Nailing your next panel discussion

The request comes in, “Would you appear on an upcoming panel discussion?”

Congratulations. You’re at the top of your game. Organizations within your industry want to access your insightful knowledge, experience, and reputation.

“Sure,” you say, “Panel discussions are easy.”

Stop right there.

As with anything else, a panel discussion seems easy and effortless only when all involved are well prepared. The responsibility of good planning rests largely with the producing organization. But, in order to come across as strongly as you want, you will need to do more than just show up. Follow these tips, and your first panel discussion will not be your last.

Ask questions

Before committing to participating on a panel, ask how many other panel members there are, who the moderator is, and how long the discussion is intended to go. The moderator is the quarterback of the panel. If that person is not experienced in moderating, the panel discussion risks failure. Also, if the panel is any larger than three people, consider declining. With panels that are oversized, someone may end up being set dressing.

Develop chemistry

Ask if you can see the intended interview questions in advance. If, for whatever reason, the questions are not submitted to panel members before the event, ask that you have an opportunity to meet with the moderator before hand – even if it’s just 15 minutes before taking stage. It’s important that chemistry be developed between moderator and panel members prior to going in front of your audience.

Maintain balance

Don’t dominate the discussion. A good moderator will keep the on-stage conversation balanced, but it’s also up to you to avoid taking up more than your share of “air time.” If one person unwittingly commands a panel, it won’t be just the other panel members who squirm uncomfortably. The audience will, too.

Eye contact

While the moderator may have asked you the question, remember who and where your intended audience is. Begin your response by answering the moderator, but make sure you establish eye contact for the bulk of your answer with the audience in front of you. As you wrap up your answer, turn back to the moderator in the final seconds of your statement. Too often, the moderator and panel members keep the conversation entirely between themselves, making the audience feel as if they’re eavesdropping, rather than participating. So, too, if a question comes to you from an individual in the audience, begin your answer with that person, but spray the room in your response. Beyond sharing information, your goal should be to engage the entire audience.

Conversational tone

Though sharing information, panel discussions are purposely intended to have a different feel from behind-the-lectern presentations. As the producer, I tell my panel members that I want my audience to leave the event feeling as if they have been a part of the most interesting dinner party they’ve ever attended. What would that feel like? There would be laughter; clever and charming comments would be tossed about; the repartee would be quick and provocative; and thoughts and opinions would be comfortably and openly shared. When I leave a dinner party like that, I feel energized and stimulated. That’s the way I want my panel-discussion audiences to feel.

This isn’t ping pong

Panel members need to be active participants at all times within the discussion. That is, they needn’t wait for their name to be called before sharing a thought or answering a question. Think of my dinner party analogy – you wouldn’t wait for your name to be called in that setting before jumping in to elaborate further on something someone else said or, perhaps, to respectfully challenge a statement. Panel discussions that fall into the rhythm of ping-pong matches – question asked, question answered, question asked, question answered – can lull the audience to sleep. Keep it lively.

Sit up

Prior to arrival at your panel location, make sure you’ve enquired about panel dress code, what the stage looks like, what type of chairs you’ll be sitting in, and where the audience will be in relation to you. Answers to these simple questions will determine, among other things, what type of jacket or skirt you select for the event.

When producing a panel discussion, one of the decisions I make is what type of chairs I want on stage. My initial response is, the most uncomfortable ones available. I say that kiddingly – sort of. If the stage chair is too comfortable, the panel members invariably end up sitting back too far, slouching, or manspreading – any of which is inappropriate in front of an audience. I make a point of saying to my panelists, yes, the chairs have backs and arm rests, but I don’t want you using either. Sit forward and upright. In so doing, you assume a position of engagement and eager participation. The audience will play off of your body language.

If you follow these simple tips, you will enjoy the experience immeasurably. More importantly, so, too, will your audience.

Next month… how to be a good moderator.

Glenn Miller has produced scores of panel discussions for corporate and nonprofit clients.

