5 Lessons I learned from My First Time Speaking on a Panel

Assad Quraishi presenting at #QualityTO hosted by TWG, Toronto Ontario.

Assad Quraishi presenting at #QualityTO hosted by TWG, Toronto Ontario.

I was recently asked to speak on my first panel at QualityTO about "The Past, Present, and Future of QA in software testing". I honestly had no idea how it would go or how to prepare myself. I asked my mentor for some advice and had an answer ready for every question that they said would be asked. Despite all of my preparation, I was severely overwhelmed.

After I left that night, I followed my mantra of "Learn. Pivot. Keep Moving." and I wrote down everything I learned to prepare myself for my next panel talk (which will be at SkyCon - more details here). I realized that a great way to pay it forward would be to share the lessons I learned. If you're the type of person who just skims articles like this and just reads the titles, I totally get it because I do that too. But if you end up reading all of this, I will add some secret tips for you that the other people won't get ;)

1. Pick one key point. Say it early. Say it often.

Card - Libraries of Sahas Artist - Rumyana Zarkova

Card - Libraries of Sahas
Artist - Rumyana Zarkova

For every presentation you do, it will boil down to one simple thing: you want your audience to takeaway your key points. The difference between a panel and regular presentation is that the audience is bombarded with information between the moderator's questions, your answers, and the other panelists' answers that they may not always remember your answer or your key takeaway if you do not emphasize it enough. I would recommend that you write that down on a cue card.

Then, at the panel, make sure you have that cue card in front of you the whole time. If you're anything like me, then you might get overwhelmed by the questions presented or what your peers are saying to the point that you forget what your key point is. Having that cue card in front of you will remind you of it whenever you get nervous.

Also, I recommend you say your key point first (ideally in your introduction) because that way, you are the one who is "owning" that viewpoint. If anyone expands on your point, it is still your point. If that is the one thing you want the audience to takeaway from you at the end of the night, then take the credit for it too.

I didn't do this, and people had no clear takeaway from what was presented at the end of the night. Worst of all, they didn't takeaway the point I wanted them to. That's why I wish I had said my one key point as often as possible.

2. Have friends in the audience

When I was preparing for this talk, I was super nervous and I didn't want my colleagues or friends to see me speak because I was worried they would hold on to any blunder I made and tease me for it. However, between having my wife and my friend show up that night, I found amazing resolve in myself. It was very helpful having them around because whenever I felt like I wasn't looking at the audience enough, I could look at them. Also, if I felt that the conversation was getting a bit boring, I could always find a way to make my wife chuckle and that was good enough for me.

At the end of it all, having friends and family watch you present brings a part of your home with you, and you can be more comfortable. I highly recommend this.

3. You know more than you think

When I saw the other speaker's profiles before the talk, I was deeply intimidated. They had way more experience than I did! But for a panel talk, that honestly doesn't matter too much. I say that because the host's reputation is on the line here too and they wouldn't have invited you to speak unless they trusted your background and respected your opinion in this field. Now, if you really know nothing about the topic, then respectfully decline the invitation to speak. But if you were asked to speak, then even if the audience doesn't care for what you say then at least the host/coordinator does. And if you followed my previous point, then you will have at least a few people who are curious in what you have to say.

Secret tip 1: Also, don't worry about getting a question you don't know the answer to. If you are truly stuck then asked if you can have a few moments to think about it and let the other speakers go first. At that point if you still don’t know what to say then you can just pass on the question. Hopefully the audience still built a wealth of knowledge from the other panelists that missing your answer won’t cause a problem.

4. Some preparation is important, but you don’t need to go overboard

If you're lucky, you will get a list of the questions that will be asked. That's great, prepare for them and have answers ready. However, you still need some luck if the moderator even asks those questions. Out of the 10 questions or so they said would be asked, maybe only two will actually be asked. So preparing for those exact questions was kind of a waste of time. However, practicing how those questions could tie back into your key point for the night is essential. If you want to prepare, have a friend ask you those questions and try to answer them on the spot and then ask them what their takeaway was. If it isn’t what you expected, practice this again and again until you and your friend have the same perspective.

5. Bring a notepad

Secret tip 2: Ask if you can have a table or something if you don't have one. That way you can put your drink, cue card, and notepad right in front of you.  

The worst issue I had was that our moderator sometimes was a bit long winded when asking questions. I understood that he was just trying to give context to the questions and to help the audience, but I was already very fazed and couldn't think straight by the time he got to his actual question. About half way through the night, I started writing down the questions he asked. That way I could compose my answers to the actual question. The best is when you can write down the question and your answer in bullet points really quickly after they are asked, and then you can pay attention to what the other panelists are saying. Because, while the audience came to hear everyone speak, you didn't come there to just hear yourself speak (or maybe you did...?). Seize this opportunity to hear your peers speak and learn from them too. The more time you spend forming your answer in your head and holding onto that answer as you wait for your turn, the less time you spend listening to your peers and learning from them. Remember for the same reasons you were invited to speak, they were invited too. So take a few moments to take notes on what they're saying and learn from them.

 Secret tip 3: Bring water! You might be talking for an hour or more. Staying hydrated and not letting your mouth dry out is important.

 That's all I have on this topic. What tips do you have about speaking on a panel? Please share below.