Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How should I evaluate invitations to speak on a panel? Pros and cons

The email or the call comes in: They want you as one of the speakers on a panel!

So let me ask you: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

The answer may hinge on many factors, so I've pulled together a list of panel pros and cons for you to consider when you're invited to join a panel discussion as a speaker. Please do add your own pros and cons in the comments!

  • Panels are a great learning experience for speakers. Serving as a panelist is one of 4 speaker stepping-stones you can use to work your way up to bigger speaking assignments. Panels are great practice to move you toward a solo speaking gig. And if you need to renew your speaking skills after having avoided speaking for a while, panels are a great way to get back in the game.
  • If you're moderating the panel, you learn yet another key skill set, one that's prized by organizers. But keep in mind that moderators generally speak less--except when subbing for a last-minute no-show speaker.
  • Panels offer a focused way to show your expertise. Most of the time, you'll be asked to join a panel because of your experience and expertise. You don't need to be "the expert," just an expert with a unique perspective.
  • Panels help you practice extemporaneous speaking, but in a focused environment. Most panelists use just a few notes rather than a prepared text, and the panelists invite questions from the audience at some point. You'll hone the skills involved in on-your-feet responding to questions, which  you'll use again and again.
  • You may need to reach this audience, on this topic. You don't want your stint on a panel to be a sales pitch, but if the audience, the prestige of the meeting, or the topic are critical to you, saying yes may be the right move. Always ask "What's in it for me?" when evaluating a speaking gig, to be sure you know your motivation.
  • If you've never been a panelist, there's no way to fix that except to say "yes" to an invitation.
  • Audiences have strong feelings about bad panels, mostly from sitting through some awful ones. It pays to do some research: What were the reviews for last year's or more recent panels at this meeting? Ask the organizer.
  • The organizers may need you more than you need this gig. Is your reputation or your marquee position lending credibility to this panel in a way you might later regret? Make sure there's a good match for you with the organizations hosting your panels.
  • Being on the panel may put you in an awkward position. You may not be ready to speak publicly on a hot topic, or there may be an assumption that you'll address something about which you just don't want to speak. Perhaps the audience will assume you're endorsing the organization or a project or issue to which panelists will be asked to react---so be sure you are comfortable with the appearance that you're on board, or decline those opportunities where it appears your comments might become endorsements you didn't intend to make. What's the role they want you to play? Are you comfortable with that? Asking "what's in it for them?" also is a good idea when considering whether to get on a panel.
  • The panel may be poorly organized, with too many speakers, an ever-changing agenda, too little time for each speaker, or some other logistical issue that will make the opportunity a chore rather than an advantage. There are 7 good reasons to turn down a speaking gig, so keep the list in mind when evaluating a panel invitation.
  • You may be sandwiched between over-talkers. That might mean speakers who don't abide by their time limits, or speakers who talk over you while you're talking. Make sure you've discussed ground rules with the organizer and moderator, and if you can, check out the reputations of your fellow panelists before you agree to join them. It's tough to suss this out ahead of time, but ask around--you may find out more than you expect about your fellow panelists.
  • You and the organizer don't agree on the panel's main purpose. If this is the case, or if you feel you're being told precisely what to say on your topic, rather than getting some leeway, it's best to decline right away.
Have you decided to say yes to that invitation to join a panel discussion? Check out my 7 paths to success for panelists to be sure your experience makes you glad you said "yes!"