How To Rock as a Panelist at HR Seminars, Conferences & Workshops

By Alan Collins

“You guys rocked!”

That was the feedback an HR VP gave to us as we concluded our panel discussion at a recent HRMAC (Human Resources Management Association of Chicago) event in the Windy City.

It was great to hear this comment and to be selected as one of the panelists along with Rich Floersch, former CHRO at McDonalds and Carolyn Tilden, president of CataQuest Leadership Consulting.

Our topic was managing change as a senior HR leader.   We played off each other well and had an absolute blast!

This experience reminded me of the value that anyone in HR can gain by participating as a panelist at seminars, conferences and workshops.

Being a panelist is underrated, yet it’s one of the best ways of advancing your career.  It can allow you to expand your network and make connections that can later turn into job opportunities or consulting gigs.

In fact, if you’re not comfortable giving solo presentations, then being on a multi-person panel is ideal because you don’t have to be the number one center of attention.

But you benefit just as much.

The moment you step foot on stage at an event with the other panelists, you’re immediately seen as an expert.  And people will naturally believe you know your stuff,  just because you’ve upfront as part of the panel.

However, to fully maximize this opportunity to potentially enhance your career, you need to prepare.  And in this article, I’ll cover five tips which show you how to make that happen.

So let’s get started with…

Tip #1:
Do your homework in advance.

To gain maximum value from being on a panel, don’t get lulled into thinking you can just show up and wing it. It’s NOT as easy as it looks.

Beforehand, ask the moderator for a list of questions or key topics that he or she plans to introduce into the discussion.

Then use those questions to prepare the same way you would for a formal presentation.  Craft a few interesting stories about your background, lessons learned, important advice or provocative opinions.  You may not use them all but have them ready.

You want to also use those questions to anticipate what further questions the audience is likely to ask as well.

This is similar to the way politicians prepare for press conferences.  They prepare their answers to questions before they are asked.

And that leads to…

Tip #2
Craft some key MESSAGE NUGGETS that
will showcase you and your expertise.

This is most important tip of them all.

Keep in mind that on a panel, you only “have the floor” for a few minutes at a time, interspersed with remarks from the other panelists.

That’s very different from giving a presentation where you can command the audience solo.

So it’s important that you make your time count.

To do that, develop some short, memorable MESSAGE NUGGETS that can be easily worked into the conversation — that can showcase your expertise.

Here’s what I mean:

Suppose you’re an HR leader and you’ve been invited to be on a conference panel entitled “Attracting & Retaining Top Talent.”   And you know in advance that the audience will be mostly other HR leaders and executives who are interested in this topic.

Normally, the message you’d want to communicate as a panelist are a few best practices that your organization engages in as a leader this area.

And you can and should do that.

However, this is also an opportunity to promote YOURSELF too.  Especially if you’re in the hunt for a new opportunity or if you want to pick up some consulting on the side.

In this case, the “big win” for you as a panelist would be to have some of those executives in the audience to express an interest in you and your ideas, thereby creating a conversation afterwards that could eventually lead to a job offer or consulting assignment.

Since that’s your big win, you should craft nuggets similar to the stories you’d tell in a job interview. Nuggets which emphasize the actions you’ve taken personally to make your organization successful.

For example, one of your nuggets might be:

“To help retain our top talent, our organization proactively created ‘Leadership Roundatables.’ ” 

“But that wasn’t all. My specific role was to supplement these efforts by identifying 14 different online leadership programs which we used to excite and develop the target population we wanted to retain. All these efforts blew this talented group away and improved our retention from 85% to 93% in one year and received 97% positive feedback from all those involved.”

“Let me briefly describe one of the many programs I helped develop as part of my firm’s team…”

Again, this is just one example.  Note how you represented what your organization did and your specific role.  This is the best of both worlds.

Nuggets like this will make an impression that might easily “whet the appetite” of interested parties in the audience who will want to follow-up with you afterwards for more details on what your organization’s did or those programs you created.

You should shoot to develop 2-3 nuggets just like this one that you’ll bring to the panel.  Prep them in advance and the look for places where you can insert or segue to one of them. 

This is the heart of your strategy with panels.

But there’s an important caution in all this, which takes us to…

Tip #3:
Don’t be a jerk.

This goes without saying, but I’ll mention it anyway.  All your efforts will be worthless if you come across as an arrogant prick that turns people off.

So respect your fellow panelist’s comments, play off them and don’t diss them.

This means not being an answer hog. Keep your answers short, succinct, and sweet.

However, if there’s an answer hog on your panel, it’s perfectly fine to respectfully assert yourself in order to ensure all panelists get a chance to be heard. A good moderator should take care of this for you, but not always.

You want to come across a considerate, experienced and well-informed panelist who not only shines, but shows the leadership ability to make the entire panel shine too.

This means it’s okay to kid around, have fun and even respectfully disagree with another panelist.

I was once part of an eight-person panel of business leaders offering career advice. One of the panel members, gave an HR director in the audience some terrible career advice.

With no previous experience in HR, he urged her to frankly get out of the HR business entirely. He maintained that HR is not the place where the best and brightest go. It’s the place where losers go when they are re-assigned or where they’ve failed everywhere else.

I couldn’t resist. This was terrible advice. And I said so.  But I began my comments by saying:

“With all due respect with what John has said, as a lifelong HR professional myself, I disagree.  Obviously I may be baised, but let me give you two great reasons why HR is an awesome career to pursue…”

Afterwards the moderator and participant were glad that I jumped in because it provided another perspective.

And the moderator confidentially told me something else. My comments helped provide some debate and controversy, which she was looking for.

