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How to Run a Roundtable Discussion

Last updated August 23rd, 2021
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Lorne Armstrong, Director, The Event Academy

Roundtables are a useful business event type that brings together like-minded people to discuss anything from mergers and acquisitions to what to call the next product.

They can be internal within an organization or include multiple organizations with a common goal. There are as many types of roundtables as there are people who attend them.

While relatively new in business terms, roundtables date back to King Arthur’s famous round table. At least, the concept is attributed to that period.

A time when the legendary king would sit his knights around the table where everyone was equal and there was no head at the top of the table.

The concept is the same now.

A group of a dozen or so people in a room for 60-90 minutes to discuss Very Important Things.

So how can you run a productive roundtable?

As we have lots of experience running events like this, the Event Academy team has come up with some top tips for running a roundtable.

Clearly define the goals

The benefit of a roundtable is that everyone is on an equal footing and has equal opportunity to have their say. The downside is that everyone is on an equal footing and has equal opportunity to have their say!

To work effectively, a roundtable has to have clear goals to keep everyone on track.

Any discussion amongst a group of people has the potential to run off track and not cover the core goals, which is why setting those goals and making them clear is so important.

Make the goal of the roundtable clear, relevant and actionable.

Then set those goals in stone within the agenda. This will help keep everyone on topic.

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Use an agenda

An agenda is useful for participants and the moderator to keep focused on the goal of the roundtable. While we want conversation to be free-flowing, we also need it to stay on topic.

An agenda should include:

Rules of conduct that are short, friendly but firm.

You can frame your agenda however you like as long as it includes key information. We like to keep administrative stuff like fire, health and safety and rules of conduct short and as light hearted as possible to focus the mind on the positives.

Assign a strong moderator

The moderator’s job isn’t just to mediate arguments but also to keep everyone focused on the goals and to direct discussion so it remains productive.

You need a strong, experienced moderator who knows how to control an audience, how to direct a conversation and when to sit back and let conversations flow. Each of those skills is as important as the other.

If you can source a moderator who also knows people and can encourage quieter members of the roundtable as well as quieten louder members, all the better!


Plan the space

While virtual roundtables are the method of the moment, in-person roundtables will definitely make a comeback.

For in-person roundtables, set up a room so it’s warm but not too warm, light but not too light and has a nice ambience.

Use a round table and comfortable chairs. Use multiple round tables for larger events but a single, large round table is the ideal.

Depending on the size and scope of the roundtable, you may need audio too. Wireless is now good enough to provide quality sound with minimal compromise so works well in this type of event.

It’s up to you whether you feature a timer or not. Some roundtables function well with a countdown screen or timer that’s visible, while some don’t.

We have seen roundtables that spent too much time fixating on time that conversation was often stilted and didn’t flow. Use your own judgement to decide whether they are a good idea or not.

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Use technology to help less confident speakers

Larger roundtables or those with an audience can use apps or interactive elements to let the audience have their say or ask questions.

Using an event app where the audience can ask questions and a vote feature where other audience members can vote up or down questions can help engagement. It can also help those not comfortable with standing up in the spotlight participate.

Offer time to meet and network

Offering a brief time before the roundtable for attendees and members of the audience, if there is one, to meet and introduce themselves can help speed the main event along.

Meeting in more relaxed circumstances can break down barriers faster and more effectively than at the roundtable and give everyone a chance to say hello and get over that initial nervousness.

Adding time after for networking can also be useful. People can follow up with each other on points, make arrangements to take conversations or actions further or just chat.

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Follow up after the event

We also suggest following up with participants after the event wherever possible.

Depending on the size and scope of the roundtable, that could be in the form of individual meetings, phone interviews, emailed questionnaires and feedback forms or web forms.

Ask pertinent questions around how it went, how the roundtable was set up and paced, how good was the moderation, how interested they would be in another and so on.

Collecting data after an event is a key role of any event manager and that’s exactly the same here. What data, for what use, will depend on the purpose of the event.


Stream the roundtable

Whether the roundtable is virtual or in-person, stream it to a wider audience. Invite attendees to stream it or have your own system in place, whatever works best.

If the scope of the event allows, you can provide a method for a virtual audience to ask questions and vote up or down other questions, add comments and participate.

This is not only a great way to increase attendance but also a great way to market the event after the fact. Especially if you make the roundtable available afterwards!

We run the only Event Management courses endorsed by The Chartered Institute of Marketing - an organisation recognised with a Royal Charter for excellence. Our range of event management courses provide you with the essential combination of knowledge, experience and industry-respected endorsement for every level.

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