Set a timer. Think back to the last time you listened to an absolutely fantastic, engaging and insightful panel. What was the topic of the conversation? What did you learn? How did you implement what you learned?
This exercise might take a minute.
Now I want you to think back to the last three to five conferences you attended, possibly online, and list how many of the panel discussions you listened to made you grab your phone and start scrolling, doodle on your notebook and do whatever else it took to keep you from sliding off your chair as your eyes roll back in your head and a long groan escapes you on the way down.
Hosting engaging and – dare I say captivating – panels and keynotes is an art. Doing so successfully online adds another layer of complexity that few know how to navigate.
Between academic, creative and professional development conferences, I have listened to my fair share of presenters who like to hear themselves talk, keynote speakers that get stuck on slide three out of 73, and panelists who fall asleep while one of their peers rambles on in a windowless conference center (I’m still not sure who exasperated me more).
But I have also watched presenters go on stage in astronaut helmets as part of their presentation. I watched one guest speaker dump an entire bottle of water on the lecture hall floor to get a point across. And I have listened to well-moderated panel discussions during which I frantically took notes, followed along with financial formulas and stood up feeling somehow greater and more confident than before.
It can be done.
I have prepped dozens of speakers for entire conferences, individual sessions and keynotes. I myself have had the pleasure to speak at a handful of events focused on social impact and entrepreneurial ecosystem building – and I will happily share six best practices for hosting engaging panel conversations, especially in a virtual space. Whether you are a keynote speaker, workshop host or simply someone who presents as part of their work – a lot of these insights apply across the board.
Join me in saving the world from snoring presentations, panel discussions, workshops and keynotes.
1. Start with the end in mind.
Imagine the end of your talk or presentation: The audience starts to clap and as more and more people stand up from their chairs, the clap turns into standing ovations. If your crowd is not one for extrovert support, maybe a few people from the audience pull you aside later to ask follow-up questions, invite you to their event or simply express their gratitude for your time and work. In a Zoom world, you’re more likely to get emojis and an exploding chat. Either way: What did you say that moved them? What did you leave them with that they want more of?
In other words: Whatever format and content you are working with, make sure to always start with the end in mind. What do you want your audience to walk away with? Inspiration? A new skill or perspective, an altered mindset? Do you want them to implement what they learned? Connect with you? Maybe even work with you?
SIDE NOTE: Make sure not to turn your talk or presentation into a direct sales pitch. Woo them with your content but don’t let me catch you on stage or screen announcing “Three for the price of two if you call in the next hour!”! Sleazy.
When I am invited to speak, I always want to leave the audience with something tangible they can implement. We’re not creating lasting change if we inspire people without also giving them the tools to execute on that inspiration. I typically create a simple workbook or ask the audience to participate in a mini-real-life case to anchor my message in their minds and hearts. If I am hosting and moderating a panel, I will often ask the panelists to contribute some type of tangible take-away that we can pass along the audience.
2. Be the hostess with the mostest.
The audience is giving you the gift of their time and attention. As a speaker or moderator, it is your job to provide a great experience in return.
If you are putting together a panel from scratch to discuss a specific topic, I urge you to put some hard thoughts into who can best speak to the lived experience of what you are trying to convey. We best connect with people and learn from them through stories. True story. Choose a diverse group of panelists who you know will bring different perspectives to the conversation and still make your point for you.
At Venture Forum Virginia in April 2017, I had the pleasure to host a panel on purpose-driven entrepreneurship and invited the CEO of an established consultancy and B Corp, a female entrepreneur who ran a sustainable fashion company, and the co-founder of a very early-stage purpose-driven tech startup. All three of them could speak at length to the challenges and opportunities of running a social enterprise in Richmond, VA, in three different sectors, at three very different stages of growth, with three different business models.
SIDE NOTE: It goes without saying that – if you’re hosting an all-white all-male panel – you will likely not be invited back. Unless of course, your session name is “What it’s like to be white and male on a panel.” – and even then I challenge you to include some viewpoints that go beyond the obvious.
Prepare your panelists
One of your main jobs as moderator is to make your speakers comfortable and present well. I am no fan of “I’ve done a few of these, I’ll show up and share some stories.” Quite frankly, I think it’s disrespectful to the audience and other panelists.
As I mentioned, stories are possibly the greatest vehicle for true learning but that doesn’t mean ANY story serves that purpose. A good story is succinct, drives home a specific point, is entertaining, yet short enough to not hijack the entire conversation. A story is good. But nothing but stories is no bueno. Claro?
Instead, encourage your panelists to always speak from experience and think through the content, messaging and questions of the panel ahead of time.
