Many of us in the technology, media and VC world sit on panels at lot. Many of them are painfully boring. It’s a shame since it’s such a golden opportunity for you to build awareness with your audience for who you are and what you do. And it’s a surprisingly great way to meet people in this industry who share the stage with you. (photo from left to right: me, QD3, Brian Solis, Chamillionaire, Ian Rogers and Brian Zisk – most of whom I got to know through Twiistup panels)
I have written about the topic of sitting on panels before. I sat on two panels in the past week – once at LeadsCon (** see appendix if you’re interested in a back story here) and today at the America’s Growth Capital conference. So it’s fresh on my mind. Hope I won’t be too repetitive.
Here’s my views on how to maximize your time on stage:
Give (your contribution)
1. Educate – Your primary role on stage is to educate the audience. People have paid good money to be at the show and often times it’s to hear people like you speak. It’s your job to know thy audience. And thy topic. Try to find out in advance the make of of the people who will be attending. Things to know: mix of entrepreneurs, big tech company execs, service providers, media people, VCs, etc. It would be good to undertand size of companies. Make sure you really try to get inside the minds of the audience so you speak about what you believe they will think is relevant. Obviously it should be closely aligned with what the topic of the panel is.
Tip: On panels I believe it is OK for you (even as a panelist and not moderator) to say, “I want to understand whom I’m speaking to. Can I get a show of hands for how many people are X? Y?”
Tip: It is always a good idea to save time on the panel for audience questions. This is the moderator’s job but it doesn’t hurt to ask (read: remind) them before hand if there will be audience Q&A at the end.
Tip: It is always a good idea to email the other participants in advance with topics of discussion and alert the moderator if you’re worried about the direction it might take.
Tip: Get the audience to respect you for your content contributions. Make sure they know your name, your company and what you do. No more. Don’t oversell or over market. It will always be viewed in the eyes of the audience as unbearable. The exception in my mind is if the topic of the panel warrants you talking about how your business operates as part of the learning experience. But try to make it a functional discussion rather than a marketing pamphlet.
2. Entertain – It is also your job to entertain! I’m sure not everybody will agree with me on this one. But let’s face it, on most panels a large number of people in the audience are surfing the web, doing Tweets, checking email, playing with their iPhones, etc. It’s because they’re BORED. You can’t show up with your monotone voice and have a deeply intellectual discussion like you might over brandy and cigars. You’re on stage! Show energy and enthusiasm. If you’re capable of it show some wit. (If you’re not, don’t try. Nothing worse than bombing). If you’re a nervous speaker bring bullet point notes. If you’re really nervous join Toastmasters.
3. Have a dialog – I find the most enjoyable panels are ones in which the panelists engage in a dialog. The worst are the ones where the moderator just asks questions and you go down the line answering each one until the line of people are finished speaking. When somebody on your panel makes a point to hesitate to politely ask them a question that let’s them clarify their point a bit. You can also politely jump in with, “that’s a great point. We had a similar experience …” but if you do this obviously be respectful that you’re not cutting them off too early. Let them get enough air time first. When you do this it’s also a good idea to not have a commentary to another person’s point where you then talk for 5 minutes. It should just be a quick comment / thought.
I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little bit of friendly controversy. That was always the rule when I lived in the UK. A panel without controversy was boring and a wasted opportunity. The audience always likes this a bit. It spices things up and makes for great entertainment. If you’re nervous about trying this then go to your fellow panelist before hand and try saying, “hey, do you mind if I try to add a bit of friendly controversy to the panel to get the debate going? I’ll try my best to do it respectfully.” Obviously if they prefer not to then don’t. And, yes, I probably take a little bit too much license with this particular advice.
Get (what you get out of it):
1. Awareness of your brand – You get so much out of being a great speaker on a panel. I highly recommend it to all companies. You get to earn credibility as an expert in the topic area. People at the conference become aware of who you are. If you say clever things the attribute positive feelings about your company even if they don’t really know what you do. It serves as a great conversation piece to meet people the rest of the conference. People will say, “oh, I saw you speak on that panel. I liked what you said about X.” It’s a free ice breaker for the rest of the conference. It’s “earned media.”
2. Business Cards of fellow panelists – Make sure to grab everybody’s business cards. They’re mostly wired to expect that you’re going to ask so don’t be shy – even if they’re in a league above your pay grade (the best kind of panels). One of the most surprising things I learned over the years is the kinship you build with other individuals when you simply shared the stage for an hour. Particularly if you were articulate and made relevant points. It really is a great way to get to know people. My recommendation is if possible ask for the business cards before you start speaking. Afterwards everybody rushes the stage so it’s harder. If you all arrive a bit late and you don’t have time to grab cards then immediately when the panel ends ask for cards before the herd arrives.
