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Floor Drees
Floor Drees

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Howto: The Technical Panel

You’ve been asked to join a panel at a technical event. Great news: panels are fun! It might not seem that way at first - you’re joining people on a stage that you either might not know, or compared to whom you feel like the biggest imposter. And you may not know the questions in advance, or how your fellow panelists will answer those.

It’s a good thing then that your Google search got you here.

Since 2020 I run a virtual meetup with 2 friends and former colleagues:, on open source topics. For those meetups we invite between 3 and 6 guests and we’ll just have a conversation. I'll share how we prepare for these sessions, and share some tips from my experience of sitting on panels.

The brief

As a facilitator and/or host for many of the panels, I am firstly responsible for finding people to speak to a certain topic, like, documentation, or funding, fostering open source communities, you name it. I want to make sure that we have diverse representation on the panel (so: not a “manel”), so that factors heavily into the selection as well.

As a speaker, panelist or sponsor you are (or your employer is) in an excellent position to challenge organizers on the diversity of their panel. Manels get called out on social media and even if the topics discussed were insightful, they’ll get scrutinized anyway. A diverse panel is a successful panel. Be on a successful panel.

Back to organizing the panel. Once panelists have been confirmed, we do either a briefing via email, or - time permitting - a briefing call so that all panelists can get to know each other. The things we want to tackle in the briefing:

  • Intro of all panelists (as I should announce them during the meetup, pronouns, etc);
  • A list of questions we will ask unless audience questions are pouring in - those are the questions we can think of, we’re always happy for panelists to share topics or questions they’d like to see covered.
  • We’ll ask panelists for links to stuff they expect to talk about, so we can use those in banners and in the chat.
  • We’ll ask panelists for stuff they do not want to talk about / or stuff they can’t comment on.

… and since this panel is entirely virtual, we’ll introduce the platform we’re using and offer them the option to join 15 minutes before the show starts to test their audio and video.

If you’re invited to be a panelist, be aware that not every organizer is this diligent, you might need to take the lead in some of this or just ask Many Questions.

The prep

  • Research your fellow panelists thoroughly
  • Consider what their talking points may be. Are they going to have opposing opinions? Are you going to agree on a lot of things?
  • Research the event you’re speaking at, who’s behind the event, who are the organizers? Who are the sponsors? You don’t want to majorly insult one of the sponsors or else no-one will want to invite you again.
  • Write your talking points down. A trick I picked up to stay on topic is drawing a triangle with my main 3 topics at each corner. With every answer I try to talk about 1 or more of these topics.
  • If you don’t have an immediate answer to a question, feel free to tell the host to have someone else go first for you to frame your answer. Even better: lift up a fellow panelist that legit probably has a better / more elaborate answer - one that you can +1
  • Often you’ll be asked for a closing statement, make sure you have some sort of Call To Action prepared - an event coming up, a blog post, a free credits program, …

If the panel is at an in-person event:

  • Figure out the seating arrangement and make sure you dress for the situation. That means: no manspreading, and no disappearing in the chair, active seating! Bar stools are The Worst, be careful with skirts and dresses.
  • Handheld or clip-on mic? With the latter you might not want to wear a dress unless it has pockets, which are the best dresses anyway.
  • Keep a bottle of water with the cap screwed loose at hand.
  • In-person means you can signal to the host more easily when you want to take a question or want to comment on a point your fellow panelist made. Make sure you decide on a signal to use.
  • Practice great body language (open, no crossed arms, no pointing), and eye contact.
  • Have personal experiences and stories to share.
  • Be conscious of time, try to be succinct. Don’t cannibalize all the time, make sure other panelists can get a word in.
  • Connect to what other panelists are saying - I’m not saying agree, maybe you have a very different opinion, but make sure there’s interaction.

If another panelist is taking up a lot of airtime, and it doesn't look like the host will course-correct, you can (and probably should) interrupt them. Interject with "I'd love to say something to that point", "if i might add to what you're saying", or "I'd love to counter the point that you're making". Having said that, the only strategy available to you when you're sharing a handheld mic sadly is hope.

For virtual panels:

  • Make sure you don't get interrupted by your co-workers or family members during your presentation or the recording of it. Tell co-workers or your family to not enter the room for an hour and put a sign at your door.
  • No background noise. Turn off the dishwasher, washing machine, roomba, and everything else that makes noise when presenting from home. Turn your phone into flight mode.
  • Have a stable internet connection. If you do this more often you should think about buying a larger package or having a second internet provider to switch to. Make sure your family is not streaming HD movies at the same time. You might need all the bandwidth.
  • Reboot your home router.
  • Reboot your laptop well in time for your talk.
  • Close all apps you don't need for the session, especially everything that has notifications, like Slack or Teams (spoiler: that’s all tabs). On Mac: set Focus to avoid all notifications.
  • Connect early to check audio and video!
  • Avoid wearing clothing with small prints as these cause very distracting distortion, make sure you know what the light's situation will be at the time of streaming / recording.
  • Try and keep your background neutral, limit the number of things “going on in the background” so that people can focus on what you have to say. Rather have an empty background than use a blur filter, as those are mostly not really smart and you’ll end up missing an eye, nose, whatever - that stuff’s distracting.

The follow up

In case you reference stuff in your answers, make sure to mention where you’ll share those recommendations once the panel is over: on Twitter? A list in Obsidian? Evernote? OneNote? On your blog?

If the panel is recorded, make sure to share the recording once it’s published, and maybe consider writing a summary of the discussion.

Did I mention you should have fun already? Practice your argumentation skills with colleagues and friends using this fun resource:

Top comments (1)

jansche profile image
Jan Schenk (he/him)

Great prep tips, @floord. Last time I've been on a panel was years ago. With these insights I feel ready to volunteer somewhere. What's your next topic for In-person community events after Covid? Covid's over right? Right? 🙈