How to Lead a Great Panel

Hard-earned lessons in making conference panels suck less.

Hey community builders,

A bit of a tangential topic for you all today…

I’ve conducted hundreds of public interviews in my career, and many of them have been in the format everyone loves to hate: the panel.

Well we have a few panels at CMX Summit (y’all should join, it’s virtual, free, and kicked off tomorrow!) One of our panel moderators asked me for my advice on how to run a great panel. Thought I’d share with you what I wrote to them, in case you might find it helpful too.

Here we go…

  1. Follow your own curiosity: It makes it much more interesting if you’re genuinely asking questions that you care about the answer to vs. just asking what’s written down. Design questions around your own curiosity. If you’re curious about it, then there will definitely be people in the audience who are curious too.

  2. Follow up: The magic is often found in the follow-up questions. If you hear someone say something that seems interesting, or could be interesting but they’re being vague about it, then make them dig deeper. The more specific you can get them to be, the better. Let’s play out an example…

  • Them: “we plan out our community content for the year”

  • You: “that’s really interesting, could you share more about what that community plan looks like?”

  • Them: “yeah we just map out month by month what the themes are and then come up with specific content that fits in that theme”

  • You: “interesting! where does that plan live? Is it in a document somewhere?”

  • Them: “we put it all into our project management tool asana, which makes it easy to assign tasks and keep everything in one place

You went from a generally unhelpful insight of “we plan out our content for the year” into something very specific and actionable. I always try to pull something out that the listener/attendee can put into action that very day.

  1. Dont do self-introductions: In a panel, they take way too long and it’s boring content. Instead, you have three options:

    1. Have the emcee intro everyone for you

    2. You introduce the panelists for them

    3. Work their bios into the conversation

      I like #3 the best because you get to work their story and experience into the conversation. So you’d say something like, “Jane, you’ve been building robots for 20 years at Boston Robotics and Google… what is your biggest fear about the future of robotics?”

  2. Be yourself: which can be generally confusing advice. Who am I anyway? But what I take this to mean when speaking/interviewing is if I feel like I’m performing for people, then I’m probably not being myself. I try to talk to the panelists like I would a good friend who I’ve known for a long time. I make jokes as if we’re sitting at a cafe just talking to each other. Don’t perform. Just be.

  3. You don’t have to ask each question to all three people: A lot of panels do this format where every question is answered by all panelists. But it takes a long time and you miss an opportunity to ask more specific questions. So think about having both: a couple questions that all three can answer and some that are specifically designed for each person.

  4. Interrupt: Not too much, but not too little. If a panelist is rambling on, interrupt and say something positive like “you said something really interesting there and I wanted to get Jane’s take on it too” then have Jane take it. Or if you hear something interesting that you want them to go deeper on before moving to their next thought, interrupt them before they transition. Interrupting isn’t rude, it’s good moderation.

  5. End on something visionary/inspiring: I like to ask for predictions of the future, or to condense all of their lessons into one piece of advice to others. Something that ends on a positive, thought-provoking note.

Hope that helps you prep for the next time you host a panel or do an interview.

And I hope you’ll all join us at CMX Summit over the next few days. We have…

  • Over 90 presenters over three days

  • 60+ talks, workshops, and networking events

  • Keyotes from Seth Godin and Sahil Lavingia

  • Some fun stuff like learning how to raise chickens, a DJ, and drag queen bingo

  • We’re giving away a bunch of copies of The Business of Belonging

Grab your tickets here!

Otherwise, hope to write to you all soon. I’m starting to get the itch to write again after feeling pretty burned out by it after writing the book. And I’m hoping this newsletter will become a nice personal outlet where I can talk directly to ya in a less formal format.


The Business of Belonging is LIVE!

You can now find it in bookstores everywhere!

Hey everyone,

The day has arrived! The Business of Belonging is officially available in bookstores all around the world! 🚀🚀🚀

It’s been off to an incredible start, ranking #1 in all three categories for best-selling new releases on Amazon.

I can really use your help in keeping the momentum going and get to the #1 best-selling spots for all books in these categories (we’re at #3 in one of the categories)! The biggest things that move the needle at this stage are:

  1. Early orders (grab your copy here)

  2. Amazon reviews

  3. Spreading the word on social. Feel free to pile on my posts on Twitter, Linkedin, and Facebook

FYI: you can also get a Kindle version on Amazon, and yes… the audio book is coming soon!

If you’re able to grab a copy, or a few for your team and friends, it would make a huge huge difference. If your company buys enough copies, I’ll come in and do a free workshop too.

