Presenting on a Panel: Tips and tricks

This year marked not only my first PAX Aus experience, but also my first time both presenting on and moderating a panel. In fact, I moderated two panels last Friday. I had no idea what to expect, but somehow I managed to come out the other side still in one piece (and a better piece than I was going in). This is a collation of tips and tricks that I’ve learnt from my own experiences, as well as the advice that I received from other seasoned panellists during this nerve-wracking experience.

Tip #1: Apply

You can’t be on a panel unless you send in a panel application. What do you think needs to be talked about at the convention you’re attending? Gather together the folks that you know can talk about the topic, or approach some people you may not yet be friends with. Twitter is helpful. Use your network.

Once you have gauged the interest of these people, work together to write a panel application. Make it sound catchy and engaging. You are trying to convince people that your panel is worth attending (and worth accepting in the first place) so you need your panel description to sound good!

Make sure you don’t leave the application process to the last minute (like I did). Keep an eye on the application cut-off date and start this process as soon as you can.

Tip #2: Be prepared

You need to get things ready in advance, not just for the application, but for the panel itself. Chat with your fellow panel members in the lead up to the event using social media, Google docs, and Skype.

Decide on the images or slides that you want, and have them made before you hop on a plane and are panicking in a hotel room. Slides don’t need to be too complicated—you just want something to guide discussion and pique interest. A slide with panellist photos and Twitter handles certainly doesn’t go astray.

Don’t leave it to the last minute to ask yourself questions like ‘How will I log into my [x] account to access these slides?’ or ‘Will a Mac-formatted external hard drive work?’ because these are unnecessary stresses. Save yourself the trouble.

Have some key questions or discussion points ready in case the panel gets stage fright or the conversation suddenly stops. It might not be necessary, but it’s definitely useful to ensure you don’t miss key points. The moderator can use this to keep the panel working within any time restrictions. Which reminds me: make sure your phone is charged, because you can’t put it on the table and use it as a clock if it has run out of battery.

Tip #3: Panels can take a lot of forms

Not every panel looks the same. Some people opt for an informal discussion, others aim for a formal presentation, while some settle for something inbetween. While there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it, from the panels I’ve been on and those I’ve watched, the first option is definitely my preference.

I have done many presentations during my academic career, and most of them have been incredibly nerve-wracking. You go prepared with a script, you stumble over your words, and you feel a lot of pressure while everyone’s eyes are on you. If the panel time is split evenly between its speakers, then no one can save you if you lose track of your thoughts while struggling through your prepared speech.

An informal discussion format allows you to chat with the others on your panel about the ideas that are put forth. You may each have your own area of expertise, so you may find one person talking more than others as those topics come up, but having the opportunity for other panellists to interject is valuable for everyone involved. It makes it much easier to hide your nerves if you aren’t expected to talk for fifteen minutes straight, and if you feel more like you’re just having a chat rather than acting as an authority with all eyes on you.

Tip #4: Leave time for questions

One of the highlights of both my panels was when we opened up to questions or comments from the audience. There were so many insightful questions from attendees, which helped me feel like my panels and my contribution was really worth something to people. Definitely leave time for questions after your panel, and also leave your post-panel schedule free in case people want to discuss things further once time is up and you’re shepherded from the theatre.

If you are talking about a potentially controversial topic (or even if you don’t think you are), be prepared for difficult questions or argumentative questioners. In these circumstances, it can be easy to clam up or to become aggressive, and neither of these are the most productive response. Figure out how to best address confrontation while keeping your cool or, if you don’t think you can, designate someone on the panel who feels more confident as the resident ‘difficult question’ answerer. (Just make sure you check with them before you decide that it’s their job.)

Tip #5: Chat to the ‘enforcers’ (or whatever the volunteers are called where you are)

If you are feeling nervous, arrive at your venue early. It’s important to ensure you know where the theatre is and who the people looking after the theatre are. Shake their hand, introduce yourself, and let them know if you have any questions. Some important questions for a new theatre might be something like ‘Who is running the AV?’ or ‘Will there be roaming microphones?’.

Now would be a good time to thank Trevor at the Kookaburra theatre for being so lovely and welcoming; he managed to make me feel much calmer before my first panel.

When you are inside the theatre and getting prepared, don’t be afraid to tell the enforcers you aren’t ready to let people in yet. Before one of our panels, our AV person disappeared and we hadn’t been able to set up our slides yet; we didn’t want the audience filing in until our technical difficulties were sorted.

Tip #6: Think about social media

At a convention like PAX, you are surrounded by people who want to be connected 24/7, so let them be connected during your panel. It was amazing to read the live tweets that some panel attendees wrote about my panels, directly quoting me and adding little exclamations and discussions. I have learnt that next time I should actively encourage live-tweeting by including a panel hashtag for people to use, because comments on the Twitterverse made it clear that people wanted them!

I still have plenty to learn about how to speak on a panel, but I am incredibly grateful that I had this opportunity to jump in at the deep end and experience speaking and moderating in this environment for the first time. I have gained so many skills, and I look forward to putting them all into practise again this time next year.