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23. Panels, Seminars, Workshops, and Conferences

...and knoweth not who shall gather them.

—Psalms 39:6

In this information age, one of the most efficient ways to learn is to be briefed by experts in the field at a panel discussion, seminar, or workshop. The raw data has been researched, cultivated, processed, experimented with, and edited down to simply what you need to know. The number of presenters, the length of the training, and the depth of audience involvement defines the vehicle for learning.

Panels

For an event organizer, a panel of speakers offers the challenge of booking a moderator and three or four speakers instead of one. But it's a good investment of time and energy. Because each speaker will interest a different segment, there will probably be a bigger audience. And all the speakers should be encouraged to invite their friends, clients, and business associates to hear them speak.

In the nonprofit sector, such as universities, a panel provides an opportunity for the same information to be presented from different points of view. And even in an academic arena, likeability and making it an enjoyable learning experience instead of a boring lecture go a long way in creating a professional reputation.

A panel takes pressure off the speakers to be brilliant and to hold the attention of the entire audience for the evening or afternoon. You will endear yourself to a program chair if you can suggest other speakers to be on a panel with you. And, usually, your friends, the other speakers, will be complimented as well. By suggesting a vertical rather than horizontal panel, you can avoid direct competitors and select your contractors or, better yet, a client, to speak on the topic or be the moderator. For additional visibility, you may offer to be both a speaker and moderator. In this case, you must bend over backwards to give every speaker his or her due and not hog the podium or microphone.

If you suggest the panel, work with the program chair to make it a timely and provocative topic that will elicit a lot of interest. And suggest a lineup that makes logical sense.

If your panel is already selected, learn ahead of time from the chair or moderator who each speaker is and in what order the panelists will speak. Ask in what position you will bat — first, second, third, or clean-up. Chances are, your moderator hasn't definitely decided yet and you may get to choose. Once again, have in mind a logical sequence, featuring your choice. I prefer second. By that time, the audience is warmed up, they haven't tired of listening, and everything you want to say hasn't already been said. If you know that one of the panelists is an exceptionally good speaker, try to come before, not immediately after, her.

Whatever the order, take the time to research the bios and backgrounds of the other panelists and be generous in spirit, even if they are your biggest competitors. A panel is a great opportunity for potential customers to compare and contrast the competition and you want to appear gracious and good-natured. Acting as the winner helps to ensure that you will be!

Take a dynamic point of view, but not one that contradicts your business philosophy. Address the topic both from experience and research. Learn something new about the subject because an interested speaker is a more interesting one. The audience will think it is only the tip of the iceberg of what you know.

As a panelist or in any speaking situation, be subtle in your advertising or self-promotion. Use your experience, client list, or case histories as logical examples of points that need to be made. Avoid being too commercial. This isn't a new business pitch. Your authority is already acknowledged by being there and a captive audience will squirm like a moth on a pin if they have to listen to a sales pitch.

Once the topic and panel are established, work again with the organizer or chair to get your bio and picture into her hands. And mail or e-mail the promotional piece or flyer out to everyone you know or want to know. As with any party, it's not who comes but who gets invited that counts.

Again, you will endear yourself to the organizers who are always scrambling to fill the audience. Depending on your or your company's resources, the panel participants, and the organization, you may want to buy a table for associates and/or clients.

As a panelist, you should not have waited until the other panelists are speaking to be writing your part of the presentation. Instead, look intently at each speaker and listen very carefully to what each one says, noting places where you can refer back for agreement. Very often the audience will be watching you to see how interested you are in what the others have to say. Nothing will hurt the others' credibility or yours more than a yawn from you or a roll of your eyes or even staring into space.

As a moderator, you are the team leader and need to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding blocking, how long each presentation should be, what aspects of the topic each should address, and whether they should stand at the podium or sit at their places with table mikes. I recommend that the presenters use the podium for their presentations in order to give each individual recognition, and then take a team approach to answering questions on table mikes.

If you can do it subtly, take your position at the end of the table, stage right, audience left. It is the power position because an audience reads the front of a room like they read a newspaper, and their eyes keep returning to the left. Often the bookends hold the stage during the Q&A and the middle players end up looking like they are watching a tennis match between two really good players.

Seminars

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines the seminar as a supervised session or course for advanced study. But seminars don't have to be just one-way conversations with only facial expressions or body language for feedback. They should be very interactive.

Every audience has smilers and stoics. Both can be misleading. Smilers will smile and nod at anything, that's their social mode. Involve the stoics and those who are looking at their shoes. Interrupt your flow and engage the stoic with questions. "Bill?" (it's on his name tag). "May I call you, Bill?" (reluctant agreement). "Bill, based on your experience, would you choose A or B?" (both are correct and everyone knows it). Hire fewer people and pay them more or pay less and be able to hire more people? Layoffs. Salary. Telegraph the answer. Ask another, "John, would you go with that? To keep things moving, let's pretend that you do...."

Workshops

What distinguishes a workshop from a panel and seminar is that in a workshop, performance is required. Workshops are centered on performance and testing. It is an English translation of the French word atelier, apprenticing to a master.

In a workshop, the organizer must first be able to assess existing skill levels in each participant. At Ready for Media, we do this with an assessment by the organizer and a short, concise pre-questionnaire to each of the participants that includes questions about past experience in media and speaking situations, the image they believe their companies, products, and they themselves have and what they hope to accomplish. Filling out a questionnaire in advance has the added advantage of helping each participant begin to focus on the upcoming workshop, think about what they want or need to learn, and provide individual "buy-in" from each.

Secondly, the material to be learned must be organized psychologically rather than logically for use. This means organization according to "ease of learning." For example, by geographical desirability or experience level may be more important to you than organization by alphabet or numerically.

Thirdly, you must present enabling steps, with an opportunity for participants to fail in absolute safety. We do this with a great amount of humor and sometimes the participants' help. I'll never forget the CEO who requested gin and chocolate as her snacks of choice. Naturally, we had a miniature bottle of Bombay and a box of chocolates waiting for her and it became the running joke throughout the day.

And, finally, there must be an opportunity to try/test what participants are learning and see their progress. There is magic in self-improvement. The participants have challenged themselves and won, and that makes everyone very happy.

The participants are your gold. All you need to do is mine them. As a woman, I can good-naturedly tease the audience, while male workshop leaders tell me their secret is be jocular.

Throughout, you must be vigilant that your participants are protected. You are asking them to leave their egos at the door, kind of like a crab that sheds his shell to grow. While they are soft and vulnerable, you must protect them, both from their own self-critique and from each others'.

One workshop leader tells the story of noticing that one of his workshop participants was in tears after a particularly difficult exercise. He casually stood by her as he proceeded with his explanation of the next point and then asked if anyone had a tissue. There were five offers. Then he calmly asked her if she would prefer an answer to a question or a hug. Sniffling, she chose a hug, and he asked who in the room could give her a hug. Everyone offered.

Conferences

Worldwide gatherings of an industry or specialty keep participants from around the world up to date on research, findings, and the state of the art. As a former journalist, I am increasingly being asked to function as a conference moderator. Apparently, a lively interview with one or more participants is replacing days of dry, dull, overly detailed technical presentations.

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