How to become a panelist

Table of Contents

Introduction

If you’ve started pursuing a speaking career, one thing you may be curious about is how to become a panelist at a conference. Or perhaps you’ve been asked to be a panelist at an event, but you’d be interested in getting paid to do so, or to branch out from being a panel speaker to being a guest or keynote speaker. If any of these describe you, you might be wondering, how do I prepare for a panel discussion? what are some tips for being on a panel? or how can I speak on a panel for the first time?

For answers to these questions and more, read on.

What is a panel speaker?

A panel speaker is a member of a panel – itself a small group, typically between 3-5 – of experts in a given subject area. Panel speakers typically deliver short remarks at the beginning of a panel event and thereafter answer questions from a moderator and sometimes an audience as well. A panel speaker is not a presenter (so keep your slide deck at home), and the format varies significantly from a standard prepared speech. A better analogy is that of a group interview, where the moderator takes place of the interviewer, and several other experts take turns participating in the interview based on their expertise. 

How are they different from other speakers?

Panelists are generally considered to be subcategories of guest speakers. Guest speakers are typically experts in a particular field and have specialized knowledge on a particular topic. Furthermore, guest speakers are typically experts in a specific field, and will likely lead workshops or smaller audiences in deep dives on a particular topic within their scope. An example might be a lawyer with experience in financial regulations giving a talk about how cryptocurrencies will be taxed in the coming years, while a keynote speaker might be a celebrity proponent of buying crypto. A panelist will typically be one of a few guest speakers with specific expertise on a particular facet of a topic who complements the expertise of the other panelists. 

In contrast to a keynote speaker, who typically speaks solo and for a longer period of time, a panelist is a member of a group who typically speaks for a shorter period. While a panel might be held toward the middle of a conference, a keynote speaker generally speaks at the beginning or end of a conference or event. Keynote speakers also typically have a big enough name to be a major draw for attendees, and generally have a broader-themed message than the more specialized messages of guest speakers. That said, there may be panels made up of big-name speakers when event organizers need to condense an event into a shorter time period while packing as much star power as possible.

How can I become a panelist?

The best way to get on the stage, as a panel speaker or a keynote speaker, is to position yourself as an expert. Positioning yourself an authority is a surefire way to become a panel speaker for events in your area of expertise. But how do you do it? We break the steps down to becoming an expert more in this article, but some of the major keys are to determine your niche, publish meaningful contributions to your subject area via a blog, Youtube channel, or podcast, and network by putting the work into publishing articles or even a book externally.

Keep in mind: Event planners often want specialists and not generalists who think they can speak about anything. Whether it takes you 10,000 hours, hundreds of blog posts and Youtube videos, scores of quotes to reporters, a podcast, or a book, defining your niche of expertise is core to becoming an expert in it. If you’re still not sure what your niche is, or you’d like to learn more about how to find your niche, you may be interested in our podcast with Jill Christensen on finding it here.

How do I prepare for a panel discussion?

So you are being invited to a panel because of your expertise in a given area, which you’ve built using some or all of the steps above. How do you prepare to be a panelist?

Preparation

Some articles you’ll read may recommend not doing any preparation before your panel, since it’s supposed to be more off-the-cuff than a scripted talk, but this isn’t the whole story. Before your panel, take a look at the topic, the other panelists and their expertise, and the time allotted for the event. You can divide the time scripted (probably 1-2 hours) between the number of panelists and the moderator to get the amount of time you will likely be speaking (probably about 30 minutes).

Do your homework. Review the other panelists’ backgrounds and make sure you understand their points of view. This will help you anticipate questions and prepare your own talking points. Then you can directly reach out to the moderator or event organizer to get a sense of what sorts of questions or angles the panel will cover. If they don’t give them to you in advance, you can use the information that you have about the event and your expertise to anticipate 3-4 likely questions that you will be asked, then prepare concise, comprehensive answers to those questions.

If you have built up experience in the realm of writing long-form, investigative journalism pieces on startups that didn’t succeed, and are speaking at a panel for tech companies, you might prepare some materials about a startup you covered and the challenges they faced. You might also prepare to address new trends and opportunities for young companies. If you can give a deep dive into the inner workings of WeWork in their failed IPO, weaving in quotes from Adam Neumann that you used in your article beforehand, you can set yourself up to be a great contributor to the panel discussion you are a part of.

On-stage tips for panelists

Show up to your event on time and prepared. If you’re doing a remote event, make sure to check your microphone and video beforehand so you can minimize any mishaps or technical difficulties. On stage, remember that you are addressing the audience, not the moderator. You want to be respectful of the other panelists (e.g. looking at them as they speak, and not checking your watch or phone). But you can also be fairly relaxed as opposed to overly formal. Feel free to jump in to an exchange politely if you have something to add to the conversation. But don’t wrest control of the panel away from everyone else.

Keep in mind: Your audience is always going to be asking two questions: “so what?” and “now what?” So what means, what does this have to do with me? “Now what” is what you want the audience to do as a result of your talk. If they hear you speak but literally don’t hear anything that they can connect to, what’s the point?

Some further tips can be found in this article on what to do and not to do on stage as a panelist. Generally, kindness is the key – you don’t want to earn a reputation for being a blustery (or boring) person who talks over other people and doesn’t listen to them in return. Instead, you want to be honest (which doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with everyone else), but polite. Follow the cues of the moderator. If you take the opportunity to learn from the other panelists, your own insights will be richer.

How can becoming a panelist benefit me and my career?

Most full-time public speakers don’t start out as speakers. Most speakers start out as ordinary people with mundane day jobs who slowly find themselves taking on more and more speaking engagements. Maybe your panelist gig started out as a way to get your name out there, but now you’re looking forward to that time on stage more and more each time. Or maybe you thought it was just a one-time thing, but your friend in the audience told you about the unmatched passion and enthusiasm they saw in your face. Maybe you had no idea full-time speaking was even an option. How can becoming a panelist benefit you and your career?

Empowering professional full-time public speakers is exactly what we specialize in at The Speaker Lab. If you love picking up an occasional gig here and there but haven’t made the leap to full-time speaking, you might be a good fit for a guest speaker gig. Speaking on the side of your day job will make sense for a while. But eventually, if you’re consistently bringing value to audiences with your message, you’ll come to a crossroads and be able to go even further. Want to learn more about paid public speaking gigs? Check out our free speaking resources here.

Conclusion

If you’re interested in learning more about going from panelist to keynote or workshop speaker, we have a great podcast with Grant Baldwin and Marcus Sheridan on how to give keynote speeches and teach workshops. In the podcast, Marcus talks about how he made the leap from workshop speaker to keynote speaker at Content Marketing World in one year.

So you’ve learned more about how to become a panelist and how to rock your panel. You’ve also learned what differences there are between panelists and guest speakers and keynote speakers. Want to read more about speaking tips? Take a look at our 100 tips for motivational speaking for any speaking engagement! Happy speaking!

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