calm my anxiety and feel more prepared. In my notes, I still have the presentations I used in each panel, and I see that on average they have 126.5 words (less than a minute of speaking):

Cómo prepararte para un pánel

Both my intros

4. Structure your answers as PERAs 

Regardless of whether you have the questions or not, prepare some ideas you want to share. In political debates, there’s a practice where the candidate will answer whatever they want, seldom addressing the moderator’s question. Try to avoid this and focus on giving a clear answer.

You have to be concise and at the same time structured. That’s why PERA is a great tool to use in a panel.

PERA is an acronym that stands for Point, Example, Reason, Action (or Insight). PERA is a wonderful storytelling tool that we teach in our storytelling for influence workshops and, I would say this on the record, will solve between fifty and eighty percent of your storytelling needs at work.

Once the Whalac moderator sent us the questions, I prepared five PERAs. Here’s one of my responses, which addressed the question: “How to do better marketing for Latinos in the United States?”

  • (Point) Marketing has to be authentic if it wants to resonate with Latinos.
  • (Example) Last year, Modelo Especial launched a campaign called “The mark of a fighter.” While the Modelo Especial marketing team was working on the script for an ad about a grandmother making tortillas from scratch, the company’s lawyers sent a note: let’s show the grandmother flipping the tortilla with tongs instead of using her fingers. The marketing team resisted, arguing that the commercial should represent authentic traditions. The ad aired with the subtitle “Do not attempt.” Win!
  • (Reason) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Modelo Especial was the top-selling beer retail-wise (not by volume) in the United States this 2023, according to WSJ. The marketing team understood that people are good at making automatic judgments about the authenticity of a message, and they pushed back with legal when necessary.
  • (Insight) While we wait for more Latinos to be at the decision-making table, those in charge of this function need to take the issue of authenticity seriously.

5. Make sure your delivery energizes

Conferences are usually long and kind of overwhelming.

My penultimate suggestion is to monitor the energy of your audience and act accordingly.

Think about this: What time is your panel? What day? How many sessions will there be before?

These questions will help you decide how much energy and humor you need to use to maintain your audience’s attention.

Right before the Whalac panel where I participated, someone in the audience said, “I’m falling asleep, I need coffee” (in their defense, it was 2:30 PM). That helped me determine the appropriate level of humor (present), volume (medium-high!), and energy (high and positive!).

Me having a blast

6. Don’t make up stuff

There comes a moment when space opens up for attendees to ask questions. These questions can be directed to the entire panel or just one of the panelists.

Regardless of whether they ask you or not, tell the truth. If you don’t know the answer, smile and say you don’t have that information. You might lose momentum, but it’s better to stay silent and say you can answer later, via email.

What other suggestions am I missing?

I’d love to hear from you!

About the author

Andrés Oliveros

CoFounder

Andrés le ayuda a líderes a aumentar su influencia usando storytelling - LinkedIn Top Voice 💬


Date:
16 de February de 2024

Category:
Learning


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