Who Do You Look at When You’re on a Panel?

catlazerConfession: I have no idea where to look when I’m on a panel.

I’ll explain.

Last weekend, I participated in a game design panel at the St. Louis Science Center. It was well moderated, and my fellow designers had lots of interesting insights. I had some good answers and some subpar answers. It was fine.

Afterwards, a friend in the audience commented that I looked really nervous. Oddly enough, I wasn’t nervous at all. Well, maybe a little–I had to use a mic, which always throws me off a little bit. But otherwise I was comfortable, so I asked my friend why she perceived that.

“You kept looking at the audience as if you were looking for someone,” she said. “It was weird.”

I had to chuckle, because I realized what she was talking about. It’s related to what I do when I’m not speaking (when I’m speaking, I look at the audience like a normal human being). Here’s what typically goes through my head when I’m on a panel, and it was no different on Friday:

  1. I’m looking at the person who’s talking. Because that’s what you do when someone else is talking, right?
  2. But then I realize that some of the other panelists are staring into the audience. They’re rock-steady. They must know what they’re doing. I better look at the audience too.
  3. Now I’m looking at the audience, but I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m staring them down. I better look at multiple people. One. Two. Three. Four….
  4. Wait, the panelist is still talking, and I feel like I’m not paying attention to them. I need to look at the person who’s talking. That’s what you do when someone else is talking, right?

Then the cycle starts all over again. I can see why someone must think I’m nervous on a panel–I’m twitching around like a cat staring at a dozen lasers.

It also didn’t help that the science center has a million gadgets in motion everywhere at all times. That was a bit distracting.

Despite my newfound awareness of what I look like on stage on a panel, I still don’t quite know what to do. Who should I look at? The panelist who’s talking? Above the heads in the audience? My water glass?

Here’s what I want to do, and you can tell me if it’s okay: I want to look at the current speaker. That’s how I listen to people, and I can provide that person with close range affirmation (like nodding my head or smiling) that they can’t see well in the audience. That’s what’s great about a panel–we support each other.

Is that okay?

9 thoughts on “Who Do You Look at When You’re on a Panel?”

  1. I’d say looking at the panelist is good. Looking at your glass is fine, so long as you don’t look like you’re having a hard time staying awake. Looking out over the audience’s heads is okay, so long as you don’t look bored like you’re staring into space. Depending on the set up, staring at something in the middle distance, between you and the audience works, too. Scanning the audience as if you were talking to them should be okay. I think it’s just when you switch back and forth and don’t look comfortable that you look nervous. Whatever you pick, own it, and you’ll look great.

    • Chris: Thanks for the advice! I like the idea of picking one thing and sticking with it instead of going with the laser cat strategy. 🙂

  2. No matter what, you should basically ALWAYS be looking at this poster of Horace Grant wearing nothing but rec specs and MC Hammer pants: https://cdn.rsvlts.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Horace-Grant.jpg. If you’re ever stumped by a panel question, have this image easily accessible via some multimedia in the room. Turn the question on the audience member like this, “Sure, I can answer your question, but I’d rather YOU tell ME about the party that obviously took place here.” If they seem unfazed, you can always up the ante a little bit with, “Horace Grant’s nipples are really just perfectly shaped Hershey Kisses.” and “Despite this well-known fact, the 2nd District Court of Orlando, Florida DOES NOT consider that a worthwhile excuse for taking an unsolicited nibble.”

    • Trev: This is excellent life advice. I will print out that poster and will take it with me to all future speaking events.

    • Sean: Thanks for sharing that video! I like that the panelists look like they’re engaged with each other, and I want to emulate that.

      The only video I’m aware of that exists from Friday is the gif I posted on this blog entry.

  3. Jamey – You should definitely listen to this episode of Writing Excuses:

    It’s basically a must-listen for anybody on a panel. I don’t recall if they discussed where to look, but my instinct is that you should just look at whoever is speaking, and when talking, either look at the person who asked the question (if it was an audience member), or if you’re responding to a panelist, look wherever they were looking when they said whatever prompted you to speak. If the Moderator asks a question, then probably look around the audience or over their heads, as if you were giving a speech.

    • Adam: Thank you for sharing this! I’ve added it to my queue.

      When I was talking, I looked at the audience. It was when I was listening that I was in laser cat mode. 🙂

      • I suspect your fellow panelists will appreciate your engagement by actively listening to them when they talk. I say look at whoever is talking and give them your attention.


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