- As a speaker, you’re not just in charge of educating on issues. Share your experience and enthusiasm about the topic. Engage your audience, be interactive.
- The audience is here to hear you, not to read slides. Keep slides short, clear, visually appealing.
- Have panelists note down the timing of their segments. Wrap up in time.
- Practice, practice, practice. This will help to lower your stress of presenting.
1. Remember a live panel?
If anyone has forgotten what a live panel means, here is a reminder: It is not a webinar or a zoom call or a Skype or Teams meeting. It is an event where you and the speakers on your panel are sitting side by side at a table outfitted with microphones on an elevated platform in front of anywhere from 50 to 200+ in-house attorneys. All in the same room. There is no option to turn your camera off or skip over a question that came through the chat function.
Your fellow in-house counsel, which make up the majority of your audience, are usually tough but fair. Some of them may know more about a particular topic than you. If you, as a speaker and in-house counsel, keep their attention for 90 minutes, you will get very positive feedback and the satisfying feeling of a job well-done. If you don’t capture your audience’s attention and meet the attendees’ expectations, you will sense their boredom and dissatisfaction. This is a highly stressful situation, which you’d want to make sure to avoid!
So how do you elevate your presentation skills to the highest level in order to meet – and exceed - your audience’s expectations?
2. Adding Elements of Fun
I don’t mean bringing puppies, although they are guaranteed to steal the show. What I mean is, introducing an element of fun is likely to make your presentation more engaging and memorable. A simple way to do this is to start with a joke or a personal anecdote. It sounds like a cliché, but put yourself in the attendees’ shoes: essentially, they go from one 90-minute lecture packed with dense substantive material to the next for three days. Once you have their attention and a smile, you are much further ahead than the panels that start only with the names and titles.
3. First Impressions
Now, you have opened with a well-received joke and have engaged your audience. This is your chance to make them feel welcome at the event overall and at your session specifically. You are your audience’s host for your session. Then do what a host does. Greet, make eye contact, thank everyone for coming. Introduce the other speakers as you would introduce your friends. Mention why you think this topic is an exciting one to discuss. Invite the attendees to meet you after the panel if they are interested in getting to know the speakers. And if you happen to know of a great open social event held later (like your ACC Network’s happy hour), make sure to invite everyone to join. This tactic puts your audience in a comfortable space, and keeps their attention through your presentation, which is the ultimate goal.
4. Energy Shot
Good energy is contagious. You get back the enthusiasm that you project. Don’t just educate your audience regarding the substantive subject matter, also communicate your passion for the topic. You may be stressed, but the attendees have made the effort to come and hear what you and your panel have to say. You owe them an engaged and energetic speaker. I am not suggesting bringing in an overly caffeinated drink. Smile, slow down, look at your audience and show them how much you are enjoying being there. The audience will feel and respond to the energy you are bringing into the session.
5. (Re)engage the Audience
Throughout your presentation, take notice if the audience’s attention is fading following a technical discussion on a legal issue. How do you reengage the attendees if their attention has wandered? You have a couple of interactive tools at your disposal:
• You can ask the audience a question;
• Insert polling between different portions of the presentation; and/or
• Pause to give the audience a chance to share something in response to what the attendees are hearing from you.
As the host of this presentation, it is your obligation to make sure that your guests feel included. It’s advisable to plan ahead and write down what leading questions you will ask between transitioning from one speaker to another. If you’re planning on polling your audience, make sure to timely liaise with ACC (or the event sponsor) to set up the polling ahead of time. Rather than speeding up to cover all the bullet points on your slides, consider slowing down and sharing your personal experience of how you have handled a hot topic or a difficult legal matter – it is often a lot more memorable and engaging.
For example, one of the years, the portion I was assigned to talk about concerned various issues involving taxation. My choices were to accept that everyone would likely tune out the tax portion or find something to say that will get their attention. Prior to starting, I asked the audience to guess what was certain in life other than death. After a few pretty witty suggestions from the attendees, we finally agreed that it would be taxes. My dry tax facts were much better received as a result.
6. Diverse and Dynamic Panel
As the session planner, your job is finding the right speakers who have diverse and complementary areas of practice to make your presentation shine. The speaker search begins right after you get your panel idea accepted by ACC or your event’s sponsor. Diversity of the panel and diversity of expertise are key to delivering unique and valuable content that will match the promises in your published panel description. To find the right balance, think outside the box and seek recommendations from the Networks’ leadership, members, sponsors, and ACC staff.
Once the speakers are signed up, you will schedule monthly calls, and keep everyone on track with slide development, timing, and preparation. This might be the most difficult part of preparation, as each panel member has a different expertise, style, and schedule. If you are the panel organizer, stay on top of each assignment, assign due dates, and check in with each participant on a regular basis. Getting to know how your diverse panel works and what type of presenters the speakers are will make your session even more successful.
7. What about the Slides?
Keep your slides short, clear and colorful. Lawyers, including in-house counsel, tend to love words. Our industry makes a living drafting, revising, presenting, negotiating, defending, pleading, and otherwise working with words. This love of words should be kept in check as you prepare the few slides that will support your presentation.
