Making The Most out of Sitting on Panels

Posted on Mar 3, 2010 | 89 comments


Many of us in the technology, media and VC world sit on panels at lot.  Many of them are painfully boring.  It’s a shame since it’s such a golden opportunity for you to build awareness with your audience for who you are and what you do.  And it’s a surprisingly great way to meet people in this industry who share the stage with you. (photo from left to right: me, QD3, Brian Solis, Chamillionaire, Ian Rogers and Brian Zisk – most of whom I got to know through Twiistup panels)

I have written about the topic of sitting on panels before.  I sat on two panels in the past week – once at LeadsCon (** see appendix if you’re interested in a back story here) and today at the America’s Growth Capital conference.  So it’s fresh on my mind.  Hope I won’t be too repetitive.

Here’s my views on how to maximize your time on stage:

Give (your contribution)

1. Educate – Your primary role on stage is to educate the audience.  People have paid good money to be at the show and often times it’s to hear people like you speak.  It’s your job to know thy audience.  And thy topic.  Try to find out in advance the make of of the people who will be attending.  Things to know: mix of entrepreneurs, big tech company execs, service providers, media people, VCs, etc.  It would be good to undertand size of companies.  Make sure you really try to get inside the minds of the audience so you speak about what you believe they will think is relevant.  Obviously it should be closely aligned with what the topic of the panel is.

Tip: On panels I believe it is OK for you (even as a panelist and not moderator) to say, “I want to understand whom I’m speaking to.  Can I get a show of hands for how many people are X?  Y?”

Tip: It is always a good idea to save time on the panel for audience questions.  This is the moderator’s job but it doesn’t hurt to ask (read: remind) them before hand if there will be audience Q&A at the end.

Tip: It is always a good idea to email the other participants in advance with topics of discussion and alert the moderator if you’re worried about the direction it might take.

Tip: Get the audience to respect you for your content contributions.  Make sure they know your name, your company and what you do.  No more.  Don’t oversell or over market.  It will always be viewed in the eyes of the audience as unbearable.  The exception in my mind is if the topic of the panel warrants you talking about how your business operates as part of the learning experience.  But try to make it a functional discussion rather than a marketing pamphlet.

2.  Entertain – It is also your job to entertain!  I’m sure not everybody will agree with me on this one.  But let’s face it, on most panels a large number of people in the audience are surfing the web, doing Tweets, checking email, playing with their iPhones, etc.  It’s because they’re BORED.  You can’t show up with your monotone voice and have a deeply intellectual discussion like you might over brandy and cigars.  You’re on stage! Show energy and enthusiasm.  If you’re capable of it show some wit.  (If you’re not, don’t try. Nothing worse than bombing).  If you’re a nervous speaker bring bullet point notes.  If you’re really nervous join Toastmasters.

3. Have a dialog – I find the most enjoyable panels are ones in which the panelists engage in a dialog.  The worst are the ones where the moderator just asks questions and you go down the line answering each one until the line of people are finished speaking.  When somebody on your panel makes a point to hesitate to politely ask them a question that let’s them clarify their point a bit.  You can also politely jump in with, “that’s a great point.  We had a similar experience …” but if you do this obviously be respectful that you’re not cutting them off too early.  Let them get enough air time first.  When you do this it’s also a good idea to not have a commentary to another person’s point where you then talk for 5 minutes.  It should just be a quick comment / thought.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little bit of friendly controversy.  That was always the rule when I lived in the UK.  A panel without controversy was boring and a wasted opportunity.  The audience always likes this a bit.  It spices things up and makes for great entertainment.  If you’re nervous about trying this then go to your fellow panelist before hand and try saying, “hey, do you mind if I try to add a bit of friendly controversy to the panel to get the debate going?  I’ll try my best to do it respectfully.”  Obviously if they prefer not to then don’t.  And, yes, I probably take a little bit too much license with this particular advice.

Get (what you get out of it):

1. Awareness of your brand – You get so much out of being a great speaker on a panel.  I highly recommend it to all companies.  You get to earn credibility as an expert in the topic area.  People at the conference become aware of who you are.  If you say clever things the attribute positive feelings about your company even if they don’t really know what you do.  It serves as a great conversation piece to meet people the rest of the conference.  People will say, “oh, I saw you speak on that panel.  I liked what you said about X.”  It’s a free ice breaker for the rest of the conference.  It’s “earned media.”

2. Business Cards of fellow panelists – Make sure to grab everybody’s business cards.  They’re mostly wired to expect that you’re going to ask so don’t be shy – even if they’re in a league above your pay grade (the best kind of panels).  One of the most surprising things I learned over the years is the kinship you build with other individuals when you simply shared the stage for an hour.  Particularly if you were articulate and made relevant points.  It really is a great way to get to know people.  My recommendation is if possible ask for the business cards before you start speaking.  Afterwards everybody rushes the stage so it’s harder.  If you all arrive a bit late and you don’t have time to grab cards then immediately when the panel ends ask for cards before the herd arrives.