I recently hosted a panel at the Social Enterprise World Forum. The session was scheduled for 50 minutes; short once you consider the time it takes to introduce everyone, welcome the virtual audience into your session and orient them towards your context. Instead of racing through a dense content-driven session, we flipped the model on its head: All panelists responded to the questions they wanted to speak to ahead of time, in writing. I was able to develop a structured how-to blogpost based on their responses which we posted on the Social Venturers website along with a seven-page workbook for download. Being intimately familiar with each panelist’s expertise, we designed the virtual session to share the most intriguing highlights and drove the curious to the website to learn more. Instead of writing a summary of the discussion post-haste, this approach guarantees you have a blogpost, press release or summary in hand as soon as the session ends and the audience wants to learn more.
SIDE NOTE: If you want to provide, let’s say, a worksheet for the audience, remember to include additional resources (book recommendations, organizations, articles, etc.). If the panel made them hungry for more, consider this their goodie bag as they’re leaving the party!
3. All eyes on you: Presenting by yourself
Whether you are delivering a keynote or workshop, whenever you are the only one speaking on the stage – virtual or actual – the spotlight is on you, for better or worse.
Before you sketch out your session structure and content, talk to the organizer:
- Who is in the audience?
- Why are they attending this event, what do they expect to learn?
- Where do you fall in the event line-up? What will the audience already have heard from previous speakers?
A good invitation to a speaker should include why they want YOU to speak. If you’re unsure, get clarity as soon as you can to meet or at least manage expectations: your own and those of the organizer.
SIDE NOTE: If you’re scheduled toward the end of the event or right after lunch, know that the attention in the room is guaranteed to start drifting. Ground everyone in the room: Stretch, tell a joke, have them sing (I kid you not, it works!) – do a quick exercise to hit reset and bring all eyes toward you.
When we hosted our first Rebelle Con in 2017, we wanted to cover four main topics with one keynote and one activity (action-oriented) each. That meant the activity on the mainstage had to build directly upon the previous keynote, but we had different speakers for each. I was on the phone with all eight speakers ahead of time walking through their content, checking for duplication and ensuring both speakers per topic knew exactly what their counterpart was going to say.
SIDE NOTE: Extra points if you are attending the entire event and can refer back to something that was said by someone else in an earlier session! It shows you’re engaged and know your stuff!
Take the audience on a journey
Now that you have everyone’s attention, take them on your journey. It can be a chronological trip or structured around [insert X tactics for achieving Y]. Because you read this post, you have already reverse-engineered your journey from the destination (what you want them to feel like and think when you’re done talking).
SIDE NOTE: If you are talking, for example, about the four tactics to win over your mother-in-law during Thanksgiving, remind the audience of where you are in the table of contents every so often: “Now that we covered 1. the compliments, 2. the praise of her son and 3. your relationship with YOUR mother, let’s see how we can rope her in with the final tactic!”
I recommend starting with a story. Natalie Franke of Rising Tide Society wooed the audience with a deeply personal story of overcoming adversity and changing her view of her industry in the process at Rebelle Con 2019. Most phones were forgotten in-hand and hundreds of eyes followed Natalie’s every step on stage.
Your story can be funny or enlightening or give the audience a view behind the curtain of the polished, professional you. The reason is simple: Being personal and maybe even vulnerable makes you relatable. It allows the audience to glimpse a piece of themselves in you; almost everyone with a heartbeat will recognize some pattern of thought or behavior of themselves in your story.
SIDE NOTE: If you introduce your talk or workshop with a story, kudos if you’re able to circle back to it at the end. You just tied a big red bow around your entire talk and handed that gift to everyone in the audience. I applaud you!
As you are getting to the end of your talk, make sure to drive your point home – find three different ways of saying the exact same thing over and over. We need to hear it several times to actually hear it and let it sink into our brains. I usually end up on a soapbox because I talk myself so deeply into what I’m trying to convey. But hey, you do you!
SIDE NOTE: Do not leave the stage – virtual or actual – without a call to action and an invitation to connect with you! Ever! (See? That’s my call to action to you!)
4. Who’s with me? Engage your listeners!
To avoid staring into a wall of blank faces, or worse – a wall of faces scrolling their phones or Zoom avatars because your audience checked out – I strongly recommend you put some thought into how you might engage your audience to ensure they stay with you.
A show of hands, a quick vote, and questions are straight-forward engagers. At one of my earliest academic conferences, the moderator point blank told the audience
You’re welcome to ask any questions, but I remind you that if you can’t ask it in one sentence, it is not a good question yet.