“Debate and controversy are really what makes panel discussions interesting and memorable,” she said.  “When was the last time you enjoyed a panel discussion or even a conversation in which every person agreed 100 percent?”

“Perhaps you have a point,” I responded.  “But even so, this doesn’t give you free rein to be a jerk.  Hopefully, I wasn’t one myself when I disagreed with John.”

She assured me I wasn’t.

The lesson for me that I’m passing on to you is this: Don’t be a jackass and interrupt people and insist your opinion is the only right one. 

However, if you’re on a panel where you really belong and your expertise allows you to speak up, do it!  Own it!  Put it out there.  That’s what panels are for — diverse opinions, not agreement.  And if you’re concerned that you’re being too overbearing, preface your statements by saying:

“I’m not in agreement with that last point, and here’s why . . . ”
“I have a different perspective on that question, and here it is…”
“I may be the only dissenting voice on this issue.  But here’s my perspective on this…”

Make these statements calmly.  There’s no need for animosity or unprofessional behavior.

Just don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re the only dissenting voice.

It will make you memorable.

Tip #4:
Hang around afterwards.

Book an extra 20-30 minutes before and after the session to hang around and talk to audience members.

If you’ve followed the tips above, you’ll always have a line of participants wanting to grab you, talk, ask follow-up questions or just introduce themselves. So, let them.

Now, you can’t always be self-serving.  Not every person who talks to you will be a valuable contact, but you owe each of these people your attention anyway.

If someone approaches with a question that deserves a longer answer, offer to take their card and follow up later. Then you can decide whether you want to call or email to answer the question.

Don’t let opportunities slip away by disappearing immediately after the panel ends.

Finally, there’s…

Tip #5:
Bring your “A” game.

Get some sleep the night before.

If you have to, slam down a strong coffee or an energy drink – anything to keep you on your toes, awake and energetic.

Even if you’re not answering a question, probably half of the audience is still watching you. In fact, assume someone is taking your picture with their phone at any moment.

Answer questions with passion, enthusiasm and conviction.
Listen to others with genuine interest.
Speak up so the back row can hear you and make eye contact with the audience.

And enjoy the process.

Here’s the bottom line on all this…

Being a panelist is a terrific opportunity to make new connections that can advance your career in HR. Who knows, these connections can later become job opportunities or consulting gigs.

Opportunities to participate on panels exist everywhere. You’ll find them at town halls, employee meetings, training programs and other internal or external functions.

If offered the opportunity, don’t turn these down.
In fact, seek them out.
They can be valuable.

But don’t underestimate the potential for embarrassing yourself either.  To avoid this, do some prep beforehand, take time to craft your key message nuggets, don’t be a jerk or discussion hog and be sure to hang around afterwards.

Following these simple steps can generate a huge wins for you and your career.

And you’ll rock!

Now, how about you?

Any panelist success tips or horror stories you’d like to share?  If so share them in the comments below by clicking HERE.

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Want more ideas for advancing your career and winning big in HR, then check out:

WINNING BIG IN HR: 100+ Powerful Strategies For Accomplishing Great Results Faster & Getting Your Clients To Rave About You As A Human Resources Professional!

For more detailed information about this book, go HERE.

OR

If you are an aspiring HR leader or anticipate moving into a new HR leadership role soon, then check out.

THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS:  How To Start Strong, Hit The Ground Running & ACHIEVE SUCCESS FASTER As A New Human Resources Manager, Director or VP.

For more information about this book, go HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals including WINNING BIG IN HR. and THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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4 Responses to “How To Rock as a Panelist at HR Seminars, Conferences & Workshops”

  1. Kevin Panet Says:

    I recently was invited by the EEOC to sit on a panel regarding employee relations. I was seated between a lawyer for employers and a lawyer for employees, which seemed appropriate at the time because that’s where HR people tend to end up. The employee’s lawyer bragged about his very large settlements against employers. I think my best nugget was “treat employees with respect, document thoroughly, and don’t foul up the situation so you end up facing the employee’s lawyer in court.” We all played off each other and I thought it was one of the better panels I had ever experienced.

  2. Alan Says:

    Kevin, I love your subtle, informative, but respectful response to the employee’s lawyer. Nice work. It’s sometimes difficult to react on the spot in the heat of the moment, but your comment was right on the money. All of which underlines the point of preparing in advance — not only your responses but prepping your mindset too. Clearly you were coming from a good place. Thanks for the share. Well done!

  3. Marla Newman Says:

    What would be the best way to get invited to sit on panels?

  4. Alan Says:

    Marla, great question. I may do an article on this soon. But in the interim, here are a few thoughts that quickly come to mind.:

    (1) It’s important that you have some type of UNIQUE experience or message that can set your apart from other HR folks. Are you/your organization doing some innovative or unique things in talent management, or retention or engagement…or anything else folks would want to hear about? Most organizations hide these “secrets.” Being willing to share some of those would be attractive to event organizers, with your organization’s permission of course.
    (2) Publicize your UNIQUE specialty/expertise through social media…on LinkedIn on your profile…or through some articles or posts.
    (3) Make sure folks in your local SHRM chapter know you’re open to serving on panels and can offer a unique perspective/experience.
    (3) Don’t be picky. Speak to any organization willing to hear your message. The word spreads.
    (4) Attend some conferences and build some meaningful relationships with the event organizers.
    (5) Make sure your email address is readily available and accessible.
    (6) Network, network, network.

    If other thoughts come to mind, I’ll post them.

    Would welcome thoughts from others as well.

    Thanks again for the great question.

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