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Today, we feature a former president of the National Speakers Association, Kristin Arnold. A high-stakes meeting facilitator, conference designer, and professional panel moderator, Kristin is also the author of the award-winning book Boring To Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

In this episode we discussed how to:

  • Facilitate meetings in high-stakes situations. (7:14)
  • Identify mistakes to avoid when designing conferences. (22:38)
  • Understand what makes a good panel moderator. (36:08)

Find out more about Kristin Arnold and receive a free video course for panel moderators.

00:00 Michael Port: Welcome to Steal The Show with Michael Port. This is Michael. Today’s guest is Kristin Arnold. She has an MBA. She is a CPF and CSP. And she’s a high-stakes meeting facilitator, conference designer and professional panel moderator. She’s been facilitating conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve substantive results for over 20 years. She’s the author of the award-winning book “Boring To Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.” She’s also the past president of the US National Speakers Association and on the executive development faculty in the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. Hi, Kristin.

00:49 Kristin Arnold: Hi, Michael.

00:50 Michael Port: How are you?

00:51 Kristin Arnold: I’m fabulous. How are you?

00:53 Michael Port: Okay, listen. I don’t wanna be like a little fan boy, like sycophant, but I have to be, because you’re in the Coast Guard.

01:00 Kristin Arnold: Oh?

01:01 Michael Port: And I love the Coast Guard. I have a thing for the Coast Guard. I’m a boater. I have my captain’s license. I spend as many minutes of my life on the water as I possibly can. And I just think that the work the Coast Guard does in invaluable. I have so much respect for it, appreciation for it. And just wanted to thank you for your service in the Coast Guard.

01:26 Kristin Arnold: Aw shucks. Well, thank you. It’s always lovely to hear that the boating community loves us.

01:32 Michael Port: We sure do. I was boarded couple of months ago. It’s the first time I was boarded, which was surprising. I’d never been boarded before. The guys were fantastic. I was geeking out trying to show them how, I wanted to get an A++. I was like, “Look. Look my EPIRB in this.” He’s like, “No. You don’t have to have it.” Like, “I know, but I just want you to see it. I want… Is there an extra form for bonus points?” And they were like, “No.” But when they’re getting off the boat, they said, “Great boat. Great people.” And we said, “Thank you.” And I said, “By the way, why did you choose us to board?” He goes, “Oh, well. You just have a gorgeous boat. I hadn’t been on one of yours before, so we thought we’d choose yours.” I was like, “All right. That was great.”

02:08 Kristin Arnold: Alrighty.

02:09 Michael Port: And then it burned down last week.

02:11 Kristin Arnold: Your boat burned down?

02:13 Michael Port: It burned down. See, it was a new boat, year 2015, Prestige Power Vessel, 60 feet. And we don’t know why. The investigation is just starting, but burned…

02:23 Kristin Arnold: Oh, my gosh 

02:23 Michael Port: Oh, yeah. It burned down to the hull, and then of course, it sunk once the…

02:27 Kristin Arnold: Oh, yeah.

02:28 Michael Port: And they raised it and they’ve got it out. But of course, I spent the day with the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and all sorts of other organizations, because there was a lot of diesel fuel and oil in the water. So I just, the Coast Guard… This is not about the show necessarily, but I wanna recognize you for the work you did there. And in fact, I understand you were one of the first women at the Coast Guard Academy in graduating 1982. Is that correct?

02:55 Kristin Arnold: Correct.

02:56 Michael Port: Wow. That seems… I mean, 1982 is not that long ago.

03:02 Kristin Arnold: Oh, come on. That’s over 30 years ago.

03:07 Michael Port: Yeah. That’s amazing. And you were also the only woman onboard an ocean going buoy tender.

03:15 Kristin Arnold: Yeah. I was the first woman assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter “Buttonwood,” 52 men and me, baby.

03:20 Michael Port: Wow. And you had them all in line doing what they were supposed to do?

03:26 Kristin Arnold: No. It doesn’t quite work that way, but you can have your dreams and I’ll keep reality.

03:32 Michael Port: Excellent. Excellent. Was that the springboard for you that got you really interested in how groups work together?

03:41 Kristin Arnold: Yeah, actually. Back in the early 90s, the Coast Guard started doing something called “TQM,” Total Quality Management. And they took a look at one of the job descriptions and they called it “facilitator.” And back then, people did not use that term. I mean, it wasn’t a common term like it is today. And they said, “Well, Kristin, this sounds like you. This is your management style. You’re very collaborative. You try to get people onboard and working together as a team.” And so that’s how I got started being a professional facilitator is, they put me in training that was how to teach TQM principles, but not how to facilitate a team. So the first team that I was actually “facilitating” turned out to be an absolute cluster. And I realized I needed to read all three books that were available on the subject at that time.


04:38 Kristin Arnold: And then I put together a little training program for my fellow coasties, so that they wouldn’t have the same problems that I did. And then somebody on the outside said, “Oh. That’s pretty cool. Would you do it for us?” And I went, “Oh, sure.” And then they said, “And we’ll pay you.” And I went, “Whoo! Now you got my attention.”

04:57 Michael Port: There you go.

04:58 Kristin Arnold: So that was the start of my consulting practice.

05:01 Michael Port: And then that moved into meeting facilitation, conference designing and panel moderation. What percentage of your time is spent in each one of those categories?

05:14 Kristin Arnold: It’s really around… The bulk of my business is meeting facilitation, and I call it “high stakes meeting facilitation,” because people hire me when there’s a lot at stake. Either it’s a really big topical discussion, or you’ve got people who are flying in from all over the world kind of thing, and time is precious. So you don’t wanna really waste a whole lot of time spinning your wheels. That’s the bulk of my business. I also do some speaking, and my speaking style is kind of a cross-hatch between presentations and facilitations. So I’m very collaborative in that sense. And then because I’m doing keynotes and breakouts, it got me into conference design in that I would ask, “So what are you doing before me and after me?” And starting to look at the arc of a meeting and making sure that there’s a meeting flow and takeaways and substantive results.

06:11 Kristin Arnold: And then I just started getting into panel moderation because panels just suck so bad, Michael. And I did a research report back in 2014; 95% of all conferences have panels but only 63% of the people like them at all. So there’s a lot of room for improvement. And there’s really nothing out there to help people really be great panel moderators. So I just decided that I was gonna help the world. I’m on a crusade to make all panels better.

06:44 Michael Port: That’s great. Well then, I’ve got a lot questions for you in all of these areas because well we haven’t… Gosh, I think I’m on upper 80s or maybe 90s episode numbers, I can’t remember right off the bat, top of my head; but we’ve done a lot of episodes, but we have not done one specifically on meeting facilitation, conference design, or panel moderation.

07:11 Kristin Arnold: Well, woo-hoo! I’m hitting the trifecta.

07:14 Michael Port: I gotta tell you, you’re a hat trick, you’re a hat trick. Let’s start with meeting facilitation, since it’s where you spend the bulk of your time. What’s your process like for facilitating a meeting in a high-stakes situation?

07:36 Kristin Arnold: So it’s all about the planning. The bulk of the work that I do is in the planning and the preparation so that when you actually get on-site and you’re working with a client, there aren’t any surprises and it flows easy. So the downside of that, Michael, is that when you walk away, the participants should be congratulating themselves about how wonderful they are, and that, “You were a little helpful, but we could’ve done it fine without you.”


08:06 Kristin Arnold: The good news is that the economic buyer, the person who’s writing the check, the person who actually saw that there was a need to have a facilitator, they realized just what you bring to the table. So I always meet with the stakeholder group, the people who have the most at stake in that meeting, and ask them what are the objectives. Not only the results that they’re looking for, but what are some of the relationship, the relational objectives, as well as from a process point of view, what processes work for them, what have they done, what have they liked, what have they not liked. And ultimately, at the end of the day, what’s the deliverable? What do they wanna see? What do they not wanna see? And then I like to interview a couple of people, not everybody, unless it’s a very small group, but a sample of the people who are actually going to be in that meeting. Not necessarily the stakeholder group, but the people who are being done unto, so I can get a sense for what their perspective is, what their hot buttons are, what are they hoping that’s gonna be valuable, so that I can then take all of that and put together an agenda that I think will get them from point A to point B the most smoothly and effectively and in the least amount of time. Because the shortest distance between two points is…

09:28 Michael Port: Well, they say A to B.

09:31 Kristin Arnold: They say it’s a straight line, and teams don’t work in straight lines.

09:35 Michael Port: Right.

09:35 Kristin Arnold: So how do we provide something that’s gonna be appropriate for the topic and the people in the room? And that’s how my brain thinks. I’m a very process-oriented person. I’m very practical. I don’t need to do a whole lot of hold hands, sing Kumbaya. If you want a team builder, I am not your gal. There are plenty of people who do that. I just wanna get stuff done. I wanna make solid agreements. I want people to have an action plan when they walk away. So my style only resonates with some people. So when people are talking about hiring me, I make sure that I’m the right facilitator to meet their expectations and their objectives and deliverables. And if I’m not, I have no problem at saying, “It sounds like you wanna do something more outward bound, some trust walks, some really experiential activities, let me refer you to another facilitator.”

10:40 Michael Port: Once they’ve hired you, what are some of the questions that you ask the various stakeholders in order to prepare for the first facilitation meeting?

10:53 Kristin Arnold: So obviously, “What’s the objective?” At the end of the day, when you walk out, what is it that you want people to do, think, say, feel? What’s the endgame? Who’s gonna be in the room? Anything I need to be aware of? What doesn’t work well with this group? You’ve had other speakers, other facilitators, what happened that worked well? What would you do differently? I’ll ask them, is there… Usually, most leaders have some kind of random agenda in their own head. They haven’t really given it a whole lot of thought. So they’ll go, “Oh, we need to do this; we need to do that.” So you kinda get the laundry list of what they have in mind, and then you dig a little bit deeper, and go, “Why is this important? Why now? Who needs to be involved? Is there some material that needs to be presented? How can we do some of that offline as pre-works so that we can hit the ground running?”

12:00 Kristin Arnold: There’s a lot of questions that I ask in order to make sure that I’m creating the best agenda for them. And so I’ll put together a draft agenda based on what they’re saying and I actually write out, “Here are the objectives, here’s the deliverables, here’s the pre-work, here’s the agenda.” I’ll send it to them to say, “Bleed all over it, comment it.” Usually they don’t because I have really captured the essence of our initial conversation. But there might be a couple of things that they change a little different and then I do the planning and the preparation for it.

12:38 Michael Port: If you get different objectives from different stakeholders, and if it’s high stakes, often one of the reasons it’s high stakes is because people will have different visions for what they’re trying to accomplish or different ways that they wanna get there. So if you’re hearing different agendas, different objectives from different people, do you handle those before you go into the facilitation or are those the issues you’re usually dealing with during the facilitation?

13:15 Kristin Arnold: Usually that comes out in the pre-work. And it depends on how much time I have and what kind of relationship I have with the key sponsors. Let me give you a real-life situation. There is CEO who was having a very important board meeting and asked me to facilitate it, actually he didn’t ask me to facilitate it, somebody else asked me to facilitate it, but we won’t go there. And so I met with him and his staff, got a very clear idea about what his expectations were and then I called each board member. It was a very small board, so it was like five or six people and the board wanted something completely different. Now, that would be a complete utter disaster if I tried to facilitate the CEO’s objective for their board meeting.

14:13 Kristin Arnold: So I went back to the CEO and I said, “This is what heard that they wanted to accomplish. Now, you can get what you want accomplished but your idea is, it fits as a subset of this and we may or may not get to it the way that you are intending.” And when I gave him the feedback, he was like, “Oh. Well man, I thought they wanted this.” And I said, “Well, you can check it out, we can send the agenda out and make sure that we’ve got agreement on it, but that’s what I heard.” ‘Cause the reality is if we had done what the CEO wanted to do, it would’ve been a complete disaster, we would have had a revolution in the board room.

15:02 Michael Port: When you’re doing this facilitation, you’re there really moving them forward toward their goal. I mean that seems like part of your job, you’re there to direct the action towards the outcome that is consensus-driven, that they’ll all be happy with by the end. Do you also in the process teach them how to do this for themselves? Because you don’t work with them full time, they have to meet often. And they call you in for this high-stakes situation, but wouldn’t it be great if they actually knew how to do this on a regular basis so that things didn’t turn into high-stakes situations when they need not be high-stakes situations?

15:44 Kristin Arnold: Right. So that would be maybe a secondary objective. But the reality is, is that when people hire me, Michael, they want more active facilitation versus developmental facilitation. So if I was an internal facilitator that was called in, you would see me more often, so I would be adding as an objective to do a little bit more of a training versus just doing. Now the reality is, is that the techniques that I use, anybody can replicate without really being “taught.” They can go, “Oh, wow, that was a really cool technique that Kristen used.” But I don’t stop the process and usually I’m working at a pretty executive level and they don’t like being told in a training kind of format. But internal facilitators, that is really part of their charge versus an external facilitator. Where really they’re bringing me in for this specific meeting or maybe once a quarter to do a check-in or something. It’s not quite the charter that I usually get hired under.

17:01 Michael Port: Sure. So if for example, one company is buying another company and they are trying to come to terms, will they bring you in to help facilitate a meeting like that?

17:11 Kristin Arnold: I don’t get a whole lot of M&A work. Sometimes there’s partnering work like maybe there’s two companies that are coming together for a joint venture and they want to make sure that the expectations are clear. Or there’s a building project where you’ve got the building architect, the designer, the contractor, the subs, the owners, they all come together and put together a partnering agreement so that there aren’t any surprises and that the work gets done actually on time.

17:43 Michael Port: Sure. If someone wants to get into meeting facilitation, do you have recommendations on how they can do that?

17:50 Kristin Arnold: Well, that’s a really interesting question, Michael, because I’m kind an oddball in that I chose 23 years ago to specialize in facilitation. And the challenge is, is that I’m not a consultant. A topical consultant, let’s just say an architect who specializes in construction partnering, they offer facilitation services in line with what their content is. And I call that consulting, because obviously they’ve got ideas and perceptions about what that company should do. And so if you really want somebody who’s objective, and doesn’t have an axe to grind, and honestly doesn’t have expertise in your area, then you want a facilitator. Many of us are not just facilitators. Most facilitators are connected to some kind of topical area. I’ve chosen over the years not to. I keep wondering if that’s the right idea or not, but I’m still in business 23 years later, so I must’ve done something right.

