I recently moderated a business leadership panel at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. It started with an address by former Independent Counsel Ken Starr. Our panel was supposed to talk about the impact of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation accounting reform legislation. My panelists included two lawyers, an accountant, a reporter and an investment banker. They were all nationally known and successful. Each of my panelists was sure that if Judge Starr canceled, they were well equipped to take his place.
A week before, we had a conference call to review the ground rules. Keep answers to 90 seconds, and only one panelist per question. It kills a panel to have every panelist try to comment on every question.
It was my job to convey that a panel is a series of semi-scripted performances. Like all good performances, performers need enough humor, stories and energy. One-line cracks, interjections of one panelist to another and some back-and-forth comments help vary the pacing. Since they're businesspeople, they needed to jot these down before hand. I had to explain that these remarks are perhaps 20 percent substance, 30 percent packaging and 50 percent delivery.
"Packaging" information means understanding what you must cover, conveying that this is serious stuff, but making it interesting for the audience. To address that, one of the lawyers responded to the question of what could and should happen to the executives from Enron whom we've seen indicted as "perps." Will they, should they, see jail time? The lawyer said that jail was a real possibility, then turned to the audience and asked, "Tell your executives that if they don't want to face jail, pay attention to these." And then I gave him 90 seconds to make a specific point about some aspect of the new regulations with which they're grappling.
Another example: The accountant wanted to talk about the new regulation requiring that the chairman of the audit committee of the board be a "financial expert." I started that question by reminding him that the chairman of Enron's audit committee was an accounting professor at Stanford Business School and a former dean of the school. If he's not an expert, who is? And is technical expertise what we want or dogged persistence?
In front of the actual audience, I used props. For the "financial expert" question, I held up the thick binders sent to me as a board member of a publishing company and asked how any board member could possibly plow through enough information to be useful? When I introduced the panel to the audience and reminded them of the 90-second time limit, I had a stopwatch in front of me, but held up a role of duct tape as their time cue. I had a USA Today editorial page to hold up, too, where opposing opinion pieces are headlined, "Corporate Abuses Persist," "New Regulations Won't Help." I asked the investment banker, "Are they both right?"
Humor is the hardest thing to build in as a moderator. Fortunately, members of Congress have provided some help. During the hearings about Sarbanes-Oxley, members asked questions of business executives like, "Do you know any other companies using two sets of books?" Members had little understanding of the issue. I used those questions to let my panelists opine on the difficulty of advising clients when legislation is vague and contradictory.
To start the panel, I alluded to their credentials as a way to make a point. For example, my panelist from Ernst & Young, one of the real "Final Four," has headed a local entrepreneurial practice, a regional group, the Asian division and the HR department. I concluded, "If anyone can keep a global accounting firm out of the tar pits of today's business, it's David Alexander." I kept my introductions to about 20 seconds.
A few tricky things to negotiate: With a celebrity like Judge Starr around, I had to escort him off the stage and onto the front row. Otherwise all the questions would have been directed to him. Actually, my challenge was to deter Judge Starr, a former federal appellate judge and solicitor general, from participating anyway. He knew a lot and every fiber of his being wanted to contribute.
My final job as moderator was to conclude the panel on time. The best compliment was audience members who said, "Already?"
-- Merrie Spaeth, Director of Media Relations for President Reagan, is President of a Dallas-based consulting firm and is a regular commentator and writer on communication issues.