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How to run a successful roundtable discussion: Everything you need to know

In this article we cover what exactly constitutes a roundtable, what goals it can help you achieve, and the steps to take to run your own successful event

a group of people sitting in chairs in a round room

Running a roundtable can be a highly effective way to generate new ideas, solve complex problems, and increase engagement with your organisation or initiative. It’s a very specific type of discussion – which can be run on a small, intimate scale, or as part of a wider event – like a conference. 

If you’re thinking of running a roundtable event but aren’t sure where to start, this guide is for you. In it, we cover what exactly constitutes a roundtable, what goals it can help you achieve, and the steps to take to run your own successful event.

Guide contents

  • What is the purpose of a roundtable event?
  • What goals can roundtables help you achieve?
  • Key factors for a successful roundtable discussion
  • How to organise your own roundtable event
    - Set out clear goals
    - Choose a moderator
    - Choose your speakers
    - Plan your audience
    - Plan a clear agenda
    - Brief all participants 
    - Find a venue and plan your setup
    - Set up event registration
    - Consider recording your roundtable

What is a roundtable discussion?

A roundtable is a type of group discussion where all participants contribute equally. Each speaker gets the chance to both share their knowledge and learn from others. A topic is agreed on before the roundtable, and an agenda will be drawn up so that each area of the topic can be explored throughout the session.

What is the purpose of a roundtable event?

The purpose of a roundtable is to bring a group of experts together to take part in an equal discussion on a certain topic. The idea is that everyone is on equal footing, with no one person taking the lead. That way, everyone gets the chance to contribute their perspectives and ideas. A moderator, or ‘facilitator’, will be present throughout the discussion – that’s a person whose dedicated role is to keep the discussion and agenda on-track. The whole event will usually last no longer than a couple of hours.

What goals can roundtables help you achieve?

Because of the unique nature of the roundtable set-up, these types of discussions are particularly effective when it comes to:

  • Coming up with a solution to a complex problem. For example, you could host a roundtable to discuss how to meet a set of sustainability goals in your local area.
  • Facilitating peer-to-peer learning. For example, a group of experts could come together to share insights on the latest social media marketing trends.
  • Giving participants the chance to gain insights from people they may at first think they can’t relate to – in a safe, supportive environment. For example, a group of councillors from different political parties could come together to discuss a particular current issue.
  • Exploring interesting topics as a group, rather than learning from one lead speaker. For example, a group of creatives could come together to discuss a certain piece of literature, or artwork.

Key factors for a successful roundtable discussion

As we mentioned above – a roundtable is a very specific type of discussion. By organising it in a certain way, you’re able to get the most out of the time – and expertise – available to you. Here are some of the most crucial elements to get right for a successful event:

  • Set-up: The clue’s in the name! The term ‘round table’ dates back to 1155 A.D. – popularised by King Arthur, whose group of advisors was known as the Knights of the Round Table. Today, a roundtable is – literally – held around a round table, or at least in a circular set-up of some sort, as this helps to facilitate an equal discussion among all participants. 
  • Agenda: Although roundtables are designed to generate and share ideas, it’s important to stick to a predefined structure to get the most out of the session.
  • Moderator: You’ll want to find someone who’s qualified and great at the task at hand. Think of them like the glue that holds everything together (more on this below).
  • Supportive environment: It’s important that all participants feel comfortable in sharing their ideas and knowledge. Making everyone feel comfortable from the start is a vital step in getting the most out of the event. 
  • Listening: One of the most important ingredients for any roundtable events is quality listening – from both the moderator and the speakers. While there’s nothing wrong with a lively debate, a roundtable is only successful if each person both has the opportunity to impart knowledge and learn. The moderator will play a crucial role here; it’s their job to make sure the group is actively listening to each other rather than just waiting for their moment to talk. 
  • Strict(ish) timings: Each talking point should be given a set amount of time, which should be stuck to fairly strictly. Otherwise you risk running a roundtable that feels confused rather than productive. 

a group of people sitting at a table with laptops

How to organise your own roundtable event

Now you’ve got a good idea of what makes a good roundtable – follow these steps to organise your own successful group discussion: 

Set out clear goals

Roundtables are most effective when they’re run with a clear goal or set of goals in mind. So, defining what you want the end-result of your discussion to be is a crucial first step. To do so, ask yourself questions such as:

  • Is there a specific problem or set of problems you want to solve? If so, what would the next steps need to be to feel you’d put a solution into action post-roundtable? E.g. to create a five-week plan of action, or to see an improvement in X problem by X date.
  • What do you want your participants to learn? How can you structure your event to ensure each person has the chance to gain new insights? E.g. through inviting participants with a diverse set of skills and experience.
  • What is the main benefit for participants? How can you make sure you’re offering a genuinely enriching experience? E.g. through putting together a well-researched agenda that allows for in-depth exploration of a certain topic.

Choose a moderator 

Think of your roundtable moderator as a gentle leader for the discussion. They won't be the one who speaks the most, but they will be the one who decides if other speakers are going off topic. Or if the agenda is not being stuck to closely enough. 