Daaaaang! I will never forget this piece of advice and yet have to build up the courage to put it to use in the right environment. If you’re ever at an event where someone stands up and starts with “This is not a question so much as a comment. Based on the works of Marcus Aurelius from 162 AD…”, you know you’re in trouble! If you can’t run, pull out the one-sentence rule on the audience and let me know how it went – you can reach me at anika[at]socialventurers.com!
In an online world, make use of chat and poll functions. Have a moderator who can filter through comments and questions and organize them in a way that you can respond succinctly. Asking people to unmute and turn on their cameras etc. is a technical nightmare, so keep it simple!
Speaking of technical nightmares:
5. Moving virtual
Whether you are hosting a panel or speaking into the camera of your computer by yourself, hosting engaging virtual events is the highest form of the art of convening. Internet connections can freeze or delay some parties, mics and cameras stop working the moment the curtain goes up, the list goes on.
Keep it simple. I mean it. Resist the urge of showing videos, go without screen-sharing and slides if you can. The most engaging tool at your disposal is YOU. Your face, your gestures, your voice. Anything that distracts from that puts more distance between you and your audience. If you have any props, use them!
In September 2020, I participated in a two-day conference about entrepreneurial ecosystem building from the comfort of my home office. This is my jam! And still, in the middle of day two, when I stared at the third slide presentation with a voice that was two time zones behind me, my mind wandered off.
Depending on the size of your virtual audience, if feasible – ask them to turn their camera on (and remain muted). A two-way visual connection is more likely to keep people engaged. I tend to announce some ground rules of online etiquette at the beginning of my virtual presentations:
- Please put your phones on airplane mode.
- Please keep your camera on.
- Please feel free to ask your questions using the chat function, etc.
SIDE NOTE: The wonderful Christina Marie Noel shared her best tips and equipment for looking sharp and feeling less awkward during virtual meetings on her blog!
6. Practice makes maybe-not-perfect-but-confident
Whether you are corralling speakers or you are the speaker – plan for a test run of the talk. If you have been in this space for a while, chances are you have met at least one specimen of the cocky I-don’t-need-to-prepare-Once-I’m-on-stage-I’ll-be-great-kind. That, my friends, is not the point. I assume we are all great on stage, or else we wouldn’t be invited to share our insights in the first place.
SIDE NOTE: Practicing the talk in an empty room or into a screen can be awkward, but I’d rather it’d be awkward in a test run than during the actual event!
In February 2016, Doug Nunn, the then-organizer of Creative Mornings RVA, welcomed me with the words “We don’t have a clicker for your presentation so every time you need us to go to the next slide, just say ‘Next slide!” Let that sink in: I was going to interrupt myself seventeen times over the course of twenty minutes and make this a killer talk? Negative Houston! I wanted to turn and run. Enter: My husband who had listened to me practice my talk each night for a week. He knew every word inside out, he knew my breaks and where I was placing my jokes. He walked backstage and advanced my slides in sync with my talk. It worked! I didn’t even see the slides. But based on the audience reaction a split second after I finished my joke or anecdote was proof that what they were seeing on the wall behind me was in sync with my talk. See for yourself.
Practice brings confidence. Once you stop worrying about what you’re going to say next (because you can recite your talk in your sleep), you can actually relax and enjoy the experience (gasp!). To me, this is the difference between a good speaker and a great one. When the content is solid, speakers become more present and thrive in their delivery.
And for all my I-don’t-need-to-prepare-Once-I’m-on-stage-I’ll-be-great-types out there: Trust me, you’ll still have that stage brilliance thanks to the adrenaline; and having practiced your part, you’ll find you have extra capacity to make eye contact, take a deep breath, maybe even walk into the audience (check with the AV team first!). If you are confident in presenting, the audience will know the difference.
If you take my advice outlined here, chances of disaster are pretty slim. And yet, things go wrong sometimes, it’s that thing called life. If a speaker doesn’t show up or can’t connect due to technical difficulties, you know what he or she was going to speak to, because you prepared; either you or one of the other panelists can jump in and cover that part.
To reduce your risk of technical disaster, shut your machine down for 30 minutes the day before the big day. Give it some beauty rest, make sure all updates are installed and notifications turned off – nobody enjoys hearing your Slack pings while you try to talk about saving the whales! Test your headphones, put on some clothes that make you feel like your best selves and enjoy the session!
If disaster strikes: Roll with it. You hopefully did what you could to prepare yourself (and possibly your panelists). With a good sense of humor you are typically able to save most situations.
Best of luck!
Are you ready to roll up your sleeves and develop your next keynote, workshop or panel? Join me in my upcoming masterclass No more snoring panels on October 13: