Executive visibility is a key component of any sound B2B PR program. It’s no coincidence that executives at market-leading companies consistently show up on hot-topic panels. Among our clients, it may be digital tech conferences like Advertising Week, trade group panels like those staged by ANA or IAB, or their own hosted discussions. For up-and-coming B2B brands, panels offer the opportunity to cultivate real brand voice, credibility, and a point of view, all of which reinforce competitive advantage.
Public speaking is also a great way to build a personal brand. Taking the stage in front of the right audiences has tangible business benefits, because it helps position both executive and company as an authority in its space. Sharing a podium can also connect executives with key industry players, put them in front of media they wouldn’t otherwise meet, and even aid in new business development.
As the conferences and awards manager at Crenshaw, I spend a lot of time helping our B2B tech clients win thought leadership speaking gigs at conferences. But getting the gig is just the beginning of the hard work. Most tech people have attended a panel that was awkward, uneven, or just dull. Here are some guidelines to avoid being the panelist that makes an event go south.
Don’t underestimate the performance element
Some younger founders or CEOs may underestimate the responsibility that comes with being the public face of the company. Audiences at INBOUND or SXSW don’t only hear a spokesperson’s words; they pick up non-verbal cues that help them form an impression of your company. No pressure! If inexperienced at public performance, an executive spokesperson should prepare and practice, and remember some fundamentals. Keep the microphone about one inch from your mouth, for starters. Speak as you normally would, with just a little bit more; enunciate clearly and project to the back of the room. Assume a sturdy posture, sitting up straight and remaining attentive even when not speaking. If any of this sounds intimidating, an executive should not hesitate to call on PR pros for formal speaker training.
Get the lay of the land
A speaker should never accept a role on a panel without knowing who the fellow panelists are and what they stand for. Make sure you research the panelists and moderator and get to know their points of view on the topic, so you have an idea of where the conversation might go. Most moderators conduct pre-panel phone call meetings to prep for the event. If they do not, certainly request a list of questions from the moderator. In any case, your PR team should prepare a detailed briefing document with extensive info on the background of the participants and potential questions and answers.
Follow etiquette and protocol
One of the long-term goals of panel speaking at industry events is to become a go-to source both for conference programmers seeking seasoned speakers and reporters looking for expert commentary. It’s also an opportunity to build your personal reputation, naturally. The goal is to establish yourself as not only smart and insightful, but helpful, professional, and respectful. A speaker should never show how annoyed they are with a fellow panelist by making gestures or shifting in his seat, nor should they interrupt a moderator or panelist, or an audience member during the Q&A. The best panelists are always enthusiastic about what is being said and never appear disengaged.
Educate, don’t sell
If you’re a real thought leader, you have to do just that. Lead – by offering information and insight. One of the keys to winning solo speaking sessions at tech conferences is to pitch a talk that is free of advertisements for the company or its solution. Panel discussions by their very nature are not commercials. Panelists should not even try and slide in any backdoor plugs for their brand. Sharing real actionable expertise on relevant topics is the best advertising in any case. This applies to company-hosted panel events just as much as conference panels.
Be gregarious, but don’t bogart
A panel discussion is a chance to shine, so if charisma is a quality you have, let it breathe. That said, it reflects poorly when an executive tries to pontificate or hog the stage. Wait your turn and answer questions in a straightforward manner. But don’t be afraid to briefly take the discussion in a new direction – if it’s relevant, entertaining, and interesting. A panel gig is a terrific networking opportunity, so thought leaders should get chatty before the actual session to connect with fellow panelists and moderato. Feel free to linger after the session to meet audience members as well.
The best thing about appearing on a panel is that it tends to lead to more invitations, so it pays to chart an overall executive visibility plan aimed at gaining higher-visibility opportunities as time goes on. Every appearance is a building block in a larger PR and reputation strategy.