A survival guide to panel speaking

Many months ago I was invited to speak on a panel at The Directors Event – a prestigious gathering of CEOs, Directors of private and public sector organisations and ‘’The Media”. Of course I said “Yes”!

I was so flattered to be invited to participate that I had not focused at all on the panel topic, so when I received a reminder a few weeks ago about the event, I started to panic. “Youth Education and Employment in the Age of Digitisation” is really not my area of expertise. I’m a leadership expert. I know the ins and outs and trends and what’s happening at executive and leadership levels of organisations throughout the continent – but when it comes to youth employment…#notreallymything!

But I’d accepted the opportunity, so there was no backing out. Fortunately, I had a few weeks to prepare and gain some insights from experts in the “youth” sector, and some digital gurus. Thanks to John Sanei, Mark Sham of Suits and Sneakers, Yossi Hasson of Techstars, Richard Rayne of iLearn, Rob Stokes (formerly of Quirk) and Nicola Tyler of BRG, who allowed me to mercilessly pick their brains.

After all these conversations, I realised that I actually DO have some valuable perspectives and insights on the topic – I know what’s coming ahead with leadership and business strategies, and can see clearly that digitisation, disruption and artificial intelligence is going to impact employment trends dramatically in the next few years.

So, I was ready and prepared. Excited. A little nervous. The day arrived, and it was showtime.

As were getting mic’d up, the moderator spoke to each of the panellists about being brief and to the point. The event schedule was running overtime, and so we would not have as long a session as the previous panels.

Music and lights (literally), and we were on. I found myself around a table with some really smart, eloquent, impressive people, including  Sizwe Nxasana (former CEO of FirstRand, current chairman of NSFAS) and Maryana Iskander (CEO of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator).

The protocol of a panel is that there are usually some opening remarks from each panellist. The moderator controls the rest of the discussion with fielding questions, or requests for comment from the panellists. It is considered “inappropriate” to interrupt, to hog the airtime, or to attack or undermine a fellow panellist.

The opening remarks started doing the rounds, framed in the form of a question by the moderator. It was the turn of the panellist to my left, who responded to his question with a resounding “I don’t know, ask Debbie”. I was startled – firstly because he’d just passed up on his opportunity to speak, and secondly because I was not ready! My turn was supposed to be next, not NOW!

But I knew my job was to fill the air with something. Ideally something somewhat intelligent. And so I spoke, about the stuff that I know, that I had prepared for, that I feel passionately about. For about 3 minutes or so.

Thereafter, the discussion was hijacked by a panellist who felt that he had many more important things to say than the rest of us. It sometimes goes like that. I was grateful that I’d taken my opportunity when it was offered.

Many learnings for me. I’ll continue to say YES when great opportunities come my way. I’ll continue to rely on my awesome network for support. I’ll accept that sometimes I’ll only have a brief moment to say my say.

Good enough for me. For now.