September is the beginning of conference season, and in-house counsel often are asked to speak on panels at legal conferences or other industry functions. Having both organized and participated in many panels, plus having watched many, many more, I’ve had an opportunity to see what works.

  1. Panels are a form of presentation: Panels are a form of shared presentations. Tips from my previous column on effective presentations apply.
  2. Choose your format, don’t let it choose you:  Panels can follow many different formats, including consecutive panelist presentations, round robin, all Q&A, point-counter point and—my personal preference—a shorter presentation deck with each slide being presented and commented on by different panel members. The best format depends on your intended content and panel makeup. The group should discuss and pick the best format.
  3. Build your story through an outline: Like all good presentations, the collective content of good panels also tell a story. Don’t start by throwing some slides tougher. First create a high-level outline assigning different topics to each panelist. Note that not all panels need slides.
  4. Create twice the needed content, then halve it: Create twice as much content and twice as many slides as you need. Then let it rest. Shortly before the slides are due, pick the best half of your material and delete the rest. Be brutal. If it’s not really good content, cut it out.
  5. Encourage a strong moderator: Often panels are composed of people who may not know each other well and there is a natural reluctance for anyone to appear too pushy. Nevertheless, panels need a strong moderator. I saw one panel where the first panelists spoke for nearly the entire session, giving the other panelists almost no time to speak. When I’m acting as a moderator, I tell my panel that my job is to watch the time and I apologize in advance that I may interrupt them. Poor is the moderator who uses their role to dominate the discussion.
  6. Tighten up ramblings with key questions: The moderator’s other main role is to tighten up the conversation. There is a tendency to ramble in panels. A good moderator or fellow panelists will inject key questions at the right time: “I hear what you are saying, but how do you really make this work in your legal department?,” drawing out interesting content.
  7. Include the audience: Good panels include the audience in the discussion. I like to encourage questions throughout the presentation. If things run off track, the moderator can always bring the session back on target. A lot of questions make a lively discussion.
  8. Keep track of time: I always like to divide the total amount of time available by the number of slides, keeping in mind that panel discussions go through slides at a much slower pace than solo presentations. (Nine minutes per slide is a good metric.) This helps avoid running out of time before the final slides and guides how long to keep the questions flowing. My chart keeps things on track.
  9. Speak from the heart: Perhaps most important suggestion here is to speak from the heart. A panel is effective because it provides different points of view. The audience wants to know how you handled a problem, how it impacted you, what you did right and what would you do differently next time. How do you really feel? Speak from the heart.

Like many things in life, a good panel requires some preparation, often starting well before the day of the presentation. Panel discussions can be either tremendously enlightening or utterly forgettable. Which of the two your panel is is up to you.