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?