How To Nail Panels: The Kevin Hart Approach

Here are some tips to crush your next panel and avoid boring the pants off innocent people

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Let’s do a panel they say…won’t that be fun. The majority of the time it won’t. Panels are usually emotionally traumatising for everyone involved, unless you have comedians involved or a speaker using their techniques. As a conference organiser I hate panels, as an attendee I hate panels, but as a speaker I love panels. It’s easy to do a great job if you do a few things borrowed from the world of standup comedy and in doing so make the world a more interesting place for all of us.

Whether you like his comedy or not Kevin Hart is one of the most successful comedians alive. Most of his standup routine consists of him telling stories and these same stories are replicated in his interviews. Comedians have stories and analogies they refine over time and use constantly and they seek every opportunity to squeeze them in. You should too. Analogies are a powerful way of helping people understand your point of view and immediately relating to something that just moments prior was unrelatable.

Watch this breakdown of Kevin’s techniques on storytelling and how he uses them to great effect on panels:

The main takeaways are:

– Make sure you have attention before you tell your story.
– Commit to the story and use act out and voices where possible.
– You have to experiment, split test and hone your stories.
– When something works use it again and go deeper into it.

Kevin is by no means alone is his use of these techniques. Let’s take a look at a few more than can help:

Avoid I Think/I Feel: If you are on a panel try not to start with “I think, I feel, well….I..waffle waffle waffle…” Make your point, tell short story or use an analogy that illustrates your point, close strongly with your opinion if needed.

All too often panels involve a host trying to make themselves look good, a journalist trying to fish out a press worthy story, or a bunch of people speaking over each other. Very few people, despite their best intentions prepare for a panel. Often they may even celebrate dodging the preparation needed for solo talk talk and stay out partying until 5am the night prior. Now you are held hostage to their lunacy. I am guilty here on most counts, especially the 5am partying. Change a few things however and a panel becomes more fun for all of us.

When you start with “I think” or “I feel” you will default to an opinion you hold but have usually never planned out in a short-form powerful way for stage. A short funny story will outperform an I think/I feel statement every-time and make you stand out. Make sure the story is short and know your ending and summarise your opinion. Brevity is levity. The easy way to remember this is never to answer a question with an answer, initially. Answer it with a story or analogy the illustrates your way of thinking and then make your point after.

A Great Way To Answer: This is one of the best examples you will see of how to answer a question from American author, journalist, comic book writer, and educator Ta-Nehisi Coates after delivering a keynote speech at the University of Virginia. Whether you agree with his point or not you can see in the moment the crowd certainly does.

Question: As a white person….I don’t know what to do when I hear my friends using this (The N word) word in a song. I don’t know what to do when it’s just it’s all the time.

Taken from Ta-Nehisi’s Answer:

Statement: “Words don’t have meaning without context.
Personal story: My wife refers to me as honey that’s accepted and okay between us. If we were walking down the street together and a strange woman referred to me as honey….(laughter).. that wouldn’t be acceptable…. (laughter). The understanding is I have some sort of relationship with my wife. Hopefully I have no relationship with this….(laughter) strange woman….(laughter).
Personal story: When I was young I used to go see my family in Philadelphia where my dad was from. They would all call him Billy. His name is William Paul Coats. No one in Baltimore called him Billy and had I referred to my father as Billy that probably would have been a problem. That’s because the relationship between myself and my dad is not the same as the relationship between my dad and his mother and his sisters who he grew up with. We understand that. It’s the same thing with words within the African-American community, within any community.
Personal story: My wife with her girlfriend who used the word bi#ch. I do not join it…(laughter)… You don’t do that. Perhaps more importantly I don’t have a desire to do it…….(laughter).
Statement: it’s normal actually for groups to use words that are derogatory. In an ironic fashion. Why is there so much handwringing when black people do it.
Personal story: “I had a good friend who used to have this cabin in Upstate New York which he referred to as the white trash cabin. He was white. I would’ve never refer to that, I would never tell him I’m coming to your white trash cabin….(laughter). I just wouldn’t to do that and I think you understand why I wouldn’t do it.
Analogy: So here comes this word that you know you feel like you invented….(laughter). And that’s why I will tell you how to use the word that you invented…. (laughter). You know what why can’t everyone else just to use it. You know what. That’s racism that I don’t get to use it….(laughter). That’s racist against me…(laughter).You know I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song and I can’t sing along. How come I can’t sing along…. (laughter).
Statement: It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do that you can join in and do you know.”

Here we repeatedly have a statement, plus short story and analogy examples. The key words are at the end of the sentence and the audience laugh exactly where he wants them to. Something that is a very sensitive and divisive topic now seems clear to all. Well crafted story and analogies have the power to to that. Usually unprepared statements that start with “I think” or “I feel” do not.

Set Yourself Up: Don’t be afraid to ask the host to ask you about certain things. If you provide questions in advance you have strong and entertaining answers ready for then everyone looks good and it saves them some research time.

Put Analogies in Action: Irish people hate it when American’s rename St. PaDDy’s Day (an mans name and our patron saint) to Saint PaTTy’s day (a womans name and nothing to do with Ireland). It’s hard to convey how much this annoys all Irish people and even our Government has spent money trying to change it. This is where an analogy comes in and here I am using it. This is not particularly well done or indeed delivered but you get the point and so do the audience.

Most panels are boring. If you find yourself on one using a few of these techniques can make a big difference.