19:12 Michael Port: Yeah, something is working out for you. Often, is it the HR, say the head of HR, that’s hiring you to come in? Does that happen often? Do you work with HR departments?

19:23 Kristin Arnold: So generally speaking, no. Because the HR department thinks that they can do it.

19:30 Michael Port: Ah, I see.

19:31 Kristin Arnold: And sometimes they can be a little bit threatened, like, “Why are they hiring Kristen when they could be using one of our internal facilitators?” And the reality is, is sometimes the meeting just has enough stuff that you want somebody with fresh eyes. You don’t want the bias. You want somebody who’s at a level high enough to talk at the executive level versus an HR person. And it’s nothing against HR, but sometimes they just take it a little bit personally.

20:03 Michael Port: Well sometimes, it’s also hard, let’s say the HR… The HR director may be the most senior person in HR, but they are still not at the C level, and they may worry about creating any conflict. Or they may worry about their job security, if they say something that someone on the board doesn’t like. Whereas, you can come in and you don’t have to worry about your job security. I mean obviously, you don’t wanna get fired from doing the job that you’re hired to do, but your role is very different and the expectations they have of you are different. And you wouldn’t necessarily be intimidated by anybody there because they’re in a higher position than you are inside the company.

20:55 Kristin Arnold: Right. So there’s actually two pieces of that one. One is, I don’t have an axe to grind, I don’t have to worry about the politics. If the CEO is babbling, I can shut him or her down, in a graceful, loving way. But I don’t have to worry about my job security. And generally, they appreciate it that I am able to make sure that everybody participates. The other thing is that, for example, if you have the HR director or the VP of HR, they should be actually participating in the meeting. And so by giving that responsibility to the HR person, that means you have one complete function that is not being 100% mentally represented in the room. It’s very hard to facilitate something that you have content expertise over as well as you have to facilitate the process. It’s not that you can’t do it, it’s just harder. And so why should a CEO have to run the meeting, and facilitate it, when they need to be 100% present. And so that’s another reason why sometimes it’s just helpful to have a facilitator. Because some of these really important meetings, it’s like the CEO could dominate and everybody just does the dashboard dog and says, “Oh, okay. Well, we’ll do what the CEO wants.” And the next thing you know, you’re on the road to Abilene.

22:20 Michael Port: As a conference designer, or someone who helps other design conferences, and you were at one time the president for the NSA, is that correct?

22:31 Kristin Arnold: Uh-huh.

22:32 Michael Port: So obviously, you were…

22:35 Kristin Arnold: That would be the National Speakers Association, not the National Security Agency.

22:38 Michael Port: I guess, right, for most people I would assume they’d get it, but then if they connect you to the Coast Guard, they may actually jump over there and think about NSA. You were obviously very involved in the events that NSA held. I’m sure that the big annual event, you were very involved in. What do you think are some of the mistakes that people make when they design conferences?

23:03 Kristin Arnold: I think part of it is they look at slots. The traditional thinking is, we’re gonna have a keynote speaker kick it off, and then we’re gonna have a main stage, and then we’re gonna break in to breakouts, and they’re thinking slots versus story. I think every conference is a story, where you have a beginning, you have a middle, you have a high, a low. People laugh, people cry. And you need to wrap it up in a little bow and send people on their way so that they go, “Oh my God, I need to come back to this meeting next year,” or whatever. And I think sometimes, meeting organizers get more stuck in the details and the logistics, rather than really thinking through the attendee experience.

23:58 Michael Port: Does it start with a theme? Is that where you start?

24:01 Kristin Arnold: It can.

24:02 Michael Port: Yeah, like here’s the theme for this year’s event, and now let’s create… Let’s write a story that illustrates that theme so people can experience that theme while they’re here, and then take that home into their lives.

24:17 Kristin Arnold: Yeah, I mean I think themes make it a lot easier. For example, I’m working with a company that is talking about innovation, collaboration and partnership as their theme, and they put out their request for proposals and they’re doing it the same old way, and you’re like, “Excuse me, your theme is on innovation. Why don’t we try doing something different?”

24:44 Michael Port: Yeah, sure.

24:45 Kristin Arnold: It’s like, “So let’s step back.” Even the meeting, the main stage setup, we could do a theatre-in-the-round kind of thing, which would be completely different, completely innovative. When you look at the main stage speaker, does it have to be a one-way conversation, or can it be more collaborative? Can it be more of a conversation? Can you crowd-source the information ahead of time, or can you do some co-creation during the actual speech? There’s a lot of things that I try to push boundaries.

25:18 Michael Port: But if you do…

25:19 Kristin Arnold: It’s kinda like the Pillsbury Doughboy, you just kinda like stick your finger in and see if it punches back or not.

25:24 Michael Port: If you do theatre-in-the-around, which is a fantastic idea, call me to work with the speakers, make sure that they know what to do.

25:33 Kristin Arnold: I know.

25:33 Michael Port: Because…

25:33 Kristin Arnold: I just read an article from and Speaker Magazine just picked it up, that’s the National Speakers Association magazine, and because a lot of people don’t know. And in fact, the rumor is at the World Education Congress, which did a theatre-in-the-round, that one of the speakers who was invited to speak cancelled once he heard that it was a theatre-in-the-round ’cause he just said, “I don’t wanna speak in that format.”

25:57 Michael Port: Yeah, he probably just was scared…

26:00 Kristin Arnold: Pretty ballsy.

26:00 Michael Port: ‘Cause he’d never done it before, I guess.

26:03 Kristin Arnold: Yeah.

26:03 Michael Port: It’s interesting because you’re right, there is a very… There’s almost a strict adherence to the idea of what speaking is, professionally. And there’s a strict adherence to the idea of what a conference is supposed to be like. And in large part, it’s because when we’re going into a profession, we look at what other people do and we say, “Oh, that’s how you’re supposed to do it, so I’ll do it like that.” Or if we’re creating a conference, we look at other conferences and say, “Oh, that conference has a lot of people at it. Seems like it is successful, so that’s the way we’re supposed to do it.” When in fact, the artist’s job in large part is to break the rules. Not just to break the rules to be rebellious or to be different, but to create something that may not have existed before. And of course, it’s risky, and it’s natural to be afraid of rejection. And when you take risks, the potential for rejection is increased. So a higher probability of getting rejected when you do something that is unknown.

27:18 Michael Port: And that’s one of the reasons that folks get scared. One of the things that I’m trying to bring from the world of theatre into the world of speaking, is more comfort with the messiness of the creative process. So that we’re making bigger, bolder, stronger choices that increase the level of risk in service of the audience. And that’s always the key of course, as you know better than anyone, it’s always in service of the audience. But something like theatre-in-the-round, if you’ve never done it and you don’t want to branch out and you don’t think, “Well, I’ll have to do this again,” you might say, “Well, I’m not doing it because I don’t wanna have to learn how to do that. It’s not worth my time to learn. I’m just gonna stick with the format that exists because that’s how it always is.” But when you’re a true performer, you’re always looking for opportunities to experience things, to try things that you maybe have not tried before, that are new to you in service of the audience, to keep pushing the envelope to create more and more compelling experiences for the audience.

28:32 Michael Port: When you were the President of the NSA, did you see a lot of… The only term that’s coming to my mind right now is “copycat behavior,” and I don’t mean it in a negative way. I’m not being critical in any way, shape, or form, but things being done the same way over and over and over again because that’s just how they were done?

28:57 Kristin Arnold: I was President in 2010 to ’11, and I gave complete… Empowered Randy Gage…

29:06 Michael Port: Oh, sure, yeah. I know Randy…

29:08 Kristin Arnold: To do that convention. And that really was the beginning of, I think, NSA starting to try things a little differently. And Randy, well, you know Randy?

29:24 Michael Port: Sure.

29:24 Kristin Arnold: Many of the people probably on this podcast know Randy Gage. I mean, Randy Gage is a little bit controversial and he likes to instigate change, and he really pushed hard for some new kind of innovative formats, and there’s only so much that an organization can do. It’s one step at a time…

29:48 Michael Port: That’s right.

29:48 Kristin Arnold: And it’s really funny because a lot of the things that Randy and I had suggested or proposed were shot down because, “You would never get the CPAs to move their banquet night. Never, never, never.” Well, guess what? It happened this past year. So I always equate NSA to be like a big, giant battleship that takes about five or six years to really swing into a new direction. And I think when I’m working with clients, and I’m sure you see this happen too, Michael, you have to pick what you think the best thing is gonna be for them to try out. I always suggest to people, “Dare to be different. There are gonna be some people who absolutely love what you’re doing and there will be the stalwarts who would like you to go back to doing what you did do. So you are not gonna get a 100% smiley faces. I can guarantee you right now that it will be controversial, and that’s okay because that’s how we learn.” Because my keynote speeches are crowd-sourced. I do really strange things that are not typical keynote main stage type of stuff. And I’m like, “I just need to tell you, some people are gonna love it and some people are gonna go ‘Couldn’t you just hire Michael Port’…


31:09 Kristin Arnold: Couldn’t you just hire… “

31:10 Michael Port: Wait! That’s assuming that I’m not scarier to them. I might be even scarier like, “Wait! No, he’s gonna do that thing where he jumped off that roof again.”

31:19 Kristin Arnold: Couldn’t you just hire somebody. And you have to be looking for those few meeting planners. I’m not right for everybody and I am very clear about who I’m right for. And you’re looking for those people who go, “I know I need to do something different, I just don’t know what it is.” “I know I need to engage my audience more. I just don’t know how to.” “I know I need to take some of the brilliance that we have of our main stage and bring it into application.” Those are some of the things that I think people are looking for, because if it’s just data, I can look at you on your YouTube video.

