This post originally appeared on the Slido blog.

Why and How to Organize Fireside Chats at Your Event

Fireside chats are a great interactive alternative to traditional presentations. In this article, you’ll find how you can organize one at your own event. But firstly let me tell you a story why I believe fireside chats should become a part of every agenda.

Recently, I was invited to speak at an event. The organizers assigned me the last session and I had a chance to observe the other presenters, one of whom I knew personally.

She was a professional who possessed vast experience in marketing. During a casual chat before her presentation she told me:

“Oh, I spent a week sweating over my slides and crafting my storyline. And I don’t count in all the practice.”

To me, she seemed thoroughly prepared.

However, the moment she stepped onstage, she was paralyzed by stage fright and forgot most of what she wanted to say. Somehow, she hobbled to the last slide.

Then the Q&A time came and she suddenly transformed and beamed with confidence. Once involved in a casual conversation with a moderator, she began to give insightful answers, not to mention that all her stress vanished into thin air.

It got me thinking. If she had had a “conversation” with the moderator right from the get-go, she would have aced the session. If only the format had been different!

“You have to ask what is the most effective way for this person to deliver their content and look for an alternative [to traditional presentations].”

said one of the meeting design pioneers, Mike van der Vijver. And… fireside chats offer one such alternative.

So…What are fireside chats?

A fireside chat is an informal conversation between a moderator and her guest.Interestingly, the term was first used to describe a series of 30 evening radio addresses given by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt between 1933 and 1944.

Since then, the concept evolved from one-way addresses to two-way debates and was popularized by tech startup community events, such as Startup Grind, TechFire or SaaStr Conference.

Today, fireside chats are held at many association events and congresses. They occasionally even replace solo keynotes as was the case at the PCMA Convening Leaders in Vancouver or at theFestival of Marketing in London.

Many event planners embrace them as they understand their benefits.

Why fireside chats

Having a form of informal conversation, fireside chats allow you, as an event planner, to:

  • Reveal new stories from professional speakers, who often re-articulate the same material
  • Help less experienced speakers, as illustrated earlier, deliver content in a way they are comfortable with
  • Pull out truly relevant insights by incorporating audience questions.
  • Boost audience engagement as the conversation by nature brims with interaction
  • Save your speakers the laborious task of preparing slides

Sounds like a no-brainer? Here are five tips for pulling off a fireside chat session at your event.

How do you organize fireside chats?

1. Arrange an informal setting

Fireside chats have this informal aura around them. And so should their setting. This means putting both a moderator and her guests in a casually seated environment, usually two comfortable (arm)chairs, and letting the conversation flow naturally.

See some examples below:

Credits: Startup Grind
Credits: Marketing Festival

2. Have a well-prepared moderator

Informality, however, does not mean that that the fireside chats are unprepared. On the contrary, having a knowledgeable moderator who has done his or her homework thoroughly is key to the success of any fireside chat session.

Entrepreneur and VC Jason Lemkin, who also happens to be a founder and moderator at the SaaStr Conference, is absolutely brilliant at getting the best insights out of his guests. As he has experienced most of the challenges that his guests — tech founders — face, he has the remarkable talent of being able to synthesize their answers and ask pertinent followup questions.

As a result, the discussion is deep and provides actionable tips for entrepreneurs sitting in the audience.

See one of his brilliant sessions here.

3. Prepare questions and synchronize with a guest

Well, it goes without saying that it’s important to have a list of questions ready to kick off the session.

Tristan Kromer on Lean Startup advises:

“Have at least 2–3 pre-planned questions which will start the conversation off in the right direction. The first question should be something relatively familiar to the speaker so they can feel at ease, so letting them know the question in advance is a good idea.”

If you use interaction technology, and hopefully you do as it’s one of the key elements of truly immersive fireside chats, then your moderator herself can submit a few of her prepared questions through the tool in order to stimulate attendees to start sending their own.

4. Leverage Interaction Technology

The ultimate goal of fireside chats is to provide your audience with valuable lessons and insights that your guests have learned the hard way. However, it may be difficult to accomplish if you don’t know the right questions to ask. That’s where the interaction technology comes into play.

With Slido, or similar tools, you can collect the best questions from your audience and involve literally everyone, not just the extroverts who are not scared to raise their hands.

And by allowing people to upvote the questions, you can focus on the topics that the audience is most eager to discuss.

At the award-winning Festival of Marketing, the opening fireside chat with Lord Sugar turned out to be the most interactive session of the entire event.

The audience sent an incredible 115 questions, with the top question, What is your all-time favorite advertising campaign?, receiving 73 upvotes followed by Have you ever been fired?with 59 upvotes.

5. Adoption of Technology

Once you decide to use the audience technology, there are a few steps to follow so it gets fully adopted. Your moderator should:

  • Introduce the tool at the offset of a session
  • Stimulate attendees to submit their questions
  • Ask speakers some of the submitted questions. Otherwise, attendees might get frustrated and refrain from submitting questions later on

You can learn more about how to implement the interaction tech in our Slido guide.

To conclude

Fireside chats have a number of indisputable advantages, be it their laid-back format that puts speakers at ease or inclusion of the audience in the debate. And with delegates looking for interaction and actionable tips, rather than generic knowledge, fireside chats should become a part of every event agenda.