5 Questions You Must Ask Before Speaking on a Panel

The email invitation arrives.

“We would love to have you as a member on a panel we will be organizing for this event.”

Yes! You have been working to boost your presence as a thought leader in your industry. You’ve been hitting the Twitter waves, writing blog posts, and following other thought leaders. You know that speaking engagements are an important part of building your personal brand, but you do not feel quite ready for a keynote address or solo speech. A panel discussion where you are one among a few others will be the perfect introduction to public speaking.

Or so you think.

Although panel discussions are less intensive to prepare for than solo speaking engagements, they are not as easy as some people think. You still need to prepare if you want to shine, and panel discussions come with their own set of perils.

To avoid these perils and be prepared to wow the audience, here are five questions you should know the answers to before you take the stage.

1. Who is going to be in the audience?

When you engage in any kind of public speaking, you want to know who you are addressing. This rule holds for panel discussions as well. You want the audience to be engaged, not bored. You want them to be tweeting your great tidbits of advice, not texting their friends about dinner plans. You want them clapping, not yawning. To get these kind of results, you need to speak about topics and ideas that are relevant and interesting to the audience.

For panel discussions, do not assume the makeup of the audience based on the name of the event or topic of the panel. Ask the organizers who they expect to attend the event and what they believe the audience wants to gain from the discussion.

For example, let’s say the panel discussion is on social media marketing in the tourism industry. An audience of tourism professionals looking to use social media to draw tourists to their destinations will have different interests than an audience of social media influencers looking to be hired by those professionals. If you know ahead of time what the make up of the audience will be, then you can tailor your answers to address their interests. You will keep their attention and get them tweeting your name.

2. Who else will be on the panel?

If you are not told ahead of time, make sure you find out who you will be sitting with on the panel. Once you have the panelists names, do your research. Check out their LinkedIn profile to brush up on their professional background. Visit their personal or company website. Follow them on Twitter to see what interests them enough to share with their followers.

Knowing about your fellow panelists has several benefits. First, when you arrive at the event, you are more likely to recognize them. You then can introduce yourself and establish a little rapport before speaking. Second, you will be better able to assess which questions the panelists will want to answer. Deciding who answers a question asked by the moderator can be one of the most awkward moments of a panel. Everyone looks around, trying to be polite, and meanwhile the audience is waiting for a response! If you understand your expertise compared to others, then you can feel more comfortable jumping in to answer a question.

Finally, you can impress your fellow panelists by giving them a shout-out on stage. For example, you could reference an article they have written or a specific accomplishment. Your fellow panelist will be impressed that you know your stuff and pleased that you promoted them to the audience!

3. How Will the Panelists Be Seated on Stage?

Whenever you are presenting, you want the audience to be focused on what you are saying. You want to avoid having your actions distract from your content. One of the most common distractions is a speaker’s wardrobe. If you are fussing with your clothes or uncomfortable in your outfit, the audience likely will notice. When planning what to wear for the panel, ask about the seating arrangements. As a panelist, you may be sitting in a low chair or on a high stool. You could be seated at a table or have nothing in front of you. These details matter when it comes to planning your wardrobe.

If you are going to be seated on a high stool, then, ladies, you may not want to wear a skirt. No need to be stressed about whether your skirt is the appropriate length when you are trying to deliver great content. The seating arrangements also may put a spotlight on your shoes and socks. Don’t neglect this part of your outfit! Present a polished and professional outfit that you feel comfortable wearing so the audience can focus on you and not your clothes.

4. What Questions or Topics Will Be Covered?

Just as you shouldn’t assume the make up of the audience, you should not assume the questions that will be asked. The title of the panel discussion does not always reflect the moderator’s questions. Ask your contact for the event what questions or topics the moderator plans to cover. This specificity should prompt your contact to ask the moderator, as opposed to give you what she believes will be covered.

Even if you know the topic backward and forward, the moderator may plan a few unusual questions that you want to prepare for. You also may want to come ready to share statistics or facts relevant to the questions. Doing so will boost your credibility in the eyes of the audience. It also can provide great “tweet-able” soundbites.

5. Do You Need to Prepare an Introduction?

Will Rogers was right. First impressions can be everything. The audience’s first impression of you when you’re on a panel often is your introduction. Sometimes the moderator will introduce you and other times you will be responsible for introducing yourself. Either way, you want to be ready to make a favorable, lasting impression.

If the moderator is going to be introducing you, provide him or her with the intro you would like. Rather than relying on their Google search of you, craft the introduction that will be most impressive and interesting to the audience. The moderator likely will appreciate not having to write the material themselves.

If you have to introduce yourself, you want to know that ahead of time. Write out your introduction and check to make sure you are highlighting experience relevant to the audience and topic. Practice your introduction so you can really wow the audience from the get-go. Instead of starting with “Well . . . okay . . . “ you want to skip the filler words and make a strong first impression.

Once you know these details to the panel discussion, you will be well on your way to a great public speaking experience. You can be comfortable and prepared on stage. You can provide content that is engaging and relevant to the audience. You can be the panelists that shines. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more invitations to join other panels after making such a great impression!