32:01 Michael Port: That’s right. When you moderate panels, are you usually involved in curating them also? Or do you often come in and have to moderate a panel that has previously been curated?

32:15 Kristin Arnold: When you’re talking about curated, you’re talking about the panelists already being confirmed?

32:20 Michael Port: Correct.

32:21 Kristin Arnold: Okay. So usually I’m brought in after they’ve already been kind of selected. I’ll try to push them to make sure that they’ve thought about a couple of criteria, but I don’t actually get involved in the actual selecting and inviting; that’s for the organization to do. But I wanna make sure that there’s a couple of things about the panelists. First is that they are experienced, they’re either an expert, they’re a practitioner, or they have that expertise that would be of value for the members to learn. I wanna make sure that there’s some diverse view points in the room, so not everybody is shaking their head and saying, “Uh-huh. Oh, I agree with Michael.” Okay, that’s kind of boring. Not that I agree with you, but you need to have some controversy, that creates more interest. But you also need to have visual diversity, so that it’s not just a panel of white guys, which is officially called a “manel.”


33:24 Michael Port: I’ve never heard that. That’s fantastic.

33:26 Kristin Arnold: Yeah. And there’s really been a lot of push back because you need to have that visual ethnic diversity, gender diversity, background, cultures, those kinds of things. Isn’t it funny that we’re maybe talking about women in the workforce and there’s not one woman on the panel?

33:43 Michael Port: I’ve seen it.

33:44 Kristin Arnold: Like duh, this is just stupid. So I’ll push back on that kinda thing. I also like to make sure that these people are eloquent. I’ll actually go look at videos online to make sure that they can string two words together. If they are not able to do that, I’ll point that out and say, “Maybe you might wanna consider somebody who’s a little bit more eloquent.” And then the last piece, Michael, is that I wanna make sure they’ll be willing to do the work. That you don’t just show up and throw up. A lot of people just say, “Oh, how hard could a panel be? I’ll just show up and I’ll go wherever I wanna go.” No, they need to think through what are their key points that they wanna share with the audience? What’s the story that’s gonna illuminate that? A quick, concise story that would be meaningful for the audience. Those kinds of things I like to work with the panelists ahead of time.

34:34 Michael Port: Just for the record, that our big live event at the end of August and beginning of November… Last day of August, first two days of November, we have “panel” and we are very imbalanced gender-wise. We have two men and four women. So our scales are tipped the other way, which is I think something that we’re very proud of. What we’re doing is different. We’ve done regular panels in the past. This year we’re doing a game show, which we are writing from scratch. And we hope that’ll be really fun for the audience. And it may not work, but we’re gonna try it and see what happens.

35:16 Kristin Arnold: Give it a roll.

35:17 Michael Port: Yeah. And we’re gonna see what happens. So let’s talk about… You mentioned controversy. How conflict… This idea that sometimes, you really want diverse opinions on the panel because it’s exciting for the audience and they get different perspectives. What about the panelists who get into it and get a little bit hot-headed because that’s their personality? And they wanna be right or they don’t like that the other person had a different opinion because it makes them look like they’re not on the money. How do you manage that? Because different opinions is very different than people on the panel just getting into it with each other.

36:08 Kristin Arnold: Right. So there’s two things that come to mind when you’re giving me this scenario. Again, in the planning, you would know whether you’ve got that hot-head there, and you would know what the controversy is. And you can do some preventive strategies to make sure that people know that this is supposed to be a conversation, it’s supposed to be interesting. You know where the hot points are if you know that somebody… And you can tell as you’re talking to them on the phone in preparation. You might reinforce some ideas about making sure that you’re sharing airtime. And this is about generating light and not heat on the issue. So there are some things that you can do. And then of course, a good panel moderator knows how to gracefully intervene and step in and stuff. But the other thing is that I’m kind of an [37:04] ____ panel moderator. If I know that there’s a juicy hot topic that the panelists are just really passionate about, I might set the format up like a crossfire debate. You know the show Crossfire?

37:16 Michael Port: Sure, yeah. I remember.

37:17 Kristin Arnold: Or the McLaughlin Report? The late, great McLaughlin?

37:21 Michael Port: Sure.

37:22 Kristin Arnold: In that you set up that it is to be confrontational. Audiences are so used to seeing talk show formats on TV ever since Michael Douglas days; Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey. We’ve got so many different kinds of TV formats that we can pull. Nowadays, people talk about The View or The Chew, or all kinds. You could do the David Letterman… David Letterman is not around… Jimmy Fallon, John Corden. You could do Ellen DeGeneres. You could do any kind of format that would support kinda the personality of the speaker, maybe the topic, maybe the theme of the convention. That would really make it interesting and fun. You were talking about gamification. You could do a gamification of a panel as well. You just have to think it through and plan it out so that it’s you’re maximizing the fun factor.

38:22 Michael Port: And of course, like most great things, it takes more time and more effort to produce something that’s different or new. Because just sitting people down and asking questions is quite easy.

