Iesha Small

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10 tips for nervous panellists

Appearing on a panel to share your expertise or raise the profile of something important to you can be beneficial. It can be nerve racking if you don’t have much experience. Read on to find some tips.

I can’t remember my first panel appearance it was probably to a very supportive audience of peers and educators via a group I was part of called Hip Hop Ed. I do remember being extremely nervous and not really knowing how to do a good job.

Fast forward several years and I have appeared on panels on national TV and radio and in countless professional and personal settings covering a wide range of topics that were important to me. Later this week I’ll be appearing at The Festival of Education representing the Youth Endowment Fund on the topic of preventing peer abuse.

As I checked details about the event I wondered about the tips I wish somebody had given me when I first started being asked to appear on panels.

My top 10 tips for nervous panellists

1. You deserve to be there.

You have been asked to appear on a panel (or had your application accepted) because the organiser feels their audience will find your expertise useful. Organisers think carefully about speakers and ultimately want to put on a good show. Put that imposter syndrome in the bin.

2. Check that the topic reflects your expertise, knowledge and interest.

Before agreeing, you should have a good idea of the general topic of the panel. It should be something that you would feel comfortable discussing with somebody else 1-2-1. If not then you should probably decline.

3. Find out who else will be on the panel or at the wider event.

This is important. For in-person events there may be an industry expert you’ve wanted to connect with, if they are due to be on a panel with you, it’s a great way to build a relationship. I once agreed to a panel because it was on a topic that I cared about but also included tickets to an exclusive closed performance and Q&A at the National Theatre (which earned me many brownie points for Date Night).

It’s also helpful to know who is on the panel because there may be some people (due to the organisation or views they represent) that you may decide you do not wish to share a panel with. That’s ok too and it’s fine to politely decline on that basis.

4. Find out the questions ahead of time.

You’ll usually be introduced to the Chair and other panellists a few weeks in advance of the event. Closer to the event, the Chair often sends the questions out. If you haven’t received anything a week ahead it’s fine to prompt them or suggest some of your own if you wish and it makes you feel more comfortable. For the nervous among you this can help by reducing the uncertainty. A good chair will often check that you are comfortable with the questions being asked and can suggest alternatives if not.

On topics I know very well, I can often pre-empt what some of my fellow panellists may say given my knowledge of their organisation or them. In that case I try to think of a different slant or build on that opinion.

5. Consider how you can add value to the audience.

It’s natural to concentrate on what you want to get across but I’ve found it more helpful over time to ask who the audience will be and then understand what I have to say that can be of use to them.

Shifting the focus from yourself to the audience can help to reduce nerves and allow you to be more in the moment (perhaps this is a lesson I learnt from my previous life as a teacher and my time doing documentary story telling and participatory research).

6. Understand your organisation’s view.

If you are representing your organisation understand what their official position is (check internally ahead of time if you don’t know). If you are at a public event, particularly if it will be broadcast or recorded you need to represent this clearly (this is not the same as being boring!). There is some leeway on this with closed events such as roundtables or discussions with existing or future partners. If in doubt a) don’t say it or b) make it clear it’s your personal opinion.

7. Understand your own view.

If you could only say one statement to the audience on the topic of the panel what would it be? What do you want to leave them thinking and talking about afterwards and hopefully doing something about?

I had media training at work a few years ago and I remember our trainer mentioning the need to make one clear point per answer in under 2 minutes for broadcast interviews. Panels often have more scope and time but it’s still useful to consider the pure essence of your message. Especially for your closing remarks.

8. Notes are fine.

It’s not a memory test. Using notes on a panel is totally fine. You probably won’t use them once the conversation is underway but the preparation of them can help with your confidence.

9. If you are busy make sure you prep a little the night before.

Being a panellist isn’t your full time job. You have other things to do and earlier deadlines to meet. Even with the best of intentions, prep may be shoved down your to-do list. That’s fine, but I’ve found it useful to look at something no matter how small, the night before. Even if it’s only reading the questions and speaker instructions and deciding you’ll do more prep on the train.

The main reason is that sleep is a magical, mysterious, wonderful thing and generally my brain does a lot of work for me overnight that I’m not consciously aware of. So if pressed for time,15 mins prep the night before generally ends up being more valuable that 15 mins on the morning of the event.

10. Listen to panellists and audience members.

You’ll notice that I’ve given 9 tips so far and they’ve all been about what you should do ahead of the event. A successful panel appearance is mostly based on your knowledge and understanding of the topic you are speaking about, the audience you are speaking to and how you convey it. For added dynamism -and to make sure you are fully paying attention – it can be fun to weave responses to the other panellists answers into the responses you give.

To do that you really need to listen carefully and not be focused on yourself. I’ll often turn up at an event a bit early and talk to audience members if possible because sometimes answers can be tailored to some of their interests and that aids connection.

So there you go, 10 tips that have helped me improve as a panellist and that I hope will be of use to you. Variations of many of these tips have also helped me prepare for closed roundtables with ministers and policy makers, broadcast interviews and discussions with potential partners in private, public and charity sectors.

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10 tips for nervous panellists