Interview: I started a crusade to make panel discussions better says moderator Kristin Arnold

Juraj Holub

Kristin Arnold is a professional meeting facilitator, seasoned speaker and crusader for better panels. She’s got 21 years of experience in the events industry and over hundred panel moderations under her belt.

We’re delighted to talk to Kristin about how to improve current panel discussions, what to do to stand out as a speaker among the ever-increasing competition and her experience with Slido.


Hi Kristin, please tell us a little about yourself. What do you do and what do you love about your job?  I am a professional high stakes meeting facilitator. I help groups achieve a collaborative consensus and sustainable agreements are moving forward. What I love about my job is that it’s always different.

I’m always meeting new people and they always have different challenges and issues. Because I am an expert on the process and not their area of expertise, I learn a lot along the way about what they do.

Could you tell us more about what responsibilities the role of high-stakes meeting facilitator carries?

A facilitator is somebody who guides the process; she enables the leader to participate as an equal participant. When you have a leader who is focused on content, sometimes the process gets away and people get suckered into the meetings that should last only for an hour but lasts two because nobody is watching the process.

Especially for meetings that are really important, it is a wise investment to bring in a facilitator who guides the process. And because I don’t know a lot about the inner workings of their business, it enables me to stay neutral and objective. I can ask the stupid question and point out the elephant in the room.

From your experience, what are the main aspects that transform a boring presentation into an awe-inspiring speech?

I think it’s about intentionality. It’s fairly easy to convey information in a one-way format. The real challenge is how to intentionally engage the audience. Because people can get information off the web, they are looking for added value – what’s going to be different. And that’s all about interaction, how you are going to engage, involve and inspire your audience.

I love the title of the book ‘Give Your Speech, Change the World’ by Nick Morgan because the only reason why you would give a speech is to change the world, to change something, to make a difference.

Do you have any speaker that you admire for his/her speaking skills?

I’m a big fan of Joe Calloway, he’s a speaker in the US and he approaches speeches more like a conversation with the audience. I think the days of memorizing and giving a perfectly eloquent speech are over. People are looking for something spontaneous or unexpected. They want “edutainment” – to be entertained and educated at the same time. 

So the audiences are more demanding…

Yes! Audiences are much more discriminating and they’re getting pickier. Their expectations about what makes a good presentation are higher and higher because we [professional speakers] are competing with YouTube and TED talks as well as with non-professional industry speakers that are very good.

The other thing is that the audience also wants the presentation to be more about them than about you.

Can you give us an example of making a speech about your audience?

I just did a keynote recently and I completely designed it around the audience. I interviewed about a dozen of the audience members and I also sent out a survey. I took the answers and I built my presentation based on the results. I also used video, a trivia quiz and a game show format so there was great content, entertainment value as well as lots of interaction. And it went great!

You’re also a seasoned panel moderator. How many panel discussions have you facilitated so far? Which ones were the most memorable?

Oh gosh, a lot! I’ve been in business for 21 years. I think I’ve done at least a hundred.

The most memorable ones were either the ones that were the toughest or where the conversation just flowed. Everything resonated with the crowd, the audience was hanging on the edge of their seats listening to every word, and the panelists were interesting and had diverse opinions. I must say that in order to make that happen, it takes a lot of planning ahead of time.

And the worst ones?

The ones that have been the worst were the ones when people didn’t give me time to prepare. Most of the time, the panelists are pretty important people and they don’t want to spend 15 minutes on the phone with you so you don’t press it. Not any more! In order to make sure that the panel goes smoothly, I insist that they talk to me and we set the expectations.

I also do some research on the panelists. If they have YouTube videos, I observe them to understand what their speaking style.  Are they funny? Are they interesting? You need to know who you’re dealing with so you can make them look fabulous and also deliver value to the audience.

You conducted a survey about the effectiveness of panels.  What are the major pet peeves of the current panel discussions?

The biggest pet peeve is specifically about the moderator. They didn’t do their homework, they weren’t effective or they didn’t have good facilitation skills. So they didn’t facilitate the conversation and they didn’t intervene to deliver on the stated promise to the audience.  That drives me nuts.

How can this be changed from the organizer’s point of view?

The organizer should select or hire someone who knows how to facilitate a panel discussion. Don’t just get someone who has the name in the organization, or somebody who you owe a favour to or somebody who needs visibility. Those are admirable ideas but the success of your panel largely depends on the moderator.

So if that’s the case, you’re putting lots of eggs in the basket of somebody that you don’t even know has the skills. I suggest a couple of things:

  1. You should ask people if they’ve moderated before. Ask them to give you real-life examples. If they hesitate, they probably never did it before.
  2. You might also ask “Who did you moderate for?” and call them. Get some referrals or testimonials from other conference organizers.
  3. If you can, go and watch them in action. See if they can string two sentences together.

One of the things that a good moderator can do is to take what’s said in the beginning and then something else that is said sometime after and ask a really interesting and poignant question. Check if they can synthesize information well.

What tips would you give to the aspiring (panel) moderator that would like to make a greater impact on their audience?

Get smart about what it takes to be a good panel moderator. Recently, I got a call from a friend of mine who was invited to moderate a panel discussion and she told me “Kristin, I listened to your videos, took some notes, and did my homework like you said.  I wanted to tell you that the panel discussion went great.” A lot of people agree to moderate panels and think they can just walk up there and nail it.  That is not the case for novice moderators. Go get smart first!

Any readings that you’d suggest?

I have a website called powerfulpanels.com and in there I’ve published a blog post ‘Top ten blogs about panels’. I was shocked that there isn’t more stuff out there about panel discussions. So that’s why I started this crusade to make panel discussions better.

You used Slido during your panel discussions, what was your experience?

I find it fabulous because you know there are lots of people in the audience who, for whatever reason, don’t want to stand up and ask a question. Slido lets anybody ask a question.

What I particularly liked about Slido is that the audience can rate which question they like. So the audience is prioritizing the questions for you and you don’t need to worry about ‘Is the question relevant for the audience or not?’

How did Slido impact your panel?

There area couple of things. Number one, there is a cool factor because most of the audience haven’t seen the audience interaction app before. Number two, what I really like is that it’s browser based so the audience doesn’t have to download an application. They just open up the browser on their smartphone.

Since I deal with tech-savvy audiences, I don’t really worry that people won’t have that ability. And lastly, it’s easy. I don’t need to give a lot of explanation either to the audience or to the speakers.

You have vast knowledge about the event industry, where do you see the meeting industry in 5 years?

I think meetings will always have a place but people are getting more discriminating about when, why and where they are going to have a meeting. As I said before, you can get information anywhere, but when we’re coming together face-to-face, it’s for that interaction, the intellectual stimulation and camaraderie.

I think the real challenge for the event organizers will be to design a strong meaningful and entertaining meeting experience. People will come to meetings for the entire meeting experience.

Kristin, thank you again for your time.

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