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How to Run a Roundtable Discussion

The steps to facilitating an effective roundtable discussion 

Have you ever run a roundtable discussion?

Throughout my years in publishing, I’ve taken part in countless roundtables. During some, I was the facilitator and other times I was a participant. If you’re a multiplatform publisher who produces events as part of your product strategy, you may have facilitated some yourself.

Although there are many ways to direct them, my ideal approach to running roundtables focuses on the fundamental needs of the attendees.

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My approach to facilitating roundtables

To begin roundtables, I get all the attendees into the room and ask, “If you could have the answer to one question that would help change the fundamental way your business runs, what would it be?”

I then take careful note of these important inquiries from the audience. If people share the same question, I ask them to specifically state that fact. I do this to help score the questions – the highest score goes to the question asked by the most people.

I begin roundtables this way for two reasons. First, this method leads us towards a list of questions that people want answered. Second, it helps us prioritize and forge the roundtable’s direction. Some questions will be unique; others will be echoed by numerous attendees, clearly showing their relevance within our industry.

By executing dozens of roundtables this way, I have made one major observation: this format is very effective in doing the most good for the most people. It provides an incredibly high degree of value, as multiple minds share pertinent first-hand information.

Here are some quick tips on how to run a roundtable discussion from Harvard University which I think are effective:

Qualities of effective roundtables:

  • Time is managed carefully, with plenty of time for discussion
  • Each speaker communicates a clear message & solicits specific feedback
  • Moderator guides the discussion to touch on all speakers’ concerns

Qualities of less effective roundtables:

  • Not enough time for discussion
  • Speakers aren’t clear about what feedback they want from the audience
  • Discussion focuses on one speaker and leaves others out

The value of roundtables and roundtable discussion questions

From time to time, my consulting clients ask me if it would benefit them to attend a roundtable moderated by me, when they already have me on retainer. My reply is always yes, because the roundtable environment allows for input from many experts with varying perspectives and produces new thinking that challenges existing best practices. After all, today’s best practices for digital publishing and marketing are very different than those of just five years ago.

When you go into a roundtable, it’s not just about getting your questions answered. The point of a roundtable is to speak with moderators, who are often experts and consultants with broad knowledge, and listen to what other attendees have to share.

There’s also a solid chance that at least one person in the room has experienced the same problem you face, and has solved it. Perhaps some have found different solutions to your problem, which may be more or less appropriate for you.

An additional highlight of moderating and attending roundtables is that you receive unexpected valuable information. You will likely hear about problems that you haven’t faced yet, but will in the future. Although you may not be aware of the issue yet, hearing solutions from other professionals will help you plan accordingly.

Trying to compare roundtables is like comparing apples and oranges…they both have nutritional value, but have very different tastes and consistencies.

When I moderate a roundtable, I try to lay back and facilitate answers from the audience. I throw in any missing advice or bust myths when necessary, and I steer the conversation away from any third-party accounts that may lose the veracity of the problem and solution, as something may be lost in translation.

Ultimately, what’s important to remember is that during a roundtable, everyone in attendance will get some level of consultation as they learn from both the moderators and the participants.

If you’re interested in learning how to incorporate events into your multiplatform publishing business model, please schedule a time with me to talk. There are no strings attached, of course, and we think you’ll enjoy envisioning the possibilities for your business during our conversation.

This post was originally published in 2011 and is updated frequently.

Posted in Multiplatform Publishing Strategy

Tagged with , , , , , .

11 thoughts on “How to Run a Roundtable Discussion

  1. suz says:

    nice job putting this on paper! great tips for my next roundtable discussion group!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Suz

    1. Chris says:

      Thanks for the comment Suz.

  2. Pradeep says:

    Thanks for ducumenting your experiences. Gained some good insight for my first Round Table moderation.

    Thanks and Cheers!

  3. Naita Guine says:

    I appreciate your suggestion for the opening question! Thank you for the insight.

  4. GregK says:

    Timely stuff, Don, since we’ll be doing roundtables at SIPA.

    Asking everyone a question at the beginning — an “ice breaker,” if you wish — is also helpful in breaking the “intertia of silence.” A lot of people would simply sit in silence the entire time, but an ice breaker question gets them to speak up.

    Another thing about roundtables is that you have to prevent the loudmouth from dominating the conversation. There’s almost always somebody who wants to talk the whole time, and there’s usually some quiet person who actually knows a lot more.

  5. Don says:

    Great tips… have fun this week!

  6. LJ Radon says:

    Hi Don,
    You used the graphic of a round table display and chairs around – are you implying that you use this type of table setting for your discussions?

    1. Amanda says:

      Hi LJ,

      Often roundtable discussions are held in large ballrooms or lunch areas where the tables are physically round, but not all round table discussions are literal in this sense.

      – Amanda MacArthur
      Managing Editor, Mequoda

  7. may says:

    Thank you for sharing your ideas. My students will be able to facilitate a round table session as part of their learning experience.

  8. Suzanne says:

    Hi, thanks for this information! I have to (possibly) lead a roundtable discussion, but with all CEOs…do the same rules apply? Any pitfalls to be aware of?
    Thanks.

  9. Doris says:

    Excellent. Can be adapted for the field of Education, as well. Thank you.

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