How to be a good panellist

I’m in New York for a fortnight for a whistle-stop tour. I presented at one workshop last week, I’m attending another this week and have also spent a few days collecting some climate data from a very kindly collaborator. I also popped in to the Word Science Festival on the weekend to see a panel focused on neuroscience and consciousness. I was keen to get along to the festival and this particular event was on at a convenient time, sounded interesting and had tickets available. It was fantastic!

The panellists were articulate and interesting and worked well together. I remember the first time I was asked to take part in a panel discussion and distinctly recall being mildly terrified. What if I talk too much? What if I talk too little? What if I forget how to talk? It turned out my first panel discussion went really smoothly and I enjoyed the experience. The World Science Festival got me thinking about what makes a good panel click and what makes a train wreck.

Know why you are there If you are invited onto a panel to speak, there will be a good reason for the invitation. Ask the organisers well in advance what the purpose of the panel is, who else is speaking, who the moderator will be and who the audience will be. These will help you prepare.

You should also think in advance about what you are bringing to the panel and why you accepted the invitation. It’s also a good idea to think through what you want to convey to the audience and/or other members – think in advance why you are there, what you want to get out of it and what you want the audience to get out of your presence. If you accept the invitation, don’t let the opportunity and your time go to waste by last minute preparations.

Be polite Academics love to disagree with each other and usually we are culturally good at being disagreed with. Appropriate levels of disagreement in a faculty meeting or departmental seminar can be perceived quite differently in other contexts. If your panel discussion is in a public forum, for example, disagreements can be interpreted as combative and can make the audience uncomfortable.

It’s great to disagree, but do so gently and in good humour. For example, perhaps start with a moderating statement “I’m not sure I quite agree” or “I might add something more there…” or “I think there are others ways we can think about this…” If you are frustrated with not having much chance to contribute, feel free to jump in but do so politely with a “I might jump in here…” or “I can speak to this from my research…” Other key tips are don’t talk over someone else, don’t talk to another panellist’s expertise and don’t talk down to the audience.

The panel I saw at the World Science Festival was exemplary. The conflicts of opinion were insightful and the interaction between the panellists was playful. As a result, their disagreements were amusing and the audience really enjoyed how persuasive each member was, as we swung from one expert’s opinion to the next. It was so enjoyable to hear such intelligent and articulate academics disagreeing in respectful but feisty way.

Have a good chair/moderator A competent moderator makes a panel discussion. She/he knows how to keep the discussion on moving but firmly on track. A good moderator knows how to distribute discussion across the panel and get discussion flowing between panel members. She/she draws together discussion threads, providing a summary and insight into the panel’s ‘conclusions’. She/he also knows how to ask questions of the audience and direct them to the panellist with the appropriate expertise.

Having also been mildly terrified by the task of chairing a panel discussion for the first time, my experience was made more manageable and pleasant all round by preparation. In advance I researched each of the panel members and their backgrounds, and I prepared a few general questions to get discussion started. During the discussion, I tried to link elements together and I tried to take questions fairly from around the room and directing them to particular panelists as appropriate. Basically I tried to copy moderators I’d thought effective in the past.

If you are on the receiving end of lax chairing, try to moderate yourself. Don’t talk too much but be confident speaking up when you feel you can contribute.

Enjoy! Being on a panel is an academic’s dream – you get to have an audience and other experts paying attention to what you have to say! Academics love attention and hearing our own voices, so enjoy the chance to speak and discuss ideas with other smart people.

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