People often lament that in-person conference panels are dull, lifeless and confusing, even though the best experts might be at the table and the discussion topic might be compelling. This problem is magnified at the time of publication, as so many conferences and panel discussions are going virtual in light of the risk presented by COVID-19 (coronavirus). Many organizations and speakers worry that it will be even more difficult to engage a virtual audience.
The answer is simple: Most panels strike the audience as a series of separate, disconnected speeches. Instead of sitting through one presentation, the audience must sit through multiple disjointed talks, one speaker at a time. As a result, they feel bored, confused and frustrated. This scenario is even more true of a virtual setting, where there is no charge from being in the room with other people, no responsibility to show interest and, often, no ability to read emotions.
How can your next virtual panel be more effective, engaging and even exciting for your audience? Give your audience a cohesive experience. Instead of seeing the panel as a series of speakers, see it as pieces of one puzzle. With a virtual panel, you will need to work even harder to create that single, cohesive experience for the audience watching from home. To help you accomplish this goal, here are some tips for you to keep in mind, whether you’re a panelist or a moderator.
Tips for the Panelist
1. Understand Your Audience
Before you prepare, find out who will be listening. What do they hope to get out of the experience of the entire panel and your part in the particular? The answer to this question may be different for a virtual event that doesn’t include networking. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. What does this presentation mean to them at this particular moment in time? Maybe they are looking for stability, connection or reassurance. How can your presentation meet those needs?
2. Understand Your Role on the Panel
Ask the moderator for information regarding who else is speaking, why you were chosen to participate and where you fit into the group. Use that information to guide your preparation. Perhaps there are opportunities to offer contrasting viewpoints or build off of what the other panelists say. Again, your interactions with other panelists are different in a virtual setting; take time to think about this change, and build it into your content.
3. Master the Transitions
When it is your turn to speak, connect your words to what the previous panelist said. Good transitions are especially important in a virtual setting. For example: “Maria talked about the importance of internal communication. I want to offer a different perspective and argue that our success actually depends on our external communication.”
4. Speak Directly to the Other Panelists
During the panel, don’t speak only to the audience. Spend time speaking to your fellow panelists. Use their first names, if possible. You’ll create a more dynamic, conversational and cohesive experience for the audience. Reacting to and playing off each other is even more critical in a virtual setting.
5. Speak Directly to Your Listener
Look into the camera or speak into the phone as if you were talking to one person. The tendency in a virtual setting is to speak into the air as if nobody is listening. Overcome this tendency by working to connect to each listener. The goal when you speak to the audience is to make each person at home feel like you are speaking only to him or her. One way to do so is by using the words “you” and “I” frequently and using first names. This approach makes the presentation sound and feel more like a personal conversation.
6. Be Concise
This one is a speaking truism, but it’s never more critical than in a virtual setting, where you can’t read the audience, and the possibility of losing them is greater.
Tips for the Moderator
1. Keep the Audience Front and Center
Even before you compile your list of speakers, ask yourself who will be listening. Why will they be in the room? What experience do you want to create for them? How have their needs changed since you started planning the event?
2. Prepare as a Team
Invite the panelists to have a conversation early on about the purpose of the panel. As a group, discuss the narrative structure of the panel, and figure out a sequence of speakers that is logical and helpful to the audience. In a virtual setting, it is even more important that the entire panel have a logical beginning, middle and end.
3. Help the Audience Connect the Dots
Don’t waste time reciting the panelists’ biographies. Instead, when you begin the discussion, frame it for the audience. Explain what you hope they will learn from the experience, and describe the speakers’ backgrounds in that context. Give your audience insight into why you have brought these panelists together and why they are speaking in the order they’ll be speaking in. Throughout the discussion, help the audience connect the speakers to each other. Find opportunities to stimulate group discussion on the topic, and don’t shy away from disagreement.
4. Connect the Q&A to the Rest of the Presentation
Audiences often perk up during the Q&A portion of a panel, because it allows them to shift from passive listener to active participant. Use this knowledge to your advantage. For each question, take a moment to clarify and contextualize it to ensure that everyone hears the question and help focus the panelists on the issue of primary concern or interest.
Virtual panels don’t need to be disengaging. They can be a dynamic, enriching conversation that gives an audience something valuable to share with their colleagues back at the office. Virtual events can even be more effective for some audience members, especially introverts, who may find a large in-person event draining. When done well, virtual panels can enable participants to learn effectively while giving