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When I first started out organising conferences they weren’t the most sophisticated events. One person standing in front of a big screen. They would have a Powerpoint deck projected on the screen and we’d work through a dozen speakers a day.
As we’ve matured and our audience has changed we’ve tried out a variety of different formats. Each with differing degrees of success. One of the most successful has been the roundtable.
What do we mean by a roundtable? It’s a gathering of about a dozen interested people, often with similar interprets or job titles. They last about an hour and a half and have been successful editorially but also commercially. With companies paying to sponsor or host the roundtable.
This isn’t a revolutionary format concept. You might have something similar as part of an event you organise.
In this post I wanted to share a few insights I’ve gained organising roundtables. Which I hope might prove useful if you’re organising your first or hundredth roundtable.
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4. Clear Focus
Our best roundtables are always those with the clearest focus. There are aspects of every profession that are complex. Most issues aren't simple and are messy. The more precise the topic is the more successful it will be.
We often like to theme around industries or specific specialisms. These are nicely self-contained. The participants take a huge amount from meeting people ‘like them’. Knowledge shared within a session is important but sign up to meet likeminded professionals.
3. Comprehensive Agenda
Although it’s good to have a tight and clear focus for a roundtable you do need a broad and wide potential agenda for discussion. You don’t know what the specific attendees are going to want to talk about until they’re all gathered in the same room
Having a wide and well researched roundtable is especially important if you have a group of individuals who take a bit of time to warm up.
I’ve moderated some roundtables where we’ve only had a few discussions points. We breezed through them while participants were getting ‘warmed-up’ and had to ad-lib the rest of the session.
This doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad roundtable. Yet the more preparation you can do the less stressful it will be for who is moderating the roundtable.
2. Strong Moderator
A key role in any roundtable is the moderator. This is the person chairing and often leading the discussion. This can be a tricky person to find especially if you’re working with sponsors on a roundtable.
This person has to be articulate, confident and knowledgable about the topics discussed. Instinctively we turned to our conference speakers to be moderators. This had varying degrees of success.
They were knowledgeable but that didn’t always lead to them being good roundtable moderators.
Being a good conference speaker requites a clarity and certainty of thought. This doesn’t always match well with the collaborative and democratic nature of a roundtable.
The last thing you want is a moderator who dominates the discussion. Their job is hard. They have to:
- Tease out themes and patterns in the discussion.
- Involve less confident participants.
- Deter over zealous members of the roundtable and keep the discussion moving in a relaxed but purposeful way.
It’s a tough job. if you find the right person do all you can to keep working with them.
1. Selective Invites
When we were starting out our biggest concern with roundtables was getting bums on seats. We wanted as many people to attend as possible so our sponsors got most value for money.
Early on we learnt with roundtables quality always trumps quantity. It was at this point we got a lot more selective in who we invited or encouraged to attend roundtables. We knew who should and shouldn’t attend. The clearer idea helped us create an experience which worked for all the participants.
Roundtables can make for a great addition to most conference and exhibition agendas. They aren’t just something which can someone can throw together. They need planning, preparation and strong leadership when taking place.