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Six tips to help lawyers to be better panellists
August 25, 2020

Every good conference these days need a panel discussion. One of the additional skills that we often look at during our media training courses for lawyers is how they can perform better during a panel discussion.

Conference organisers like having lawyers on their panels because they provide factual information. Our tutors often act as chairs for panel discussions and they appreciate the input from representatives from law firms.

Some of these panel discussions can be informative and thought provoking. Others can be deadly dull or just plain irrelevant. It all depends on the panellists, of course. And, if you’re on the panel your appearance can provide a great opportunity to raise your profile and that of your firm – if you get it right, that is. So, how can a lawyer be a great panellist?

1.Know your audience.

Yes, we’re banging on about audience again, as we do in our media coaching sessions for lawyers and other professionals, but we make no apology. Just as you need to know exactly who you’re talking to for a media interview the same is true for panel discussions so that you can make your contributions relevant. Who are these people?  What do they know and think about you? What are they most interested in? What opportunities and threats do they face? What advice would you give them – in very general terms, anyway.

2. Key messages.

Once you’re sure of your audience you can think of the key messages – including useful tips and advice – that you want them to take away from you during the discussion. Yes, the chair and members of the audience themselves might put a variety of questions to you covering a number of different subject areas but you need to be prepared to subtly weave your key messages into your answers.

3.Be prepared to bring the discussion back to these important points.

The chair, your other panellists or questioners from the audience might go off on a tangent but you need to come back to the one or two main points that you want your audience to take away with them. At the end of the session, if someone asked a member of the audience ‘What was that lawyer talking about?’ what would they say? Could they sum it up in a couple of sentences?

4.Have some anecdotes and stories ready to tell.

Messages are great but people don’t remember them. What they will take away after the event – and probably pass on to colleagues, friends and family is stories, anecdotes and case studies. Again, with a media interview, make sure that you’ve prepared some stories beforehand and that you’ve tested them with your comms team and other colleagues.

In our media training courses for law firms we provide advice on how to use examples and case studies without compromising client confidentiality. A hypothetical example is one safe way of doing this. You can say: “Just imagine, you’re an HR director of a large corporate…” or “Take for instance, a bank that’s looking to acquire a fintech start-up.”

5.Keep your answers concise.

You should still make the most of any opportunity to speak, of course. The trick is to keep your answers short but full of useful, usable information and memorable insights. Here are two ways that lawyers can structure their answers during a panel discussion. The first is to think: problem > solution. In other words, briefly identify a risk or threat that’s relevant to your audience and then offer a solution to it. Obviously, there is not time to go into every detail here and nor would you want to – the idea is that some of the audience members pick up the phone and instruct you. But you can hint that there are solutions to these challenges.

The second way of structuring your answer follows this format: story > point, or even point > story > point. Here you tell a short story or anecdote and then make a key point off the back of it. You might say something about sovereign wealth funds looking at new investment opportunities and give an example of this before drawing a conclusion or giving some simple advice. Alternatively, you might want to talk about how companies are handling employees, post-coronavirus and then give an example of this before summarising your point.

6.Develop, don’t just repeat.

It’s always tempting when you agree with a fellow panellist or when you simply think that it’s your turn again to say something such as, “Yes, I agree,” or “I’d endorse that.” The problem here is that, as far as the audience and the chair is concerned, you’re not really adding anything. You’ve also missed the opportunity to sell yourself and your services.

Phrases such as: “We did that but we had a different experience,” or “You can actually take that a stage further,” or even “Can I just add a different perspective here,” will help you to add extra value.

7.Check practicalities and details.

Because we do a lot of media training for lawyers, we know that they’re always on top of details. It’s the same with panel discussions. If you can get into the room before the discussion starts, you’ll get a good idea of the size of the audience and the atmosphere of the meeting. You can also position yourself so that you can easily catch the eye of the chairperson.

Have a notebook and pen with you so that you can jot down points before it’s your turn to speak. You can also note names of questioners – this is flattering to them and you can follow up afterwards if necessary.

Remember your body language too. Sit up straight, feet firmly on the floor and shoulders relaxed. Active listening such as smiling and nodding when others are speaking makes you look engaged and courteous. As with any presentation, address the audience by scanning the room and look round at your fellow panellists and the chair as well.

Panel discussions can be memorable and useful, or they can be dull and frustrating. They can be a good investment of time for the panellist and effort or they can waste both. By following our advice on how lawyers can be good at panel discussions, you’ll be more likely to create a good impression, enjoy the conversation – and generate some new business as a result.

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