For this exercise, no one actually gets to see himself speaking--just waiting to speak. And those silent behaviors of panelists speak volumes. Eyes roll at the statements with which they disagree, or they make faces at the audience. We see only the tops of their heads (and sometimes, their bald spots) while they surreptitiously check email or tweet. Yawns, doodling, hair-twirling, finger-tapping, and bored consideration of the ceiling and its delights all happen.
Here's the thing to keep in mind: You may not think you're "on" until you are speaking, but if you're not paying attention to how you look while you're waiting to speak, you're giving the audience an unintended preview. It's one more reason to embrace video practice (and my list of what to look for when you're recorded as a speaker). But to help you really improve, here are my suggestions for the panelists-in-waiting:
- Use active listening: Turn your attention to the person speaking, visibly. You can look away to pen a note to yourself, but focus on that speaker--that way, your eyes aren't sending other messages to the audience. Practically speaking, it means you can better inform your own remarks. From an optics viewpoint, you'll look attentive and respectful. Far better than rolling your eyes or drumming your fingers. Want to scan the audience? Smile while you do so.
- Breathe and relax: You're not speaking, but you can use this time to breathe (inhale and exhale through your nose to make this less visible). You'll lower your tension level, stay calm and feel better prepared once your turn comes up.
- Control your hands: You can lean forward slightly on your elbows and lace your fingers together to keep them under control, if you have fidgety fingers (and practice that breathing). Be sure you aren't inadvertently gesturing or moving--it will be distracting to the audience.
- Consider the table, or lack thereof: Skirted tables for panels were created precisely because panelists also fidget from the waist down. Be sure to notice, however, whether you have any screen between you and the audience. If not--perhaps when the entire panel is seated in chairs--cross your legs or otherwise position them comfortably and correctly. Remember that pointing a shoe at the audience is as offensive as pointing a finger.
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