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First-Time Panelist? Here's How to Make It Work for You.

Public speaking likely freaks you out. But establishing yourself as an expert can result in big wins. Here's how.
First-Time Panelist? Here's How to Make It Work for You.
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Being set up as an "expert" can backfire big time. You've probably seen this happen, yourself.

Related: How to Score Public Speaking Events to Grow Your Business

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson had just such a backfire moment during an interview with MSNBC reporter Katty Kay last fall. Asked whether he was claiming that the women accusing Donald Trump of sexual assault were lying, Carson went off the rails. "Stop, stop, stop. Stop!" he demanded. "Hey, can you turn her microphone off, please?" Big mistake.

On the other hand, being set up as an expert can result in huge wins. Recently, I spoke on a panel at ad:tech with Facebook’s head of data. The discussion was about how to leverage Facebook as a marketing channel, so I was immediately seen as a peer to the head of data at Facebook.

That’s the power public speaking can bring: The moment you’re on stage at an event, you’re seen as an expert; you’ve immediately established yourself. People naturally believe you know what you’re talking about, just because you’re out in front. (Exhibit A: After that panel, I was approached by a company that ended up spending several million dollars on Facebook advertising with my company.)

Preparation? Overrated

So, let's say your first panel discussion is coming up, and you’re freaking out. That’s understandable: Seventy-four percent of people suffer from speech anxiety. Couple that with off-the-cuff questions, and you may very well fumble at that first panel.

Related: 6 Ways to Communicate Confidence Even if You're Nervous

But a common rookie mistake is to prepare. Yes, you read that right: to prepare. A lot of first-time panelists rehearse, but I don’t think that's a good idea before a panel discussion because it’s too easy to over-prep. Then, you find yourself simply spouting a monologue rather than listening and responding to the other panelists. Big mistake No. 2.

Instead, join panels only where you can speak to the subject matter on the spot. If you’re not an expert and you can’t actually answer questions on the fly, you shouldn’t be on that panel; tou’re not an expert. You won’t come off as authentic, and that will hurt you more than it will help you. Authenticity is key.

But, take heart. Because while prepping beforehand may be useless, there are still things you can do to hit a home run at your first panel discussion:

1. Break the fourth wall. 

In a recent survey from Prezi, audience members at a panel admitted doing a lot of things other than paying attention. Twenty-eight percent said they texted; 27 percent checked email; and 17 percent even said they fell asleep.

You know you’ve done these things, too.

To combat these audience responses, I ask show-of-hands questions. An example is the time I was trying to prove that search-engine marketing doesn’t work for fashion: “Show of hands: Who here has recently Googled ‘t-shirt’ when they wanted to buy a t-shirt?” No one raised any hands, of course, which illustrated my point perfectly.

Remember, at the end of the day, your conversation is for the audience. When you’re talking to two people, you don’t exclude one just because the other asked a question. You include them both. Great panel discussions involve the panelists the moderator and the audience.

2. Embrace controversy. 

I was once part of a panel where the other panelists were giving a jewelry company terrible advice. They had no expertise in the area, but that didn't stop them: They were telling the jewelry entrepreneur to participate in gifting suites to get her product in front of people. Because companies are charged for that exposure and oversaturating kills ROI, this was terrible advice. And I said so.

That was a good thing, and not just because it saved that entrepreneur a lot of money. Controversy keeps the conversation interesting. When was the last time you enjoyed a conversation in which every person agreed 100 percent?

Of course, this doesn’t give you free rein to be a jerk. Don’t interrupt people and insist your opinion is the only right one. If you’re on a panel where you really belong, your expertise allows you to make statements such as, “I don’t agree, and here’s why . . . ” So, own it. There's no need for animosity or unprofessional behavior. Just don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re the only dissenting voice.

3. Stick around for questions. 

After a discussion, people are going to want to grab you and talk. So, let them.

One CEO has described how she saw 38 percent of her business come in from speaking at events. That’s a sizable chunk of business. But the potential goes even further: New connections can also lead to more press or new employees. After I spoke at the University of Southern California, I hired three new employees and formed a new business partnership -- just from that one discussion and the networking I did afterward.

Now, you can’t always be self-serving. Not every person who talks to you will be a valuable contact, but you owe each of these people your attention anyway. If someone approaches with a question that deserves a longer answer, offer to take the visitor's card and follow up later. Then you can decide whether you want to call or email to answer the question.

Don’t let opportunities slip away by disappearing immediately after the panel ends.

Related: How to Successfully Moderate a Panel

Panel discussions? They can be nerve-racking, all right, but they’re worth it. Besides receiving great exposure for your company and yourself, you’ll also meet new people and learn new things. And that's always a good thing.

And, hopefully, close some business while you’re at it.

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