Thank you all for your feedback and support along the journey of publishing this book. I couldn’t have done it without you, and your kind messages kept me going through the hardest parts.

Writing this book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I hope it makes the path 100x easier for the next generation of community-powered businesses than when I started 13 years ago.

If you’ve already gotten your copy, thank you thank you thank you! Shoot me a picture when it arrives! Or better yet, share one on social media. I’m loving seeing everyone’s pictures and unboxings.

Appreciate you all.


P.S. Enjoy my favorite endorsement so far from my friend Parker Thompson. Here’s to making filthy capitalists more squishy!

My Book Publishing Story

And what I learned about the secrets of the book publishing world

Hey friends,

So it’s a pretty exciting week…

Publishing a book has been a goal of mine since the very early days of my career.

It took 13 years, but next week The Business of Belonging will officially be published.

I thought today I could share my experience of publishing this book with you all, in case you or someone you know is thinking about publishing a book one day.

There are a lot of reasons why people who want to write books end up never getting to it. For me, it came down to making it a true commitment. On Jan 1 in 2020, I wrote down my three goals for the year and one of them was to get a book deal. After years of writing book drafts without any real plan or intention to get it to the finish line, I finally made it a priority.

Six months later I had a book deal signed, but not in the way I expected.

I thought I would go through the regular process of pitching agents, who would help me pitch publishers, and I would have to get a “yes” from their editorial board. That never happened.

I pitched a lot of publishers and a few agents. They all said no. Over six months, there were multiple times I almost gave up.

How I actually ended up getting the book deal was with a healthy dose of luck. I had pitched the First Round Review on publishing an article on community strategy and they said they were interested, but they wouldn’t be able to fit it in for a few months.

Then Covid hit.

All of a sudden, an article about online community and virtual events became a top priority. Some silver lining of the pandemic, in my case! We worked quickly to get an article together and it was published two weeks later.

The article did really well. It was timely and tactical. And as luck would have it, an editor from Wiley read it and thought it would make a good book. He emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in turning the article into a full book. I played it cool, like I hadn’t just been told “no” by other publishers, and let him know that I happened to have a book proposal ready to go.

That editor ended up working with me to improve the proposal (he was a huge help) and pitched it to the editorial board himself. They said yes, and I had a book deal.

So my biggest advice if you want to publish a book is to make it a commitment you can stick to. Write it down. Put it up on your mirror. Come up with a plan. Just start taking the steps toward that goal. Keep putting yourself in a position to get lucky and eventually, you’ll get lucky.

The other reason a lot of people never end up publishing their book is because of the book industry itself. It’s an extremely confusing and opaque world that makes it really hard for first-time authors to break through.

When I decided to write my book, I started by talking to as many book experts as possible. I spoke to authors, to hybrid-publishers, to agents and traditional publishers, to friends who work in the industry…anyone with any insight into the world of publishing that could help me wrap my head around it.

I was lucky to find some incredible advisors who helped me navigate this world.

On Twitter this week, I shared a thread of the inside secrets I learned along the way about the world of publishing. I hope it helps more of you write the books you’ve always been dreaming of.

If you do want to write a book and have questions, let me know. I’d love to help you bring your book to the world, especially if you’re an underestimated / underrepresented author.


I thought I’d start sharing a bit about what I’ve been thinking about and reading in the world of community-powered business in these newsletters. Let me know if you find this stuff interesting.

Sarvasv Kulpati, a student at UC Berkeley, took a swing at coming up with a formula for measuring community that I found interesting (h/t Evan Hamilton). I like that it focuses on depth, not just connections:

Is community-washing the new green-washing? We have to be careful to recognize when companies are using the term “community” because it sounds good for PR, not because they’re actually willing to make an investment in building community. We should ask for receipts.

At CMX we did a deep dive case study into the Atlassian’s community. The article’s been well received and I spoke with our content lead today about doing more case studies like this. Wondering what other companies we should do deep dives with. Ideas?

I interviewed two people for the Masters of Community podcast this week who come from the world of behavioral psychology and network science. Some key takeaways:

  • Dunbars number actually works by multiples of 3, working from your innermost circle (closes friends) outward. At every level, multiply by 3 and that’s the number of people you can hold in that circle.

  • Zoom is exhausting in part because we’re not used to looking at ourselves in the mirror the entire time we’re talking to someone. Turn your self-view off and life gets better (but some new research is showing that audio-only calls are still less draining than Zoom).

  • All communities are driven by gossip and cliques. And neither of those have to be a bad thing. Our ability to learn about other people in a communtiy without actually talking to them is part of what gave homo sapiens an evolutionary advantage over other human species.

The interviews are with Professor Marissa King (Author of Social Chemistry) and Jon Levy (Author of You’re Invited). They’ll both be up in the next two weeks. In the meantime, enjoy my conversation with Matthew Kobach about how to build up your social community on Twitter.

If you haven’t already RSVP’d, I’d love to invite you to join us at The Business of Belonging virtual launch party! We’ll have talks, readings, panels, and giveaways. Maybe a spontaneous dance party… we’ll see.

The book officially comes out on Tuesday. The things that move the needle the most for authors at this point are preorders, and reviews from verified purchasers. If you haven’t already preordered a few copies for yourself and your team, it would be a huge huge help. Grab em here.

Appreciate you all.

I love hearing from you. Hit reply and let me know what’s happening in your community-building worlds.

- Spinks

📖 You Can Now Preorder the Business of Belonging!

Be the first to get the book when it's released on March 23rd.

It’s with boatloads of excitement that I get to finally announce that The Business of Belonging is now officially available for preorder!

You can learn more about the book, and place your orders here!

I can’t tell you all how much your support has meant to me and helped me push through to get this book to the finish line. Thank you to everyone who showed up along the way, for the edits and feedback, and for all the nice messages you’ve sent.

The team is working to make this prelaunch as successful as possible and spread the word, but the success of this book will really come down to all of you and whether or not this book gets into the right hands. I don’t care about getting on a WSJ or NYT list. My goal is simple: get more businesses to successfully invest in and build communities.

Anyone who’s thinking about investing in community at their business, or anyone who needs help getting their community strategy in order… I hope they’ll have this book on their desk.

So I have two asks for those who want to help out:

  1. Order a few copies of the book (if you’re in the position to), one for yourself and a couple to give away to someone who’s interested in learning about community strategy (I’m offering a few limited-time bulk order deals which can find on the website)

  2. Join in the celebration on Twitter, Linkedin, and Facebook and tag someone you know who would like this book (maybe with some compliments and emojis around it 📖 ❤️ 🥰 )

That’s all for now. When the book launched on March 23rd, getting lots of good reviews on The Zon is what will move the needle in the biggest way, and it’ll help if you’re already a “verified purchaser”.

The energy around the community industry just keeps building.

…and has felt like it’s hit a fever pitch in the last couple months alone. I never thought I’d see a headline on Techcrunch about the Chief Community Officer being the new CMO. I never thought I’d see multiple VC funds focused on community launch in a year. I never thought I’d see community be one of the most common topics on the hot new social audio platform.

I always believed that community would be the future of business…but to see it come to fruition in such a huge way has been surreal.

I’m feeling lucky. I’ve been working on this book for five years and I think it’s coming out at the perfect time. Published a couple years ago, it would have been too early. Published in a year, it would have missed the wave. I’m hoping that this book will help thousands of businesses do more than just talk about community and have an actual strategy in place for designing their programs, measuring their value, and building massively successful communities.

That will be the biggest challenge for the community industry in the next couple years: avoiding becoming a flash in the pan. Before the world of business looks to the next hot thing, we need to build the systems and tools required to build communities that are indispensable to members AND businesses. I wrote this book to be the guide to help businesses get there. It’s a collection of all the frameworks I’ve developed with the CMX team and all the key insights from the leaders in the CMX community. I really hope you all love it.

Thank you again for all of your support and energy toward the book and the community industry as a whole.

Oh… and you’re all invited to celebrate with us at the official Business of Belonging virtual launch party on March 30th. We’ll be doing book readings, interviews with experts from the book, giveaways, and have some other fun surprises. You can RSVP here.

Here we go!!!


Showing the Receipts

Chief Community Officers, "Community-Driven" Companies, and a Book Jacket Sneak Peek

Hey community builders,

It’s been a couple months since my last newsletter. As a reminder, you’re getting this email because you signed up to be kept in the loop about the presale launch of my upcoming book, The Business of Belonging.

I’m going to be writing here a bit more consistently as we roll up to the release, sharing what I’m seeing and learning in the community space. Thanks for coming along for the ride! If you just want book updates (and a sneak peek at the jacket), scroll to the bottom.

I’ve been having a lot of interesting discussions over the past couple weeks about what it means for a business to be truly “community-driven”, and what community teams need to be successful in the world of business.

The conversation kicked off in part by the release of the 2021 Community Industry Report.

There’s a lot of interesting data this year, which all points to an industry that’s growing really quickly, but also still struggling to get buy-in.

One of the most common questions I get asked is what department community should live in. I believe that community has to be its own department for it to truly be successful. And for it to truly be its own department, it needs to have a C-Level position that it rolls up to. Ideally, a Chief Community Officer.

But right now, only 15% of businesses have a dedicated community department. The rest mostly roll up to marketing and CS.

This explains why community teams still have a big disconnect with leadership expectations, even when leadership “believes” in community.

Yes, community teams are growing and getting more investment. This year 67% of organizations had at least 2 full-time employees on their community team, up from 57% in 2019. 9% have 11 or more full-time employees on their community team, up from 7% in 2019. 88% of organizations have at least one dedicated community manager, up from 71% in 2017.

But quantifying value is still the #1 challenge that community teams face.

There’s a disconnect in the metrics that are being tracked that further explains this challenge.

The top three metrics that community teams are tracking?

  1. Active users

  2. New user/member signups

  3. Conversation engagement

The top three metrics that leadership cares about?

  1. New customers

  2. Customer retention

  3. Active users

So there’s this really interesting dynamic happening in the business world right now where community has become a great word to use in marketing, but in practice, most companies claiming to be “community-driven” are still viewing community through the same exact lens they’ve always looked at their business and customers.

The reality is that yes, community needs to drive growth and retention, and as I talk about in the book, community can do this at a scale never before seen.

But there has to be a new set of expectations around how those results are achieved. For one, timelines need to shift. If you’re investing in community today, I’d recommend giving it 6-12 months before you start to see actual business results. Before that, the community team needs to be razor-focused on building relationships, creating the foundation of community, and serving members’ needs. They need to fill the reservoir before they start pulling from it. Otherwise, it’ll run dry.

This is why a Chief Community Officer position is really important, and until then community teams should roll up into the CEO. Otherwise, community teams will be biased and limited by the department they’re living within, and leadership won’t be aligned with what it takes to truly build a community.

An interesting angle that I haven’t heard before came up for me this week when meeting with our Director of Finance at Bevy. We’re trying to figure out where community sits in the P&L statement for the company. Investors expect everything to fit neatly under marketing, product, CS, operations and a couple other standard buckets. There isn’t a standard bucket for community right now, so investors don’t know how to analyze it.

They need to know what the customer acquisition costs are to determine if the company is on the right track. Community impacts marketing, product, and CS, but as I mentioned, it doesn’t fit entirely under any one of them. So community as a dedicated department isn’t just a strategic challenge, it’s also an accounting challenge.

I’m interviewing Lolita Taub and Jesse Middleton from The Community Fund this week on Masters of Community. I’m planning to ask them how they, as investors, fit community into their financial formula. I’ll report back in the next newsletter.

Let’s keep talking:

This is a conversation I expect to keep having in the coming months as the book rolls out. Can’t wait to get it out into the world and give community teams and business leaders the language and systems they need to truly understand community.

As we get closer to the book release, I’ll be hosting different spaces to join in the conversation. A couple coming up this week:

I’m hosting a Clubhouse discussion about the Chief Community Officer position on Thursday at 12pm. pacific withErik Martin (CCO at Teal), community execs Holly Firestone and Angie Coleman, investor Sarah Drinkwater, and a few other guests TBA. RSVP here if you’d like to join in the discussion.

We’ll also be doing a live webinar of the key findings from the 2021 Community Industry Report and a community AMA on Thursday at 9am pacific. RSVP here to join in and dive into the data together.

Book updates and jacket sneak peek:

We’re in the home stretch! We’ve been finalizing designs, doing final edits on the content, and getting a marketing plan in place. Here’s a sneak peek at the book jacket (still a couple small edits to be made).

Let me know what you think!

The book will be fully released on March 23rd.

Look for an announcement about the presale opening up in the next two weeks. I’ll be sending out a newsletter to all of you with the details.

How you can help:

  • Book website feedback: I have a mockup of my book landing page up but not public yet. If you’d like to take an early look at it and give me feedback, just respond to this email.

  • Podcasts, events and clubhouses: I’m opening up my calendar to do a lot of podcasts, events, and clubhouse chats in the next few months. If there’s something that’s a really great fit for the book, I’d love to add it to my list.

As always, I love to hear from you. Hit reply and let me know what you thought of this email, and what challenges you’re thinking about in the world of community building right now.

Thanks for reading!

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