3 steps to becoming everyone’s favorite panelist

Doug Neff

Written by

Doug Neff

If you’ve ever received an invitation to speak on a panel and found yourself hesitating to accept, you’re not alone. Here are 3 Tips to help you become everybody’s favorite panelist.

Panel discussions can be disorganized, poorly-moderated, and filled with unknowns. What if you say the wrong thing? What if the other panelists look smarter than you?

Your time is valuable. How do you make sure your own message is getting out there while you’re participating on someone else’s panel?

The pandemic hasn’t helped, either. Virtual panel discussions add another layer of technology and communication barriers to an already challenging environment.

But the good news is that with a few simple changes, you can greatly improve your game and quickly earn the appreciation of audiences everywhere.

And if you’d like to get even better, consider one of our Speaker Coaching packages. We’ll help you become the panelist you’ve always wanted to be!

Step 1: Easy on the eyes, easy on the ears

When you appear in a panel discussion in person, your sound and lighting will be covered by a crew of people whose only job is to make you look and sound good.

On a virtual panel, that job falls to you. (And if you have to prioritize, it’s better to sound good than to look good.)

When it comes to sound, figure out what options you have for microphones. Most of us have a microphone built into our laptop (generally the worst option) and a pair of earbuds lying around (a step up from your laptop mic).

If you have the time and funds, consider purchasing a USB desktop microphone or a corded headset. You can find plenty of reviews online, and these will greatly improve how you sound. Note that corded is generally better than Bluetooth for sound quality, and a microphone next to your face (earbuds or headset) will generally be clearer than a big desktop microphone.

For lighting, placement is everything. Try to arrange your setup so that natural light is hitting the front of your face. Test out different places in your home or office to see what works best. A floor or desk lamp off to the side can work miracles when natural light isn’t possible.

For both sound and lighting, the key is testing. Record yourself with several different sound and lighting options, then review the results. You’d be surprised at how few panelists take this one simple step.

By looking and sounding your best, you’ll already be a step above the rest.


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Step 2: Make friends all over

If you’re delivering a presentation to a room, we want you to make a connection with everyone in your audience. Usually this is through deliberate eye contact in a pattern throughout the room.

In a virtual panel discussion, though, you need to use more than just your eyes, and you need to connect with three different audiences (in this order):

  1. Your viewing audience
  2. Your panel moderator
  3. Your fellow panelists

That means you should be making connections every chance you get with everyone who’s watching your panel. And when the moderator asks a question, you should connect with them in your response. Finally, in back-and-forth discussions with your fellow panelists, look for ways to connect with each of them directly.

Here are two tricks for connecting with each of these audiences:

Write down the panelists names and moderator’s name on a sticky note, and keep it right next to you throughout the panel so you can refer to them by name.

“That’s an insightful question, Robin. I’d like to start with some context, and then I’ll get to what you’re asking.”

“I love the point you’re making, Brian. I’ve often felt that we’re misunderstood in this industry, and I think you’re calling attention to that.”

Second, use your camera lens for emphasis. In virtual communication, your audience will tolerate you looking away, looking at your notes, and otherwise doing a lot of glancing around. They’re used to it. You’re not expected to be a professional broadcaster.

But when you get to the meat of your response, hold the gaze of the camera until you get to the end of your point, then casually look back down at your notes or somewhere else.

This is a deceptively simple trick, but it can be uncomfortable and awkward, so most people don’t learn how to do it effectively. Take the time to practice it, and you’ll see its effectiveness for yourself.

Step 3: Be the panelist with a point of view

If you’ve followed the first two steps, your audience can see and hear you clearly, and they’ve felt you connect with them directly throughout your time on the panel. This next step is even more valuable: Be purposeful.

We all have a point of view—a purpose behind our communication—especially in areas where we have some level of expertise. But how do you effectively bring that purpose to a panel discussion? Aren’t you beholden to the point of view of the moderator?

No. In fact, you’ve been invited to participate in this discussion because you have a unique point of view. But most panelists fall short of sharing it with the audience.


  • Communication skills are a game-changer in today’s workplace
  • Every business today needs a specific strategy against phishing
  • Sandwiches without pickles aren’t really sandwiches

That’s your point of view. Stick it on your computer display, right near your camera, so you don’t forget it. And now that you’re clear on your point of view, you can bring it into all of your communication.

Here’s a simple formula for bringing every question back to your point of view. When the moderator asks a question:

  1. Restate the question—or better yet, reframe the question in terms of your point of view. (And don’t forget to use their name.)
  2. Offer your thoughtful, insightful answer to the audience.
  3. End your answer by reconnecting it to your point of view.

Here’s an example of how that might sound. Let’s say a moderator asks me, “What new trends are you seeing out there in terms of giving presentations in this virtual world?”

Here’s my response:

“I get asked that question a lot, Robin. What are the new communication trends out there? How are people responding to this virtual world? And we’re certainly seeing some new approaches with our clients at Duarte.

As you heard Brian say earlier, people are learning how to use more sophisticated collaboration tools, for one thing, and that has had a big impact on how presentations are built. But what you might find surprising is that communication is communication.

The skills we teach at Duarte are fundamental and aren’t impacted by a change in venue or technology. That’s why these communication skills are a game-changer in today’s workplace.”

Can you see the formula? Could you tell how I chose to connect with both the moderator and one of my fellow panelists?

And by the way, if the moderator asks a question that doesn’t come anywhere near your point of view, don’t volunteer to answer. Let someone else on the panel take that one. Wait for the questions that align to your point of view, then respond to those with enthusiasm.

Bonus tip: Practice with a coach

These three steps will help make you an audience favorite and set you apart from most panelists out there. There’s also enough information in this article to practice these steps on your own. But if you’d like more help, a speaker coach can be invaluable.

Imagine working 1:1 with someone who’s completely focused on helping you grow your skills as a communicator. Not only is it much more fun than doing it on your own, but you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can improve!

Which Speaker Coaching package is right for you?


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Illustrated by Jonathan Valiente

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