You may want to be the moderator of your own roundtable, or you may want to choose someone else – this is totally up to you, and how comfortable you’d feel fulfilling the moderator role. Either way, its essential the person moderating the session is:

  • Confident and friendly – it’s up to them to cultivate an atmosphere of support, where everyone feels comfortable in offering up their viewpoint.
  • An expert – it’s crucial that the moderator is an expert in the areas up for discussion at the roundtable. Otherwise they’ll struggle to know whether a topic is being done justice or not. 
  • Recognisable – it’s a good idea to have a moderator who is well-known, or has good credentials in whichever sector/industry you’re addressing.

Social media platforms can be a great place to find a moderator, as many industry experts run active profiles where they share their knowledge. It’s also worth considering people you’ve connected with at work, or through past networking events. 

Choose your speakers

Now it’s time to choose the rest of your roundtable’s participants – called ‘speakers’. It’s a good idea to choose people who each have their own unique offering in terms of knowledge and experience. It can also be helpful to make an effort to choose people with differing points of view. The idea of a roundtable is to bring lots of diverse ideas together in order to really get into the nitty gritty of a topic. So if your lineup of speakers are too similar, you may find the session isn’t as enriching as it could be.

Plan your audience

Next – you’ll need to decide if you want your roundtable to have an onlooking audience or not. If you do want an audience, you’ll need to determine what size this will be, and what role the audience will play. AKA: do you want there to be time for questions, where the audience can put forward their own views and interact with the speakers? If so, this will need to be accounted for in your agenda. Which brings us onto the next point… 

Plan a clear agenda

A roundtable should have a clearly defined structure so that you know you’re covering off all the points you want to explore – rather than going off on too many unrelated tangents. While generating new ideas and seeing where discussions take you is all part of the experience, it’s also important to keep things relatively structured, so you don’t run out of time to cover all topics. 

Your agenda could look something like this:

  • A five minute introduction at the start to set the general tone of the event and lay out what will be covered throughout the discussion.
  • A short presentation of interesting stats and facts to give people a start-off point for the discussion.
  • A bulleted list of topics and points of view to explore – with a rough amount of time set aside for each one.
  • Time for a Q&A session if you plan on having an interactive audience element.
  • A clear conclusion with time to reflect on the results and discoveries of the session, and to plan any next steps.

Brief all participants 

Make sure all speakers are fully prepped for the roundtable so they can take time to plan their contribution. Providing them with a brief – or an outline of the roundtable agenda – means they’ll have time to think through what they might want to say, and to research any areas they’re unsure of. 

You might also want to brief each speaker individually, giving them a specific area to focus on, or presenting them with a question to give a detailed answer to during the discussion. 

Tip: Ticket Tailor’s handy Announcements feature makes it super easy to contact your roundtable participants with updates and requests. 

a group of people raising their hands

Find a venue and plan your setup

As we mentioned above, a roundtable should have a setup that encourages conversation in a supportive atmosphere. There’s no need to have space for a lead speaker – although you might want to make sure there’s a presenting screen available for anyone who wants to share visuals.

At its most basic, your venue simply needs to have a room with enough space to create that all-important roundtable set up (AKA: you want speakers to be looking at each other, not sitting along a panel all facing one direction). But it can also help to create breakout areas where participants or audience members can head to for discussions in smaller groups. This all depends on how you want your event to run; if you plan on organising a longer, more dynamic event, it’s important to find a venue to accommodate your goals. 

Set up event registration

If you plan on opening your roundtable to an audience, you’ll need to set up event registration – either to sell tickets or keep an eye on numbers if your event is free. 

You may also want to set up event registration for roundtables without an audience, as this gives you a central place to communicate with all participants and monitor speaker attendance. 

Tip: Ticket Tailor is one of the cheapest ticketing platforms around and is packed with tons of brilliant features to help you maximise the success of your events. Plus, we’re totally free to use for free events 😌. 

Consider recording your roundtable

When you put so much time and effort into planning an event, you want to get as much value from it as possible. On that note, recording the event can be a great idea if you want to share the material with a wider group than just its initial participants. You can then use the recording limitlessly – whether that’s to sell as a one-off piece of content or to segment into invaluable snippets to be used across your social media channels. 

How to run a roundtable – closing thoughts 

A handful of elements make a successful roundtable – a panel of expert speakers, a well-structured agenda, and a skilled moderator to keep the discussion on track are key. It also helps to give clear briefing notes to all participants beforehand, and recording or live streaming your event can be a lucrative way to extend its lifespan in terms of value delivered. With all these elements in place, you’ll be in a very strong position to host an impactful, thought-provoking session. 

That’s a wrap! By now you should have a good understanding of how to host your own roundtable event. For tips, hacks and how-to guides that can help you market your event for maximum attendance, take a look through our event marketing guides

Get your roundtable off to the best start with intuitive, feature-rich event registration and ticketing from Ticket Tailor.

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