Steve Forbes Claims “Audiences Love Panel Discussions!”
July 20, 2014
What is a panel discussion
What is a Panel Discussion?
September 15, 2014

Back in July, I had the good fortune to witness the Executive Exchange Panel with Steve Forbes, Chairman and Editor in Chief, Forbes Media, Kat Cole, CEO of Cinnabon, Inc. and G.J. Hart, Executive Chairman, CEO and President, California Pizza Kitchen.  The panel was moderated by Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE.

It was, indeed, a powerful panel that received a standing ovation.  (Disclaimer: at the NSA Convention, you really have to “not do well” to not receive a standing “O”).

So what made it so good?  Here’s my take on it:

1. The moderator, Mark Sanborn, is a consummate facilitator.  He has been honing his craft for years.  He took his assignment seriously, taking us on a journey to get to know, connect with and learn from each panelist.


2. He started with a welcome comment (2 minutes) that did two things: 1) why the audience should care and “be excited” and 2) why these panelists were chosen.  “All three of these panelists have proven over time their ability to deliver results.”  He states the case as to why we, as the audience should listen in on the conversation.


3. Mark then made an observation/joke that connected the panelists and set the tone for the discussion: “As I was preparing for this program, I just finished lunch at California Pizza Kitchen, where I eat every week….I had grabbed a Cinnabon, which is my favorite dessert…as I was reading my Forbes magazine which I’ve subscribed to since I was twelve, and I remember thinking, how can I begin this panel without seeming patronizing?”  Which got huge laugh from the  audience!  Morever, it kept the panelists from feeling like they had to hawk their products – because Mark just did it for them!


4. He starts with Kat Cole and gave a brief summary of her rags to riches story asking, “What would you most contribute your success to date to?”  Kat has obviously been given this question ahead of time and gives a well-though out, concise tripartite answer.  I get to know her better through a few more probing questions by Mark.


5. Next up was Steve Forbes whom we had heard earlier in the day.  In this introduction, Mark quickly summarized Steve’s accolades and then called him “an underachiever!”  The audience laughed….and then Mark did a humorous riff on a few words that Steve used during his presentation (prognosticator, economist and accountant). His specific question to Steve was, “What’s the process you use…to go about illustrating important points [to the general public]?”  The follow-up question was, “How to best teach people that are obviously already well informed, how to share ideas so they get better?”  All questions that we wrestle with as professional speakers.


6. Before he introduced G. Hart, Mark lobbed a compliment to the panelists saying that they are “good folk.  They are nice people, easy to get along with.  There’s no pretense.”  Yet another reason why we need to listen closely.


7. G.J. Hart went to bat for the meetings industry, and after Mark introduces G.J., he shows a 75 second video clip of G.J. standing up for meetings saying that “people are our biggest and most important asset.”  Mark then probes deeper by asking, “Give us a little bit of ammunition so we can talk about it [the importance of meetings] with our clients.”  We also had a change of visuals and format which kept the audience engaged!


Notice:  All of these starter questions were targeted to a specific panelist to give a unique point of view that they were well-qualified to talk about.


8. The next question was directed to each of the panelists: “You use expert speakers, consultants, perhaps at different levels in your organization, coaches, and I’d like to hear from each of you what are the deal makers and the deal breakers?  What do you look for…and the kind of things that when you see them, you say, “They won’t be on our stage.”  BTW, this is the question the audience most wants to hear….and he makes sure he gets an answer from each panelist.


9. Kat hit a chord about speaking to international audiences – and Mark leverages this time with an opportunity to ask Kat to demonstrate how she rallies her employees – which she did brilliantly!  (this was also a ploy to get her some “main-stage time” without allocating a specific time on the program.)


10. Mark then asked for “some insights not into what you think but how you think.  First, I want to know, you all have such large, wide bandwidth for getting information; not just about your respective businesses but the world at large…How do you keep growing, learning – how do you process this deluge of information that you’re faced with as a leader?”  (because all of us professional speakers are grappling with this same issue!)


11. Mark then says, “The clock is ticking down.  I want to ask each of you different questions now.” And then he proceeds to ask a question of each panelist that is near and dear to their heart – although we only heard from Kat and G.J.  What happened to Steve?


12. Mark concluded the session asking for a “star moment”, alluding to a phrase that Nancy Duarte, who spoke earlier in the day, said.  “Star moments are something they always remember.”  Each panelist summarized their star moment for the audience.


13. Mark finished the panel with a pretty ribbon, alluding to the last panelist’s comment and ending with a quote from B.C. Forbes, founder of Forbes magazine who said, “Let us never forget that the business of living is not business, but living.”  He then asked the audience to thank the panelists – which we did with a standing ovation!


Mark did a great job moderating this panel with grace, humility and a little humor.  And although this was a super panel, I wish that Mark had allowed two items into the design:


1.  Q&A with the audience.  Although, he only had 45 minutes and 1400 people in the audience, you have to balance what will serve the audience.  In this case, he decided to forgo allowing questions from the audience – which I completely understand – even though Steve Forbes said Q&A is the most powerful aspect of a panel.  Deviate from his plan with 1400 people in the room on the fly?  I don’t think so.


With a little bit of planning, even with a group of 1400, you can use a tool like to capture questions and ask the audience to vote for their favorite questions – so you aren’t held hostage to the one or two random questions that no one cares about.


2.  I also would have loved more interaction between the panelists.  They ventured into talking over each other at one point into the program, and Mark brought the conversation back to point.  But…it would have been nice to see a little dissention in the ranks.  To quote Steve Forbes on having a heated discussion among panelists:


“The key thing is the right sparks, and this is where being the panel, in fact, quarterback is so important. A little bit of heat is not bad. We have a show called “Forbes on Fox” each Saturday, and always make sure at least one or two people, among the five or six addressing a particular question, are going to have an opposing view, and they don’t hesitate to take me on as well. Audiences want that. That’s how you get knowledge is when you’re forced out of your comfort zone—again, that’s why single speeches will have them, but we love the fact that you’re outside your comfort zone, and again being a challenge, and you get things that happen spontaneously. We had a conference about a year ago in Asia with John Sculley, the man who fired Steve Jobs or was the CEO when Steve Jobs was fired from Apple the mid 1980s and for the first time we opened up about what actually happened. His wife was stunned. So, in that kind of a setting, you want the unexpected. Whether it’s that or a good conflict where people learn because people are being challenged, and that’s what you’re looking—you want to get away from the script. Knowledge comes from experiments that fail, knowledge comes from sparks and when you’re challenged it brings out the best in you.”


This panel was inspirational, although, we didn’t have “sparks or opposing views” that could  have stunned us (or Steve Jobs).


That being said, for this particular panel, I don’t think we needed to be stunned. Inspiration and knowledge is good – and this 45 minute panel accomplished that.  So kudos to Mark, Cat, Steve and G.J. for lighting the way!


BTW, if you are truly interested, you can read the entire transcript of this panel here.


For more resources on panel discussions, make sure to check out this knowledge vault which is chock-full of customizable checklists, worksheets, templates, agendas, sample emails, video interviews and webinars with industry icons and professional moderators


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Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.

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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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