Sunday, April 27, 2014

10 Tips to effectively communicate your message during a panel discussion

Last week, I participated on a panel of farmers and agricultural professionals where we discussed agriculture—specifically dairy farming—with a county leadership class of people from various professions and backgrounds. Very few had a direct connection to modern agriculture.

One of the practice panel discussions at YDLI
During YDLI this year, we had several opportunities to practice panel discussions. At times, this experience last week felt like a test to see how well I paid attention during YDLI. The good news is that I definitely paid attention. Although some of my fellow panelists had participated in this event before, there were some instances where they, too, could have benefitted from YDLI to more effectively communicate their message to their audience.

Here are a few tips that can help you in future panel discussions.

1)      Posture. It’s important to seem interested. If you lean back, fold your arms, check your email or stare at the ceiling (or the table), you do NOT seem interested and it does not seem like you care. When discussing serious matters, such as animal welfare and food safety, it is especially important to care and appear that you care.  Sit up straight, lean forward, place your hands on the table (if there is one) and make eye contact with the audience. When another panelist is speaking, look at them and look interested. Don’t play with your hair, your phone, your chair or anything else. And don’t forget to smile when it’s appropriate. You want to appear approachable.

2)      Stay calm. The biggest thing I got out of media training was the ability to channel my emotions into staying calm, even when I don’t feel calm. A few times, one of my fellow panelists started blaming some of his farming challenges on my organization and others kept questioning me on why the FDA and others deem raw milk to be unsafe. If you find yourself in a similar situation, do not get upset. Do not appear to be upset. Now, I didn’t say you have no right to be upset (because you do!), but don’t let it show. Take a deep breath and answer the question or contribute to the topic at hand. Diffuse the situation and move on.

3)      Lead with values. Leading with facts, figures and science instead of values can make it appear that you don’t really care. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, so leading with values ensures you can connect with your audience on an emotional level (and these days, so much depends on this) and then back it up with facts and figures and science. You must back up your claims, but before you do so, make sure they know you care.

4)      Don’t start an argument. The same panelist that was getting off topic (see “stay calm”) tried several times to start an argument about topics that were not relevant to the issue at hand. Now, I can’t be certain this was his intention, but he kept trying to argue. Well, it takes two to argue, so in this situation, don’t feed their fire. I stayed calm, briefly addressed the issue and said I could further discuss this with him after the panel, but for the sake of time, we should continue with the topics on the agenda.

Despite others trying to change the topic and/or start an argument, do your best to stay on topic. So many times people got off topic. This is so easy to do, but in these types of situations, it’s important to stay focused.

5)      Don’t break into jail. So many times a few of the other panelists said things that made me cringe. I don’t think they realized that the way they phrased their answer was negative and made agriculture look bad. After the panelist finished speaking, I jumped in with more information to help correct the situation. Now, be careful with this. It’s important to add to what they said, not take away their credibility with the audience. More than likely they don’t realize that they came off as negative.

Example: an audience member asked, “How many dairy farms are there in Indiana?” Panelist 1 said, “Well, that’s the thing about dairy farms, most are terminal farms.” First, this did not even answer the question. Second, ahh!! That answer turned a simple response into a negative statement. Here’s how I responded (after he finished speaking): “I’m not sure we completely answered your question. We have about 1300 dairy farms in Indiana and let me add to what he said about some of those farms. The average age of the American farmer is about 60, which in any other industry is approaching retirement, but that’s not the case in agriculture (usually). Unfortunately, a lot of younger people are not returning to the farm, so there are fewer of the next generation to take over the farm. On some farms that don’t have a next generation to run the farm, the farm may go out of business at some point.”

6)      Speak up! We didn’t have a microphone and it was a small room, but it was still important to speak loud enough for everyone to hear. It doesn’t matter how great what you said was if nobody could hear you.

7)      ‘Swim in your own lane.’ Media trainer Joan Horbiak coined this phrase (as well as “don’t break into jail”) and it means stick to what you know. Several times the other panelists and audience members asked me questions I didn’t know the answer to.

Here’s how I responded: “I can’t speak to that because I don’t work for the FDA and am not sure exactly of their reasoning for that, but what I can tell you is…” and “I can’t speak for them, but in my experience…”

8)      ‘No comment’ is not an appropriate response. Fortunately, no one said ‘no comment’, but this one is worth adding anyway. Just as you would never say no comment in a media interview (No comment=guilty!), it is also not appropriate when talking to any audience. If you can’t answer a question for confidentiality reasons, say so. If you just don’t know, say so! It’s okay to not have the answer to everything, but offer to follow up with them with the answer and actually follow through with that.

9)      Avoid off the cuff statements. Off the cuff statements may get a laugh from the audience, but they can sometimes do more harm than good. For example, if a panelist said, “Raw milk is great, everyone should drink it!” and you were discussing the benefits of pasteurization, this statement is certainly not appropriate. This goes back to speaking with one voice. When the audience hears conflicting messages, they are less likely to believe anything the whole group has to say. This does not help us in agriculture to communicate with consumers. Avoid this, please!

10)   Leave them with something. This may be a farm or ag brochure or your business card, but make sure to leave something with them. As we wrapped up the discussion, the moderator asked if there was anything we wanted to add (the answer to this is always yes!), so I mentioned that was a fantastic website where they could watch a virtual farm tour, read fact sheets about pretty much anything they wanted to know about dairy farming and see articles and stories from dairy farmers across the nation. A few audience members asked me to repeat the website and wrote it down. I also encouraged them to share the website with their non-farming friends that weren’t there that day so they could learn more about dairy farming as well.

Also offer to answer any additional questions after the session.