Multijurisdictional surveys and highly detailed content are important for users of written materials, but your audience is not here for that. Your session should grab their attention with what you tell them, supported by a few key visual points, not overwhelm them with dense slides filled with text and complex lists. The audience does not want to squint at a small print in a detailed chart. You can include such detailed content as an attachment to your deck or as side course materials, for attendees to read at a later point.
The best slides are clear and concise bullet points, such as those you would present to your CEO. Spend time on creating or including visual images (ones that you have the rights to use) and drafting your bullet points. Pictures, symbols, simple easy-to-follow diagrams and decision trees help the audience more than reading a full paragraph on screen.
It is also a great idea to harmonize the slides prepared by various speakers to be visually consistent, rather than stitching them together in a disjointed-looking deck.
8. That is the Question
What if someone asks question that is hard to answer? Your best response is to embrace the challenge and not simply lean on the two typical responses that are: (1) deflecting the question by stating that it’s not in your area of expertise; and (2) saying that you will be happy to get back to the person later after the end your session. The person asking this question is actively listening and showing an interest in your subject matter. If you don’t have an answer, acknowledge that, but don’t stop there. This is a great opportunity for you to ask the audience if anyone has experience with the question being asked. Even though this detour may throw off a bit the flow of your presentation, it can create excellent interaction and momentum, with attendees exchanging ideas and making new connections.
9. Timing is everything.
This is an obvious point, but the hardest one to control. Here are a few basic rules to manage the timing of your presentation: you need to agree with your panel speakers ahead of time exactly at which time to start and end their individual speaking parts - even when it comes to asking a simple transition question. Ask your speakers to write down in their printouts or outline on what segments they will speak and what the agreed time is for each segment.
Make sure everyone understands that you have a collective commitment to the attendees to deliver the full content, which means leaving a few minutes (ideally more) in your planning for questions, unexpected interruptions, and equipment issues. If you are truly out of time, acknowledge it and wrap up. Perhaps, invite the person with a question and everyone else in the audience who is interested in the issue to meet after your panel ends.
10. Successful Closing.
As your panel ends, you may feel like lingering in the room and talking to the other speakers and attendees that want to hear more. This is understandable, but not a good idea. There is likely another group of speakers anxious and excited to settle in and prepare for their own session – help them do that by closing and leaving on time. Be brief, thank your audience and the fellow panelists, invite everyone to meet you later in the day or let them come to your Networks’ business meeting. Then exit the room.
11. Practice Makes Perfect and Helps You Feel Comfortable
If you made it this far in the article, you might be telling yourself that all these ideas sound fine in theory, but how would you make it all happen in practice? It is hard enough to submit a catchy panel proposal, get it accepted, find a diverse panel of speakers, make sure that the speakers complete their slides on time and stick to their allotted time while on the panel. These are the basics.
Delivering the presentation with all the other “bells and whistles” – always smiling, being energetic, engaging, welcoming, practical, and interactive - might seem overwhelming. This challenge may seem daunting, even scary. And chances are your panelists met for the first time in person on the day of the live panel, and had at most 30-45 minutes to do a quick run through the slides together.
Do you feel stressed by this perspective? Take a deep breath, your feeling is perfectly normal. Regardless of how many times you speak on panels, it is still possible to get stage fright. I remember feeling completely paralyzed by thoughts of failure the morning of one of my panels. I took one look at the ACC Exhibit Hall and my mind went through the ‘top ten reasons’ to worry: no one will show up, too many people will show up, attendees will be disappointed, attendees will walk out, our audience will be bored, the audience will be disengaged, the panel will go over, the panel will run out of things to say, there will be no questions, there will be too many hard questions.
So how do quell those fears? Practice, practice, practice. One way to fight stage fright is to know your whole presentation, front to back. Rehearse your portion many times, think of tough questions and answer them yourself, rehearse a few jokes. Get comfortable with your subject matter and style. When I got the stage fright, I went to my hotel room, put my slides down and paced around the room practicing my opening remarks, questions and presentation over and over until the voice in my head was convinced that I could do it. It turned out that the panel was a big success: we had 150+ attendees who asked terrific questions and wanted to stay after the panel to continue talking.
The joy that comes from delivering a session that is appreciated by your peers more than makes up for all the effort and prior preparation. I encourage everyone to put any doubts aside and give yourself the gift of having this experience. While virtual panels have their virtues, nothing compares to sharing a good laugh, your expertise and energy at a live panel (except for the puppies, of course).
Check Out Additional Resources:
ACC Resource Collection: Leadership Skills
ACC Checklist: Tips to Be a More Effective Communicator (2019), by Seyfarth Shaw LLP
Presentation: “Talk Like TED”: Tips and Tricks for Public Speaking (2016), by Steve Leroy
Not an ACC Member? Join Today!
Author: Elena Antonetti, Executive Counsel, Travelers