Seven Tips for Executives Participating in Virtual Panels

Over the past year COVID has caused many companies and organizations to take a major pivot from holding in-person conferences, symposiums and events at venues across the country and world to creatively working to conduct those same conferences, symposiums and events online to virtual audiences across the globe.

For example, our client, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) who last hosted its in-person World Congress Experience (WCX) at Detroit’s TCF Center (formerly Cobo Center) in 2019, pivoted to an online event this year and titled it SAE’s WCX Digital Experience. Another client, Rolls-Royce Power Solutions, which typically holds its mtu Power Generation Symposium for customers, potential customers and media in-person in Mankato, Minnesota, held its symposium online for the very first time in 2020.

Times have certainly changed. But one thing that has not changed is that event organizers of industry events still seek keynote speakers and / or expert panelists, to successfully fill their event agendas with content attendees want and need to know.

And, as you may already know, virtual conferences and symposiums differ greatly from in-person events in a few of different ways.

First, the virtual audience attention span tends to be much shorter when compared to in-person event attendance. Many attendees are working from home where outside distractions can be numerous … from knocks at the front door for package deliveries to dogs barking and unplanned family interruptions.

Second, in a virtual event, there is a lot less collective audience energy “in the  room” and unfortunately panelists do not get the same visual and audio feedback talking to a static computer screen than they would otherwise get from a live, animated in-person audience of peers and colleagues.

Third, in a virtual event, where attendees are not likely to be seen by the presenters, attendees are much more inclined to sneak a look at a text message, an email or a Slack or Teams chat message – so they may be less engaged.   

So, to optimize your success as a conference, symposiums or event panelist in getting through to your audience, we suggest the following seven tips to help you take your participation to the next level:

1. Make your presentation lively – We recommend trying to keep your panelist presentation short, sweet and as compelling as it can possibly be. You may want to consider adding in some interactive elements, like questions or polls, to keep the audience engaged in your presentation. You should provide interesting visuals and do your very best to “amp up” your enthusiasm as you deliver your portion of the panel presentation.

2. Optimize your presentation position – To create the optimal visual, you will want to set up your video camera at eye level or slightly higher. Then you will want to do your very best to look at the camera as much as you possibly can. You may want to consider putting a bright sticker near your camera lens to remind you to continue to focus on that area throughout your panel. You should maintain good posture – sitting up straight or standing — at all times and smile as often as possible or as seems natural. You should also try to remain relatively still as you present, avoid a lot of arm movement or any other kind of distracting motions.

3. Pick the proper background – You should pick a comfortable spot within your home, office or remote location. You should also pick a spot where the background is uncluttered, so that your image is the most interesting thing your audience is seeing on the screen. In general we do not recommend using a virtual background, as they can often be distracting to an audience. However, there is one exception to this rule: if your company or organization has a simple, clean, approved branded virtual background, you may want to consider using it. And if you do, you’ll want to be sure to use a good quality green screen and proper lighting to prevent that always awkward “ghost” effect.

4. Light it up – You will want to be sure to choose a location that has good lighting with minimal glare. If possible, make sure that there is good natural, diffused light on your face. It can often help to face a window for such natural light. If there is not enough natural light coming from your windows because it’s dark or a cloudy or stormy day, you may consider using a supplemental light – even an inexpensive selfie ring light kit, which can easily be purchased online for as little as $30, can help immensely in lighting up your face and making you and your overall presentation look more vibrant.

5. Dress the part – We recommend that you dress the way you normally would if you were presenting at an in-person conference, symposium or event. Stick to solid, darker colors which tend to show up much better on video. Avoid wearing busy patterns or flashy jewelry. And, above all else, avoid the temptation to wear sweatpants or shorts, just in case your camera slips and unveils the unfashionable look of business up top and ultra-causal down below that can kill your credibility.

6. Mic it up – As you probably know, audio quality can vary greatly from one technology device to another. In addition, unexpected distracting noises can also occur when you least expect them (i.e. the earlier mentioned knock on the door, dog barking, etc.). We have found that it can often help to utilize a microphone headset or ear buds – again easier purchased online for as little as $15 — to enhance audio quality and lessen any extraneous noise.

7. Practice makes perfect – Remember, you’re not just presenting, you’re actually performing. You will want to avoid the urge to just wing it. So be sure to practice, practice, practice. Most of the popular video platforms will allow you to record the presentation. So take the initiative to record your practice session and then review it to look for potential improvements that could be made before you go live on the day of. We guarantee that the more you practice, the more you will improve your panel presentation.

Above and Beyond: Questions for your Moderator

Beyond these seven tips mentioned above for a successful panelist presentation, there are a few other items for you to consider to enhance your experience as a panelist.

You’ll want to touch base early on, with the persons organizing and moderating your particular panel session. Many times, they will be the same person.  They will be the best people to get the information and insight you need by asking the following questions.

First, will there be a pre-call for your particular panel session? A pre-call with your moderator will help you and the rest of the panelists understand who else is on the panel, who will cover what topics (so there isn’t a duplication of information or effort), and the presentation order or succession. They can also address any housekeeping items or how any technical issues that might arise during the panel will be handled.

Second, will the moderator be sharing any of his or her questions in advance? If so, this is the perfect opportunity for you to prepare some initial responses and also help ensure that you can participate more fully in the panel discussion.

Third, how does the moderator plan to operate? For example, will he or she have a way to control the flow of the panelist conversation? What will they do to avoid panel members talking at the same time or, worse yet, have dead air if no one steps up to respond immediately?

Fourth, if there’s going to be a formal question and answer session, how will that be handled by the moderator? Will the moderator direct the questions to specific people or will they just toss out the question in a free-for-all to the whole group of panelists? And while discussing the question and answer session, you may also ask the moderator if they would like you to provide two to three questions of your own to help get the audience started, if necessary. 

Presenting in a virtual panel discussion can be fun and rewarding, and we hope these tips will make you more effective, comfortable and confident.

Have you or one of your executives participated in a virtual conference, symposium or event recently? What might you add to our list of virtual panelist tips? We welcome your input.

Author: Jessica Muzik

Jessica is vice president – account service at Bianchi PR with 24 years of PR experience across the corporate, industrial and community sectors.

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