3. Follow up! – Obvious, right?  You’d be surprised how few people do this.  I’ve gotten to know so many people over the years through panels.  At LeadsCon I sat on the panel with Saar Gur, one of my favorite people to spend time with when I’m in NorCal.  Well, maybe we got a bit too friendly on this panel ;-) But I actually first met Saar on a LAVA panel in LA.  Afterwards we exchanged cards.  I called him on my next trip to Palo Alto.  From there we just started to get to know each other.  At LeadCon we grabbed 2+ hours, which I really enjoyed.  I never would have known him were it not for the LAVA panel.  Tomorrow I’m going to see Aydin Senkut.  I first met Aydin at a DealMaker Media event where, you guessed it, we sat on a panel together.  I won’t bore you with a laundry list, you get the point.

Avoid:

1. Speaking on panels with too many members – This is a waste of your time.  I have a rule about this.  No more than 5 people on the panel.  I prefer 4.  If there’s more people then you’ll end up not talking much, there will be limited back-and-forth conversation and you won’t get to know anybody.  I find these panels to be low value add for all involved.

2. Over promotion of your company – For some people it’s tempting to be an marketing automaton.  Don’t.  You’re better off with the earned media and the relationships.  Nobody remembers many of the details of what is actually said in a panel discussion anyway.  But they remember the impression they formed of you.  People generally don’t like over promoters who don’t add to the discussion.

3. Long winded intro – I really like when the moderator asks people to limit intros to 30 seconds.  Nobody is there to be “educated” about your entire career history or have a long-winded description of your company in the intro.  Keep it short, sharp, punchy and high energy.

4. Hogging minutes – The other annoying thing on panels is the “over talker” or the person who always has to answer the question first (the way that annoying kid did back when you were in elementary and high school).  Don’t be a wall flower – you should get in your minutes.  But don’t crowd out other people.  If your goal is to sit on panels with important people and build a relationship with them you won’t achieve this by not letting them speak!  (you might think you won’t do this either by being controversial – I think if you learn to do controversy with humor and tact it’s OK.  Just my view.)  Also, when it’s your turn to speak don’t speak for too long in any one question.  People prefer snappy answers to questions.

5. Being a player / manager (aka moderator with an agenda) – Moderators are moderators, not panelists.  That’s why they gave you your own special title.  You’re not a player / manager – you’re a manager.  Understand your role.  Don’t answer your own questions or ask questions that are secretly statements to show how smart you are.  Earn respect of the audience be well thought through questions.  Keep panelists on their toes by not letting them speak too long on any one topic.  Try to get a discussion going amongst panelists.  Get the audience involved.  You are the conductor.  You control the tempo.

(Photo in the banner taken by (cc) Kenneth Yeung – http://www.thelettertwo.com).

  • RichardForster

    haha….I heard for Mark's next gig they were putting a cage on the side of the stage as well

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Great points. Thanks for adding. I agree with the online / offline synergy.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I usually stay afterward and “shake every hand and kiss every baby.” I think it comes with the territory of public speaking. That said, I know most panelists don't like to do this. Of the people who approach you after a speaking engagement off the stage usually 10-20% are value add and the rest are trying to sell you something. Still, I almost always stay until I've met the last ones standing in line.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    And I remember well your online picture from then! You wrote about it afterward and a memorable photo! Thanks for the comments – I appreciate the input.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    100%. Answered the question above also. I agree with that input. I always stay until the last person has left. And re: panels – I should say that I always liked you so much because I saw you speak on a panel and loved the way you spoke about things.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    For sure. I get a rush out of it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. I'm willing to disagree with points but never yell.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Chirag. It's an interesting idea. I love the idea of the moderator doing this. My only concern for panelists would be: 1) it looks to the audience like you're not paying attention and 2) there is some amount of attention that goes into checking the computer. During this time you're not showing respect for the other panelists speaking. I think this is a wonderful idea and I'm going to suggest it for my next panel. But I think I'll have the moderator managet it. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    OK, fair points. Thank you for the feedback. BTW, from my questions to the audience it seemed like they were interested in neither!

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    hi mark, great post

    i followed your lead and wrote some additional thoughts about panels on the AVC blog this morning'

    http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2010/03/panels.html

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Hi Mark

    Great post. I didn't have time to comment yesterday as I wished so here is what I just posted on Fred's:

    For an up-and-comer, any exposure is good exposure. So at this stage I can't really imagine saying no to a panel. (OK OK, maybe not the Mt. Kisco Rotary Club)

    But really, I'm not sure what the objective is of panels. If it's a quick smorgasbord for exposure to a new area or characters, it may be passably effective. If you want new and insightful info, not the place.

