When applying to speak at a conference you always have options as far as the format in which your content will be delivered to the audience. The two most frequently used presentation formats that we witness at conferences today are:
- Solo presentations (with one speaker handling everything).
- Panels (with multiple participants – either just answering the attendees’ questions, or doing introductory mini-presentations on the topic after which the Q&A part takes place).
Having just returned from Affiliate Summit, the conference at which, over the years, I have been able to try myself in each of the below-described capacities, I have decided to look back and analyze the lessons I’ve learned from being placed into each of these different roles:
1. Solo Presenter
This is, by far, the most challenging of all speaking opportunities. Do not overestimate yourself here. Prepare your presentation well in advance – to allow yourself plenty of time to practice. Some of the best solo presentations out of the ones I have delivered were practiced for twenty of more times prior to coming up on that stage.
To prepare a quality solo presentation you must mobilize all of your research skills, imagination, discipline, and fearlessness. If you’re lacking any one of these, start by participating on panels or co-presenting instead. If you’re lacking any two of these, cultivate them in yourself prior to proposing to speak in any capacity.
When a conference has more than one worthy expert apply to speak on the same topic, in reply to your speaking proposal, you may be asked to co-present with somebody. Over the past six years, I have done this once, and really enjoyed it. You get to plan together (who covers what), yet remain very flexible in how you deliver your content.
Also, co-presenting always comes with a covert but important “who will shine brighter” challenge. Turn it into an opportunity.
The best panels that I have listened to (and/or participated in) gave every panelist a chance to make their points, and only after that – went into the Q&A time. And it is the collaborative effort (on putting the content together, and making the final product coherent and digestible) that I find most useful in participating on panels.
It teaches you such important skills as listening, thinking, flexibility, and team-working.
4. Panel Moderator
I have seen moderators that introduce the panelists, and then almost immediately remove themselves from it, jumping in (with questions) only when the audience does not participate (i.e. no questions are being asked), and the panel is at risk of failing. As anything passive, I believe this approach to be detrimental to the actual quality of the final product.
As a moderator, you want to contribute both your leadership skills, and your expertise in the field. Give your panelists sufficient room to participate (ensuring that no one participant takes over), but make sure you participate as well.
5. Expert/Roundtable Discussion Leader
This type of breakout sessions can be tremendously effective, but requires significantly more patience than any one of the above-mentioned speaker roles. Ask-the-expert types of discussions are, generally, much livelier than stage presentations or panels.
As a speaker, you want to combine the above-mentioned panel moderator skills with active listening, and keeping your audience engaged at all times. Don’t just come to the these without any questions, examples or case studies of your own. Lead the discussion in a way that is beneficial to all listeners/participants.
In conclusion, regardless of the capacity in which you will present at a conference, the benefits are always tremendous. Whether you have an hour all for yourself, or have to share the time and stage with other co-speakers, it is always worth participating.
Keep in mind, too, that this comes from a speaker who strongly prefers delivering solo presentations.
Woman Speaker Photo via Shutterstock
I agree with you 100% about panel moderators. A good moderator can make the session flow better and thus deliver better content to attendees. Great post Geno.
Thank you, Robert. The moderator may also “make or break” the panel, depending on how much time and effort they put into the preparation of the panel prior to the event. I’ve seen panels where participants would just come unprepared (mod included), hoping to reply solely on audience’s questions. Steering the panel skillfully isn’t easy, and should be taken with all responsibility.
This article is terrific, and timely, and I want to share my experiences to support your important message. I recently did a 90-minute solo presentation followed by moderating a 60-minute panel for a conference. I agree with you on all points. For the solo presentation, I practiced every section at least 10-20 times, rehearsing how I would say things, perfecting transitions, and giving my mouth the muscle memory it needed to be smooth and for me to be confident and comfortable…and that’s IN ADDITION to the many hours I spent working on my PPT slides and the handouts. In addition, because there were some workshop-like components, I had to know my timing and be flexible if there were changes based on the overall day’s program or the audience feedback. Prepping for such a presentation is no joke! After that, I moderated a panel, and I can’t stress enough how much I agree with your statement that the moderator must come educated and prepared to participate in keeping up great flow and engagement (you just can’t count on the panel members to be prepared or the audience to be enthusiastic). I think a great moderator brings out the best in everyone so that afterwards everyone is pleased but no one realizes it’s because the moderator did a great job. In those situations, we work hard, but should let everyone else shine. Thanks for this great article!
Thank you for chiming in with your experience, Rachel. I hope both of your presentations went well. 90 minutes is no joke for a solo preso, by the way.
I read that Steve Jobs practiced on hour for every minute he would be on stage. I also read that the rule of thumb for courtiers addressing the Queen of England was two hours of preparation for a 3-minute audience. Using these benchmarks, we ought to take our preparation very, very seriously. Afterall, we are the stewards of the audience members’ time, and we owe it to them to use that time wisely. (And thanks…the gigs went great and the testimonials came back today and they are glowing. I’m so grateful.)
On the Moderator role, I think an another unacceptable habit is the Moderator who tries to dominate. I’ve spoken on panels where it felt like the panelists had to arm wrestle the Moderator to get a word in edgewise!
Equally frustrating is the Moderator who has to have the last word on everything. No matter what a panelist says, the Moderator has to jump in and correct the panelist, add something or otherwise undermine the panelist. It’s probably unconscious, but it shows a lack of control and a lack of “being present mentally in the moment” for a Moderator not to stay quiet some of the time.
And then there’s my “favorite” of all — the Moderator who lets 3 panelists blather on and go way over schedule, gets to me and announces “We’re out of time so we’ll have to skip your remarks, Anita, so we can move on to more important things.” After I just traveled several hours to attend an event I really didn’t have time to attend in the first place. Yes, this really happened to me once. Maybe it was the incredulous look on my face, but the insult was obvious enough that people in the audience spoke up to protest. Don’t be THAT Moderator!
Excellent points, Anita! Thank you for them.
Obviously, just as any other great privilege, the Panel Moderator role comes with great responsibility. I’ve certainly seen all of these (bad) mistakes happen before my eyes as well.
Lisa Cash Hanson
I’m not quite sure why others would dominate on any panel. If they do then they are really all about themselves and not the attendee. I’ve been on stage for years both as a performer and a speaker. But if you have some wonderful speakers who can impart advice that helps an audience by taking all the time yourself the only one your hurting is the audience. And of course you’ll be perceived as a stage hog.