Jocelyn Hale moderates a panel discussion with authors Douglas Smith ("Rasputin", Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) and Robert Alexander ("Rasputin's Daughter", Penguin, 2006) at Minneapolis's Museum of Russian Art.   

Jocelyn Hale moderates a panel discussion with authors Douglas Smith ("Rasputin", Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) and Robert Alexander ("Rasputin's Daughter", Penguin, 2006) at Minneapolis's Museum of Russian Art.


Donovan Livingston Tells a Story

Doctoral student Donovan Livingston leaped onto the national stage in May 2016 after delivering a convocation speech at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Livingston’s five-minute presentation, entitled “Lift Off,” quickly went viral and, to date, has had more than 20 million views. The address, which interweaves Livingston’s reflections on home, the importance of education, and historic racial relations, captured the attention of audiences throughout the world, international news agencies, educational leaders, celebrities, and politicians.

Q: How do you classify yourself? An educator? A student? A poet? A writer? A spoken-word artist?

All of the above – it’s difficult for me to separate those components. I’ve been a cocktail of these different aspects of my professional and artistic selves. It’s difficult to think of key moments in my academic or professional life without acknowledging how my art or poetry influences the way I interact with my students. It requires me to view myself as being more than just one thing, or having just one title. But if you forced me to name just one, then call me a student – I’ll always be that.

Q: When did you realize that Lift Off had – sorry – lifted off?

I gave this convocation speech on a Wednesday. Our commencement exercises were on Thursday. Someone seated next to me leaned over and said, “Dude, you’re on Buzzfeed.” Sure enough, I saw it posted with clips from the speech and I was taken aback. I then went to the School of Education for further ceremonies, and the dean announced that my video had received more than a million views over the past 24 hours. Then, on Friday, as my wife, Lauren, and I were driving back to North Carolina, my phone was going off every couple of seconds from news agencies and individuals from around the world. The most amazing call I received that day came from one of my heroes, Marian Wright Edelman. I revere these people, they’re leaders in the field, and here they were, reaching out to me.

Q: To what do you attribute Lift Off becoming a viral sensation?

Given the time of year – graduation – people were hungry for inspiration. Also, I’m a young black man talking about education and policy and, let’s face it, in our society young black men are not always associated with educational leadership. That fact, along with the point of origination – Harvard University – certainly helped it go viral.

Q: Did this experience provide insights into your writing, performance, or education?

I’m now more aware of how my words are received. I don’t want to fabricate who I am; the image I portray should reflect my lived experience. With that in mind, a 16-year-old Ugandan studying at the African Leadership Academy reached out to me as part of a class assignment in which they were to write to any leader in the world, living or dead. He reached out to me! I wrote back to him and encouraged him to work hard at his studies, to be true to himself, to be authentic, and to be unencumbered by systems of oppression – whether they’re educational, societal, or governmental.

Q: What types of stories do you tend to connect with?

I’m most moved by the stories of my parents’ youth. They were born in rural North Carolina in the ‘50s, a time and place when race was at the forefront of everything. Racism was in your face, what water fountain you could drink from, what school you were allowed to attend. My dad is a very hopeful person and he is able to regard what happened to him through a critical lens, with the sense that things can always get better. My mom participated in the civil rights movement; she was nine years old when she attended her first march and sit-in protest. She carried picket signs, sat at lunch counters, was vocal about her rights and what it meant to be human. To have parents who came from this era, who had this as their foundation for living in a democratic society, to hear their stories growing up, is deeply moving to me.

Q: What book is on your night-side stand?

Cornell West’s “Hope on a Tightrope,” published in 2008. I’m interested in how hope can be used as a method for inspiring people to understand their circumstances and rise above them. Hope is unquantifiable, but it’s tangible.

For further information on Donovan Livingston, he can be reached via the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau. Also, view his recent World Forum presentation and his interview with The World Democracy Forum.

Happy New Year

Today, in my role as interim executive director of Cantus, I’ll be popping the bubbly, making New Year’s resolutions, and toasting the work of my talented colleagues. All business people work with two calendars, the January through December timeframe, and their organization’s fiscal year calendar which tends to follow the cycle of their industry. Nonprofit employees, particularly the development team, look at the fiscal year end with dread – “will we raise enough money?”, excitement – “it’s over, we did it!”  and perhaps of bit of Sisyphus’ agony, “do we really have to start pushing that rock back up the hill tomorrow?” 

The writers, musicians, dancers, painters, and performers at arts organizations receive most of the public adulation. That’s why at the Loft I started a tradition of a Fiscal New Year’s Party, to celebrate the administrative staff.

For 30 years I’ve witnessed young nonprofit administrators tackle their jobs with passion, creativity, and an extraordinary amount of hard work.  These people, often artists themselves, have chosen less lucrative careers in order to make our world safe for art-making, viewing, engaging, and enjoying.

So, today, as Cantus celebrates the start of a new fiscal year, allow me to make the the first toast.

“To Carly, Jeff, and Joey, (and all my dear administrative staff members who came before you), you change lives one stuffed envelop, solicitation letter, and reconciled ledger at a time. Let’s raise our glass, recognize you, and sing…

‘And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o' thine!
And we'll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.'”

Jocelyn Hale is serving as interim executive director of Cantus until December, 2016.

The Business of Storytelling

Stories give us meaning, says author and professor Jonathan Gottschall. “There is great power in storytelling and America’s business community has realized and embraced this concept,” he says. “But great storytelling demands risk taking and that’s where, too often, companies fall short.”

Q: Why do human beings need stories?  

Stories allow us to create a meaningful structure to the information we are constantly receiving. We organize this information within a narrative framework. In terms of why we tell stories, it’s helpful to use an analogy of the human hand. Our hands have evolved to serve numerous purposes, including caressing, defending, communicating, signaling, feeding. And, like other human tools, storytelling has evolved to serve multiple purposes, but its first function was to transmit cultural information, passing from one generation to another through tribal mythologies. Our brains have evolved in such a way that information presented in the form of a story “sticks” better.

Q: What types of stories stick best?  

Stories have an intrinsic underlying structure. They may look or sound diverse, but underneath is a common skeleton that I call problem structure. Most basically, stories tend to be about problems and their solutions. Characters struggle desperately to make things right and find resolution. In order to capture the attention of our audience, the storyteller places the hero into scary, dangerous situations and we watch the characters try to solve them.

Q: This importance of storytelling has entered into business communications. How do you see it playing out?

In my experience, business people tend to back off from telling the most riveting, contagious stories. That’s because, broadly speaking, there’s a culture of caution in business. Corporations tend to shy away from dramatizing the negative, preferring to show happy people going through their lives without difficulty. That’s not terribly evocative storytelling. If we look at the bestseller list, we see it’s full of terror and carnage and threat. Those are the sorts of stories that grab our attention.

The most common answer to why we need stories is because they allow us to escape. That’s what business people tend to think. But if you look at the most riveting stories, they tend to be the opposite of escapism. Our most captivating stories are those that allow us to truly confront and engage our largest, deepest fears, not escape from them. The risk-averse nature of corporate culture conflicts with the need for storytellers to be risk-takers.

Q: If corporate communicators truly want to embrace storytelling, how would you advise them?

Write in a way that frightens you, scares you. That’s where our best stories come from. Part of the problem in business is that people who are not trained as storytellers are trying to make an awkward transition into storytelling. Very few corporate communicators are willing to do the hard work that is necessary to tell stories properly. I hate to say this, but stories are only effective or powerful if they’re good.

Q: What are you currently reading?

I’m reading the novels of author and poet Jim Harrison, who we recently lost. I just finished his Legends of the Fall and was so sad to turn the final page; what a book. Also, I just reread John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, one of those rare books where I actually laughed out loud through the entire reading.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human and, most recently, The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch. He is a Distinguished Fellow in the English department of Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA.