Round table discussions are one of the most effective ways that there is to create a memorable event, and they can also come in handy for internal communication. Public round table discussions typically take place in front of audiences at conferences and expos, while private round tables are usually used for corporate away days and brainstorming sessions.
The problem is that sometimes people set out with the best of intentions but fail to host an effective discussion. Perhaps they don't moderate it enough, or perhaps they over-moderate and not everyone is given a fair chance to talk. Perhaps they drag on too long or don't actually lead to a solid conclusion.
Getting a round table discussion right isn't easy, which is why we're here to help. In this article, we'll be talking about how to host a productive round table discussion, no matter what the discussion is about or who you're getting involved. But first, let's get back to the basics.
What is a round table discussion?
The legend goes that, in the late 5thand early 6thcenturies when he was fighting against Saxon invaders, King Arthur and his knights used to sit at a round table. The table was round for a reason: it meant that no one sat at the head of the table and suggested that everyone sitting there was equal.
A round table discussion doesn't require you to dress up in a suit of armour or to make plans to hunt down the Holy Grail, but it is a good idea to consider everyone as an equal participant. Most round table discussions focus on a specific discussion topic which is agreed upon in advance so that participants can prepare themselves and carry out any research that might be necessary.
Round tables are useful in a wide range of situations. Politicians use them, and so do massive corporations, small local charities, event organisers and more. In general, as long as you can gather a panel of at least 4-6 people together then you'll be in a good place to host a successful discussion. It's also important to establish how long the round table discussion will last so that people can allocate their time accordingly.
We've already talked about allowing participants to research and prepare for the round table event, but you'll need to do the same thing yourself if you're going to act as moderator. Spend some time researching attendees and getting to know what they want to talk about. Even better, if you're hosting a round table discussion in front of a live audience, ask the audience what their most pressing concerns are so that the round table's participants can cover it.
Before the discussion starts, spend some time drafting the different topics that you want to talk about. Put these discussion points in a rough order that you can use them as a roadmap, but don't be afraid to mix things up while the round table is taking place. Your plan should be just that: a plan. And things don't always go as planned.
2. Get the invites right
Your invitations should include all of the key details including discussion topics and what you're hoping to get out of the round table. Make sure that they also convey the benefits that will come from attending the session and that you provide an easy way for people to RSVP. Remind them to add it to their calendar, too.
Remember that who you invite is just as important as how you invite them. If you're hosting a private roundtable, remember that too many cooks spoil the broth and consider keeping the number of participants on the lower side. Public roundtables are a little different, but the same thing goes for inviting people to participate on the panel. The audience can be large, but there shouldn't be so many people on the panel that no one really gets a chance to talk.
The moderator for your round table discussion is the single most important person who's involved. After all, it's their job to make sure that the discussion is running smoothly, and it's also their job to interact with the audience and to ask them for their questions. And of course, it goes without saying that they need to be well acquainted with the subject matter if you want them to do their job properly.
Different people have different moderation styles, and not everyone makes for a good moderator. In fact, the chances are that the best speaker at your event is one of the worst moderators. Remember, your moderator should facilitate the discussion but they shouldn't dominate it. Their job is similar to that of a journalist carrying out an interview. They need to draw out the stories and the personalities of the round table participants without just imposing their own narrative.
4. Stay focused
It's the moderator's job to make sure that the conversation stays on topic, but everyone taking part in the round table should understand what the goal is and stay focused on working towards it. This helps to avoid vague answers and to make sure that everyone is making the best possible use of their time.
If you get your preparation right, it should be easy to stay focussed because everyone knows which questions are being answered, what topics are being covered and what the overall outcome should be. A good roundtable will have plenty of flexibility when it comes to specific discussion topics whilst simultaneously sticking within its overall theme without going off topic.
5. Involve the audience
If you want your round table discussion to be memorable, and if you want it to provide some value to people by answering the questions that they actually have, you need to involve the audience. This means different things to different people, and sometimes it's enough just to ask them for a show of hands every now and then.
In most cases, though, your round table should reflect who's watching it by taking questions from the floor and talking about the specific industries and use cases that are most relevant to attendees. The more relevant you make it, the better.
6. Provide networking opportunities
People go to round table discussions to learn new things and to have their questions answered, but they stick around afterwards to speak with other attendees or to grab some one-on-one time with the participants. Advertise your round table based on the length of the main discussion, but be sure to provide refreshments afterwards so that people can stick around if they want to keep talking.
7. Use tools
Using tools can help you to get a good idea of what's actually going on during your discussions. For example, digital tools can help you to identify how long each participant spent speaking or whether social media chatter increased at specific points of the round table. You can also use tools and analytics to track footfall at physical events or to run reports on who showed up – and on those who didn't.
8. Follow up
The end of the round table shouldn't be the end of the discussion. Where possible, follow up with attendees after the event by dropping them an email with notes on what was covered or a download link where they can access the audio. If neither option is available, simply thanking people for attending can leave a positive impression and encourage them to come to your next round table.
What you follow up with is up to you and is likely to be different depending upon the specific circumstances of your round table. You can also include your usual calls-to-action or even promote future events ahead of time. And of course, if you're sending out emails and social media updates then you should track clicks and shares and see what works and what doesn't. That way, you'll know for next time.
Round table discussions are different depending upon who's hosting them and what their purpose is. On top of that, the individual style of the moderator can have a huge impact on the way that the round table progresses and what people take away from it.
That's why there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to hosting a round table. The basics stay the same, but the specifics vary depending upon the circumstances. The good news is that if you get the basics right and then vary your approach based on what works for you, you're already on the way to hosting a successful round table. Good luck.
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