    Events which offer panel after panel over the course of a day or two, tend to (d)evolve toward an asympototic averageness. By the third one, everyone is saying the same thing and I'm sneaking out for another cup o' joe and to check voicemail. They're not set up to provoke or intrigue, but to lob out sweepingly acceptable statements.

    But what I really hate is events that charge ridiculous sums of money, that peons like me are supposed to shell that out? Extortion. And then we have to watch panels where we don't get any juice from any of the speakers? Yeah, right.

    Jason Calacanis has opined on paying to pitch. I extend that to this. There are plenty of good free events. A short while back I went on a moratorium on paid events. The effectiveness of my networking accelerated as a result.

    A neat trick is to pull down the list of speakers off the web, consider whether any of them are important to me, and figuring out whether I can tunnel in through a personal connection. Or start hanging out in their DISQUS comments.

    On the topic of networking, I wrote a post about it last night — the gal's perspective. Take a look if you're interested. http://terezan.tumblr.com/

  • Steve

    I agree with Andy. Panels are a waste of time. Rarely is it a one hour investment. Unless you happen to live in Las Vegas where your panel was held, you traveled there. That took precious time and money. No big deal for a high-flying VC, but a HUGE investment for an entrepreneur. All to spend one fraction of one hour in front of 20-50 totally unqualified prospects (partners, customers, investors, whatever). I do agree with your statement that no one ever remembers the panel or who was on it or what was said. Good point. Now, why isn't that a waste of time?

  • http://en-gb.facebook.com/people/Nicholas-Lovell/739651170 Nicholas Lovell

    Maybe it's because I'm British, but I seek out controversy. As a moderator, I try to find 4 panellists with two opposing views (3 on 1 seems a little unfair, though). I'm in games, so a boxed product games guy against a Facebook games guy, or similar.

    As a panellist, I look for provocative (but not offensive) statements that stimulate debate, both within the panel and within the audience. It's the same skill as being a blogger – use your limited time to provoke discussion. The value is in the dialogue, not the prepared patter.

  • http://www.startupboyo.com/ RichardForster

    haha….I heard for Mark's next gig they were putting a cage on the side of the stage as well

  • MichaelRattner

    When people say places like Silicon Valley will disappear, they're wrong. There's a networking event for something tech related every night of the week out here.

    The level of commitment required to network in the Bay Area is incredibly low.

  • http://uniquevisitor.net Jeff Pester

    @Andy / @Steve If you're attending events and your objective is to engage “qualified prospects (partners, customers, investors, whatever)”, then I understand why you have such a jaded viewpoint. You're attending with the wrong objective/attitude. Most of the value that I get from conferences, etc is not in the sessions or panels, but in the hallway/lunch areas.

    BTW, it would be nice if you guys would identify yourselves. I'd like to have a conversation with a someone who is capable of identifying themselves, especially when they're challenging the author and/or commenter. Seems like the right thing to do. My 2 cents.

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  • Steve

    I agree with Andy. Panels are a waste of time. Rarely is it a one hour investment. Unless you happen to live in Las Vegas where your panel was held, you traveled there. That took precious time and money. No big deal for a high-flying VC, but a HUGE investment for an entrepreneur. All to spend one fraction of one hour in front of 20-50 totally unqualified prospects (partners, customers, investors, whatever). I do agree with your statement that no one ever remembers the panel or who was on it or what was said. Good point. Now, why isn't that a waste of time?

  • MichaelRattner

    When people say places like Silicon Valley will disappear, they're wrong. There's a networking event for something tech related every night of the week out here.

    The level of commitment required to network in the Bay Area is incredibly low.

  • http://uniquevisitor.net Jeff Pester

    @Andy / @Steve If you're attending events and your objective is to engage “qualified prospects (partners, customers, investors, whatever)”, then I understand why you have such a jaded viewpoint. You're attending with the wrong objective/attitude. Most of the value that I get from conferences, etc is not in the sessions or panels, but in the hallway/lunch areas.

    BTW, it would be nice if you guys would identify yourselves. I'd like to have a conversation with a someone who is capable of identifying themselves, especially when they're challenging the author and/or commenter. Seems like the right thing to do. My 2 cents.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Panels … very boring to watch. I hate them. Never sit through them myself. That's why when I'm on one I try to keep it spicy. I go to conferences to sit in the hallways. You can usually do this without paying (conference hack!) although now that I'm not a scrappy startup guy I pay ;-)

    The reason to be on panels is that it helps to build credibility and you build bonds with other panel members. But it's important to sit on the right panels and to follow up afterward. I agree with Fred's point that it's better to have a speaking slot but that's not always possible.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Totally agree. After a decade in the UK I'm the same.