3. Follow up! – Obvious, right? You’d be surprised how few people do this. I’ve gotten to know so many people over the years through panels. At LeadsCon I sat on the panel with Saar Gur, one of my favorite people to spend time with when I’m in NorCal. Well, maybe we got a bit too friendly on this panel But I actually first met Saar on a LAVA panel in LA. Afterwards we exchanged cards. I called him on my next trip to Palo Alto. From there we just started to get to know each other. At LeadCon we grabbed 2+ hours, which I really enjoyed. I never would have known him were it not for the LAVA panel. Tomorrow I’m going to see Aydin Senkut. I first met Aydin at a DealMaker Media event where, you guessed it, we sat on a panel together. I won’t bore you with a laundry list, you get the point.
1. Speaking on panels with too many members – This is a waste of your time. I have a rule about this. No more than 5 people on the panel. I prefer 4. If there’s more people then you’ll end up not talking much, there will be limited back-and-forth conversation and you won’t get to know anybody. I find these panels to be low value add for all involved.
2. Over promotion of your company – For some people it’s tempting to be an marketing automaton. Don’t. You’re better off with the earned media and the relationships. Nobody remembers many of the details of what is actually said in a panel discussion anyway. But they remember the impression they formed of you. People generally don’t like over promoters who don’t add to the discussion.
3. Long winded intro – I really like when the moderator asks people to limit intros to 30 seconds. Nobody is there to be “educated” about your entire career history or have a long-winded description of your company in the intro. Keep it short, sharp, punchy and high energy.
4. Hogging minutes – The other annoying thing on panels is the “over talker” or the person who always has to answer the question first (the way that annoying kid did back when you were in elementary and high school). Don’t be a wall flower – you should get in your minutes. But don’t crowd out other people. If your goal is to sit on panels with important people and build a relationship with them you won’t achieve this by not letting them speak! (you might think you won’t do this either by being controversial – I think if you learn to do controversy with humor and tact it’s OK. Just my view.) Also, when it’s your turn to speak don’t speak for too long in any one question. People prefer snappy answers to questions.
5. Being a player / manager (aka moderator with an agenda) – Moderators are moderators, not panelists. That’s why they gave you your own special title. You’re not a player / manager – you’re a manager. Understand your role. Don’t answer your own questions or ask questions that are secretly statements to show how smart you are. Earn respect of the audience be well thought through questions. Keep panelists on their toes by not letting them speak too long on any one topic. Try to get a discussion going amongst panelists. Get the audience involved. You are the conductor. You control the tempo.
** Appendix (only if you’re interested in a story)
At the LeadsCon conference I actually made one pretty big error. I turned up at the MGM Grand for the conference and they didn’t have my name on the registration list. I spoke with the lady for 10 minutes while she looked for me in the computer. I finally said, “I’m just going in – I’m supposed to be on a panel,” to which she replied, “Are you with IBM?” Me: “No, why would I be with IBM?” Lady, somewhat frustrated with me, says “Because this is an IBM conference.” DOH! Jogged to get a cab. Arrived at the right hotel (The Mirage). Jogged to the conference area. Arrived to a room of several hundred people and 5 guys on stage already 5 minutes into the discussion.
Not a good start, right? I tried to alleviate the situation with humor. When asked to introduce myself I said, “Hi. I’m Mark Suster. I’m a venture capitalist. I’m late because I went to the wrong hotel. Obviously you don’t have to pass an IQ test to become a VC.”
I tried to be respectful of the other panelists and not drive the agenda of the discussion too much in the beginning. They got into a really esoteric conversation about the EBITDA multiples of publicly traded companies. It went on for ages and was now 25 minutes into the session. The VCs were silent most of this time. It wasn’t relevant to us. I couldn’t see how it was relevant to a room full of people, most of whom would never IPO. I was having an ADD moment. I started looking around the room and noticed a bunch of people on their laptops, iPhones and Blackberries.
I finally couldn’t bight my lip any longer. I blurted out, “I’m not sure how this is relevant to a room full of leads people?” [totally shocked looks all around] ”How many people in the audience are from companies of 100 people or more?” Very few hands. ”How many are from companies of less than 20 people?” Most of the audience. OK, so now I thought I knew what was relevant. They must all want VC, right? I said, “how many of you are looking to raise money in the next 12 months from investors?” Still, very few hands. Um, wow! What next? This prompted Dave McClure to Tweet this.
By now the bankers are seething at me. The moderator (rightly so) was also perturbed. I didn’t handle this as well as I might have but I just kept thinking, “if I’m bored sh*tless and this is my business, I wonder what all of these people in the audience are thinking?”
So I suggested that we ask the audience what they wanted to hear about. The moderator was respectful enough to do this (even though I’m sure he wanted to ring my neck).
A good discussion emerged. I personally feel that the quality of the rest of the panel was much better for the audience. Was anybody there? I’d be grateful if you added comments below on how the session went. Did the panel improve or get worse? Please don’t feel you need to be nice to me – I’d love real feedback if you were there. Criticism is fine.
I know that I could have / should have handled the whole situation better. I have a small sense of regret that it had to come to this. It was a bit of fun, though. Except when the really tall banker got in my face after the panel. I apologized. I hope he accepted. He was a bit bent out of shape. At least for a few tense moments people stopped playing with their iPhones.