Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak on a panel as a student panellist. Having seen the verbal mauling that can happen at academic panels, I was nervous (read: terrified). But I said yes: I need to get over this fear, and what amazing opportunity to do it.
I was lucky - the panellists were supportive, the audience posed interesting questions, and I was able to answer them! Here are a few things I learned from my first ever panel.
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
With other types of public speaking, I actually try to go in feeling that I don't know everything. This gives me wiggle room, so I can respond to the people in the room rather than reading off my script. But normally when you do public speaking (a talk, a training session, a briefing) you control the content; a panel is audience-led.
Fearing the hostile questions, I read. A lot. I summarised articles for myself, wrote down key facts. This meant I was able to go in with bullet points of things that I wanted to mention in response to the areas of discussion. If anything, I wish I'd prepared more. When asked to introduce myself, I didn't have a pithy, witty summary like the other panellists. And a few questions threw me off.
2. Meet the panellists (and the chair) before the start of the panel.
As I mentioned, the other panellists were great. I met them briefly before we went on and had a quick chat. This helped me remember names and made me feel more comfortable going on to the stage. It meant I had a feel for who I could bounce off in the discussion. (Which it turns out is great if you're a bit stuck for an answer!)
But since the panel was right at the start of the conference, we didn't have much time beyond introductions. Given more notice, and more time, I think I would make sure I had longer to get to know people.
3. You're allowed to make jokes.
I am a chronic wise-cracker. I am perfectly capable of speaking in public without making a joke, or a wry comment, or a witty riposte, or a humorous barb....but I hate it. So, going into a very formal industry panel, I was desperately trying not to be light hearted.
Of course, I cracked. Trying to be po-faced just made me more nervous: it was another thing to trip up on. It isn't anything like me. And, really? It was fine. A few people laughed (ok, I got a chuckle or two). But, the point is that in actually acting like myself, I was much more relaxed. Of course, I wasn't doing a stand up set, or being inappropriate. But just that touch of levity was well-received (I think) and more to the point: stopped me freaking out.
4. Be prepared for people to introduce themselves.
This was the most pleasant surprise of all. I expected that I'd get up, say my bit and get on with my day. But throughout the day, people were introducing themselves, commenting on the panel and picking up on some of the discussions we'd been having.
For someone like me who hates small talk, this was perfect. It was a great way to meet lots of people, to talk with them about something consequential, and then introduce ourselves. And more than that: people were really sincere in taking an interest in what I'd said: that was incredibly heartening.
5. It's like riding a rollercoaster.
When I've been on rollercoasters, I think it's a great idea. I get all excited. I queue for ages. I get in my seat. And as soon as the safety gear comes down, something in me changes. "Why I am I doing this? This is terrifying. This is really happening. Oh god, we're moving. Oh Christ, we're all going to die. This is awful it's too late to get off. Oh god, we're at the top, oh no, oh no oh - WOOOOOOHEAYEAHEYEAYH!!!! Oh. Is it over? Oh.......LET'S GO AGAIN!!!"
The same was true of the panel. First comes excitement. Then comes blind panic. Then comes adrenaline-fuelled excitement. And, much like my first go on a roller coaster, my first experience of a panel has taught me that you just have to ride it out.