38:32 Kristin Arnold: Right. I call it the lazy format. And meeting organizers treat it like, “Oh, okay. I got the moderator in. I got the panelists. My job here is done.” As a panel moderator, my job is just starting.

38:45 Michael Port: Yeah. One of the things that I, anytime I have been on a panel, really try to avoid doing, and I found it helpful, but I don’t think it’s something everybody does, I stay away from the word “but.” Anytime I’m asked a question after somebody else has shared their particular feeling on it, it’s something that I find is small but I find it creates tension between the panelists. For example, if somebody gives their opinion on, “Here’s the best way to slice bread,” and they go through their answer and I say, “But blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Well, that’s suggesting that they missed something or it was wrong. Which is different than, “And I also think about this.” It’s a very different way of interacting. I think it’s a different way of interacting one-on-one or one-to-many and when you’re on a panel. Do you see certain types of people more aware of that particular… How the language influences the way they interact with each other and the way the audience sees them?

40:07 Kristin Arnold: Yeah, I haven’t really thought of it that way, Michael. I always like saying to the panelists, “Be additive and not repetitive.” And the way that you do that is to say, “Yes, and.” Unless you don’t agree at all. And maybe that might be the case where “but” would be appropriate. I don’t tee it up like the, “Yes, and” or, “No, but,” but I do tee it up like, “Let’s have a great conversation. You guys are such experts.” I was talking to Kate Delaney about the panel that she did at Influence 16 and she said in preparation, she just blew smoke in their direction, just fluffed their ego like, “You guys are so great. You’re gonna have a great conversation. Just be yourselves, be natural. Bring out the best information that you can for the audience.” She just really reinforced conversation, conversation, no presentation kind of thing. And I think that that’s kinda what’s your mantra, what’s your drumbeat that you want your panelists to really take into the panel is really important.

41:25 Michael Port: Yeah. One of our tenants in all of the work that we do is the principle of “Yes, and.” It is the oldest improv principle in the world, and we believe that it forwards action. It moves the action forward. And for those who aren’t familiar with it, the idea is that if I say, “No” when I’m in any kind of improvisation with somebody, it just stops the action, but if I say, “Yes, and,” it moves the action forward even if I take it somewhere else. And when we’re in conversation with other people, if we build on what they say, then we tend to build together. But if we say, “No,” then we tend to build alone. And we might not build something as great as we can if we build it together.

42:18 Michael Port: If we disagree with somebody on a panel, if we… And we wanna be clear that we do, and it is not always necessary. One of the things that I try to do is not always… I don’t always have to share my opinion on something. It’s not some obligation that I have and not everybody wants to hear it at all times. If someone has a different opinion, they can share it and I don’t always feel the need to rebut. I think that’s something to consider too. And if I do disagree and I wanna say so, I will say… If I understand where they’re coming from, I’ll say, “I really understand that perspective. Here’s how I approach that.” And then if it sounds like it’s different, then it’s different. This is one of those things that I think… I’ve watched panels a lot and it’s so interesting to me how effective they are when you have really strong communicators. Not just people who have expertise, but really strong communicators because they know how to interact with the other panelists in a way that brings out the best in each other, rather than potentially creating conflict amongst each other. I was…

43:31 Kristin Arnold: Absolutely.

43:31 Michael Port: I was on a panel once where someone quoted me but not actually quoted me. Meaning, they used a quote that I wrote in one of my books in 2006 and just passed it off as their own. They didn’t realize that it was my quote. And I was on the panel with them. Just sitting there.

43:51 Kristin Arnold: Oh, God.

43:52 Michael Port: It was one of those where I went… [chuckle] But I didn’t say anything on the panel. I wasn’t going to embarrass them. I didn’t have this need to, “Well, that was my quote, where did you get that?” But afterwards I asked them. I said, “Hey, where did you get that quote from, is that yours? Or did you hear it from somewhere?” He said, “Well, I think it’s… No, I don’t know, maybe I heard it from somewhere.” And it was one of those. And I said, “Oh, really? It’s actually on page nine in ‘Book Yourself Solid.'” That put an end to that. But those kinda things will happen on panels and it’s not always necessary to address every single thing that we disagree with in that particular situation. When somebody is looking for a panel host, what do you think they should be looking for? Because I’m gonna guess that you don’t think everybody is necessarily ready or skilled to lead a panel. It does take some skill.

44:49 Kristin Arnold: Absolutely.


44:51 Kristin Arnold: Thank you.

44:52 Michael Port: You’re welcome.

44:52 Kristin Arnold: You would never put a speaker on your main stage without doing your due diligence. And I find it appalling that people will ask somebody to moderate a panel without doing their due diligence.

45:09 Michael Port: It is interesting because sometimes we think, “Well, they’re just gonna ask some questions,” and we’ll give them the list of questions. I see this a lot in… I don’t know why, but I see it often in non-profit organizations for some reason. When I watch Vanguard videos, they’ll often do video panels with different people from Vanguard discussing various investing-related issues. And often the panelist is somebody, it seems like, from the HR department, or from the education department, as opposed to somebody who is a trained panelist or facilitator. And I feel that they could really get some value by bringing in somebody who has these particular kinds of skills. So how do we convince them to do it?

46:00 Kristin Arnold: Well, I’m kinda on this crusade to make everybody smarter about this kind of stuff. I mean again, it’s a lazy format. I know that I’m working with a couple of associations that have actually mandated that their panelists and their panel moderator go through some kind of training. I usually work with the panelists to get a sense for what are their key points that they want to get. Do they have a key story that illuminates that point? Or how are they gonna demonstrate it visually? Do they have a prop? Do they have some kind of thing that they wanna do with the audience? But also my formats, I use different formats than what is the traditional format. And if I can get rid of the white draped table and burn it, I’m all for that. I think people are a little bit more receptive when they know it’s not gonna be the same…

46:53 Michael Port: Sure. Can you…

46:55 Kristin Arnold: But if it’s the same kind of feel in the format, then they just tune out and say, “Oh. Well, I’ll prepare when I get to the venue, or I’ll prepare on the way, on the plane.”

47:07 Michael Port: Yeah, sure.

47:08 Kristin Arnold: I mean, I just think that it deserves a little bit more.

47:11 Michael Port: For our last question, would you be able to give us an example of a different format for a panel?

47:22 Kristin Arnold: Yeah. So again, live TV shows are great, doing something that mimics one of those live TV shows. You could even do kind of a “Friends” cafe type of thing, a political format, or a talk show format. There’s other kinds of formats that you can do. One of my favorite is the empty chair format. It works with audiences up to about 300, after about 300 it doesn’t work very well. But you put the panelists up there, and you’ve got one empty chair and an audience member can fill it. And so the audience member can be part of the panel and then another person can come up and put their hand behind the panelist. And they would have to leave and you’ve got a new panelist in. And if you really wanna be dicey, you can do that to all the chairs. You start off with a panel, but then if any of the members can take the seat. That’s kind of a fish bowl-ish type format.

48:33 Michael Port: Yeah. Sure.

48:34 Kristin Arnold: There is the seating. The seating actually contributes to a lot. Hugh Lee, with a production company… I’m sorry, I can’t remember the production company name. He actually had the panelists in the four corners of the room. So the keynote speaker came down after he spoke and he took a key seat. And then the moderator moderated the panel discussion with the people at the four corners of the room. Again, there was maybe 500 people in the room, which I thought was kinda ballsy. It’s like, “Wow, that’s… ” but he’s trying to make that conversation more intimate. I just thought it was kind of interesting. I was not there to see it, but he said it worked out really well because the panelists were well-briefed on how it was gonna go.

49:25 Michael Port: Was it a hotel type where it was actually flat? So it wasn’t a stage with a raked house?

49:33 Kristin Arnold: Yeah. It was in a ballroom.

49:34 Michael Port: Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. So that’s cool stuff. Just…

49:36 Kristin Arnold: And I can’t remember if we had a theatre-in-the-round so that the main stage speaker was in the round and then just came down and was a panelist.

49:47 Michael Port: It’s very interesting. It’s just a great example of thinking about different ways to connect with your audience. Again, it’s not about being cool. It’s not about like, “Well, I’m gonna be different to be different so everybody talks about how different I am.” It’s about, “Well, what’s another way to get them engaged so that we deliver on our promise?” ‘Cause that’s our job. We are there in service of that audience, not in service of our own needs, but in service of them. So what can we do better to make more connection with them, so that we can get them to think what is important to think in that moment. Now that’s, of course, what we’re trying to get them to think, but it’s in service of them, what we want them to feel, and what, of course, we want them to do. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here today. Where can people find you if they need some high-stakes facilitation or just wanna get in touch with you?

50:41 Kristin Arnold: Facilitation, I’m at, and if you want anything on panels, I have a free video course for moderators at

50:55 Michael Port: That’s great. We’ll put those in the show notes. That’s really cool, That’s great. That’s really nice. Hey, listen. Again, thank you so much. Thank you again for your services I mentioned at the beginning, and thank you for all that you’ve done in our industry for so many years. You’ve made such a contribution to so many speakers through your work at NSA and beyond. I appreciate that. Thank you.

51:18 Kristin Arnold: Well, thank you, Michael. And thank you for creating this incredible knowledge base of how people can steal the show and how they can present themselves in a much better light and actually deliver on the promise to the audience. So thank you for all that you do, Michael.

51:36 Michael Port: Oh, you’re welcome. It’s my pleasure. And all you guys who are listening, thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to be in service of you. Keep thinking big about who you are and about what you offer the world. If you have a moment and you want to go hop on over to, we’ve got some free videos over there. We’ve got some events coming up. And if you ever have a question, just shoot me an email at In the meantime, keep thinking big about who you are and what you offer the world. Bye for now.