  • http://twitter.com/KurtyD Kurt Daradics

    Mark- Lately your posts have been so timely it's great.

    I'm moderating a panel next Monday at DigiMobile. 4:15pm Location Redux: Off the Phone and Into the Real World:

    Then I'm sitting on a panel for sxsw too next week.

    We have some more traction to report with CitySourced too. Looking forward to giving you the scoop next time we connect.

    peace

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Awesome, Kurt. Look forward to it.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/tereza Tereza

    Totally. Now I just need to get some invitations. But wait!! Should I be elbowing my way in? Is that what a guy does?? :-)

    Agree on the hallways point. There's an awesome NY serial entrepreneur whom I met at one of the big conferences here (which I hacked my way into). I observed him for hours standing by the exit to catch the key people as the came in or came out of their talks. He knew exactly who he wanted to talk to, and what he wanted to achieve in each conversation. Completely focused, on a mission. Little wonder the guys knows everyone on the planet, in a substantive way. The real deal.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Panels … very boring to watch. I hate them. Never sit through them myself. That's why when I'm on one I try to keep it spicy. I go to conferences to sit in the hallways. You can usually do this without paying (conference hack!) although now that I'm not a scrappy startup guy I pay ;-)

    The reason to be on panels is that it helps to build credibility and you build bonds with other panel members. But it's important to sit on the right panels and to follow up afterward. I agree with Fred's point that it's better to have a speaking slot but that's not always possible.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Totally agree. After a decade in the UK I'm the same.

  • http://twitter.com/KurtyD Kurt Daradics

    Mark- Lately your posts have been so timely it's great.

    I'm moderating a panel next Monday at DigiMobile. 4:15pm Location Redux: Off the Phone and Into the Real World:

    Then I'm sitting on a panel for sxsw too next week.

    We have some more traction to report with CitySourced too. Looking forward to giving you the scoop next time we connect.

    peace

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Awesome, Kurt. Look forward to it.

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Totally. Now I just need to get some invitations. But wait!! Should I be elbowing my way in? Is that what a guy does?? :-)

    Agree on the hallways point. There's an awesome NY serial entrepreneur whom I met at one of the big conferences here (which I hacked my way into). I observed him for hours standing by the exit to catch the key people as the came in or came out of their talks. He knew exactly who he wanted to talk to, and what he wanted to achieve in each conversation. Completely focused, on a mission. Little wonder the guys knows everyone on the planet, in a substantive way. The real deal.

  • vincethompson

    Great post. Thanks Mark. I'm moderating a few panels this week and just fired if off to my fellow participants.

  • vincethompson

    Funny…just read Kurty D's post. I'll report back on how he does and he can do the same for me…:-)

  • vincethompson

    Great post. Thanks Mark. I'm moderating a few panels this week and just fired if off to my fellow participants.

  • vincethompson

    Funny…just read Kurty D's post. I'll report back on how he does and he can do the same for me…:-)

  • http://www.leadcritic.com/ Mike

    Mark,

    Great post!

    I happen to be at the LeadsCon session and actually saw your tweet stating you were at the MGM. Let me get to the point: Typical panels like this are often very boring. Not because there is no value, but simply because they are extremely dry. I applaud you for taking the initiative and getting the panel on track, it was the right thing to do.

    People saying you are ADD is kind if silly, knowing that you practically sprinted to the session.

    Bottom line, good post and good panel.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Mike. Nice to get the feedback.

  • http://www.leadcritic.com/ Mike

    Mark,

    Great post!

    I happen to be at the LeadsCon session and actually saw your tweet stating you were at the MGM. Let me get to the point: Typical panels like this are often very boring. Not because there is no value, but simply because they are extremely dry. I applaud you for taking the initiative and getting the panel on track, it was the right thing to do.

    People saying you are ADD is kind if silly, knowing that you practically sprinted to the session.

    Bottom line, good post and good panel.

  • http://www.leadcritic.com/ Mike

    Mark,

    Great post!

    I happen to be at the LeadsCon session and actually saw your tweet stating you were at the MGM. Let me get to the point: Typical panels like this are often very boring. Not because there is no value, but simply because they are extremely dry. I applaud you for taking the initiative and getting the panel on track, it was the right thing to do.

    People saying you are ADD is kind if silly, knowing that you practically sprinted to the session.

    Bottom line, good post and good panel.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Mike. Nice to get the feedback.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Mike. Nice to get the feedback.

  • http://www.mireportaje.com Fotos

    Answered the question above also. I agree and with that input. I always stay until the last person has left. And re: panels – I should say that I always liked you so much because I saw you speak on a panel and loved the way you spoke about things.