Asking Your Panelists the Tough Questions: What Makes a Question Powerful?

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These are tough questions to ask a high-profile political figure:

Would you be willing to accept Franklin Roosevelt’s famous response to Wall Street’s criticism of him saying, “I welcome their hatred?”

During a conference about female regulators of the finance industry at Harvard, panel moderator Ron Suskind asked these pointed questions to an esteemed panel consisting of Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation chairwoman Sheila Bair, and former Securities and Exchange Commission chairwoman Mary Schapiro

These were brilliant questions that made the news.  But more importantly, they were questions the audience was interested in knowing.

I have to think that they were not spontaneous.  They were well-thought-out questions that created a buzz among the panelists as well as in the audience.  You can almost feel the audience leaning in to hear their responses.

So what makes a question brilliant?

Ron Suskind is no ordinary moderator.  He was the senior national affairs writer for The Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He has written books on the George W. Bush Administration, the Barack Obama Administration, and related issues of the United States’ use of power.  He also happens to be the current Director of the Project on Public Narrative at Harvard.

Obviously, he’s got the street cred and the chops to ask these tough questions.  Yet it’s more than that.  He has the right to ask the question because he’s the panel moderator.  He’s the champion for the audience to get a peak behind the curtain.  To discover ideas that they could not get access to otherwise.

The question was directly tied to the purpose of the conference and issues that female regulators are grappling with.

He made reference to the May 24, 2010 Time magazine cover article on the “New Sheriffs of Wall Street.” as well as a nod to the response to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s announcement of the New Deal.  When questions are aligned with something more powerful or influential, the question carries a bit more gravitas.

But then again, the audience can also ask equally powerful questions. When asked, “Would Hillary Clinton be an effective ‘Sheriff of Wall Street’ if she were elected president?”,  the panelists had different perspectives.

So a powerful question is tied to the topic, is representative of the issues the audience is interested in, and sparks a conversation where the panelists are not in agreement.
To learn more steps to successfully moderate a panel discussion like a pro, try this user-friendly guide.

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The Moderator’s Role in Panel Discussions


For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series or our other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

Photo by Christina Morillo

Kristin Arnold

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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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