How to moderate a roundtable discussion

I get asked quite frequently to moderate roundtable discussions as part of my job and quite a few people have asked me exactly how one should go about the potentially tricky task of moderating.

If things go right, roundtable discussions are usually really valuable to attendees — there is a certain energy that comes alive and everyone starts talking and sharing. And they usually do!

Sometimes though, if not properly moderated, a number of things can happen. The conversation might not be shared equally. Discussions might wander off onto niche topics of limited use to others. Or people might become tired after a long day or big lunch (often inevitable, even with coffee!)

So here are my steps to moderating a roundtable. Although it might seem a lot of things to remember, once you do a few they are pretty straightforward and you will cover most of these points instinctively. Do let me know if you have any other points!


Me moderating a roundtable at Digital Cream Melbourne

Before the day

Find out what the host wants to achieve

The host is likely paying for the event and they will have a reason for organising it. Find out what that is so you can tailor the event accordingly.

Find out (or take a good guess at) what the delegates want to achieve

Of course, it’s not just about the host: the attendees are the most important people in the grand scheme of things. They will have their own goals, objectives and reasons for coming to the roundtable.

Get a copy of the attendee list — including company and job title

This will help for planning as you’ll be able to tailor the agenda. If everyone’s from a particular industry, you should direct the agenda to that vertical.

It will also help with checking on the day, although you’ll probably get a more up to date list.

If there isn’t an agenda, set one in advance

Most of the time the organiser will provide you with an agenda. In this case, go it— perhaps making some of your own tweaks in the prcoess.

If not, once you know or have made a good guess at who is coming and what they want out of the day, you should set a rough agenda to guide the roundtable discussion.

This needn’t be too detailed — just a few points, questions and soundbites to help push the discussion in the right direction.

Prepare your notes

Your notes will include your introduction, housekeeping points (some of which you might not find out until the day)

Keep your own personal bio short. Remember, the day is about the attendees — not you! Your job is simply to keep everything flowing. So don’t bore them with an excerpt from your autobiography.

On the day itself…

A lot of the below might not actually be your job… however, a lot of the time no one will have taken responsibility for these things. As the moderator, you will be the point of contact, so you have a duty to make things go as well as possible.

Turn up a bit early and check the venue and the table

People will need certain things on the day. Where’s the bathroom? What’s the wifi password? What’s the location for lunch/dinner/drinks/coffee?

Even if you aren’t the organiser, you will be asked these questions by the delegates. Find out the answers for them.

Introduce yourself to the people who can fix problems for you if they emerge later — the organiser (and their colleagues), the AV guy, whoever is doing the catering and possibly security or reception.

Clean, clear and prep the table

Is there water on the table along with enough clean glasses? Notepads and paper? Enough chairs? Are they placed correctly and will people be able to listen to any keynote easily? Also choose your seat wisely.

Make it easy for the guests — if there’s going to be a keynote, pick your own chair with your back to the screen. If it’s in a small room, pick the one that’s far away from the door (to draw people in, making space for any latecomers or those that need to head off early). There are no hard and fast rules, so just try to pre-empt the needs of the delegates.

It’s much easier when people are already seated in the right direction for something on stage.

Sit down, arrange your notes and get your water/coffee ready

Get comfortable and relaxed (ideally you’ve arrived early enough to do this before any pre-roundtable conversation, so you can still do this and then go mingle before hand).

Lay out your notes along with attendee list, agenda, plain paper and pens. I also take off my watch and lay it on the table — it’s then easy to see the time without accidentally appearing rude by having to pull your arm up or switch your phone on.

Next comes one of the most important steps…

IMPORTANT: on one of the pieces of paper, create a quick sketch of the table plan and the seats at it. Why do this? As you’ll see, one of the first things to do at a roundtable is get everyone’s name and some details off them that will help kick off the roundtable. If you sketch the table plan in advance this will help you. Here’s what my typical plan looks like for a table with 11 delegates — as you can see, it’s very quickly drawn.

A blank table plan. It’s usually quite messy by the end of the roundtable with names, notes and other pointers ☺

Having a table plan is the single most important piece of preparation you can do for a roundtable. You’ll see mine is blank (and ready to fill in) as most places will not do place holders for people — if they do, you can fill in names in advance.

You’ll also see at the top some notes at the top. These include:

  • A brief structure of your introduction and a reminder of housekeeping notes
  • Start and finish times
  • Closing remarks — I usually end on something easy (such as asking people what their number one tip for the topic is — or their favourite app for their phone).

Go to the bathroom and take a comfort break.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll drink a gallon of coffee at a conference. Do yourself a favour and take some preventative measures — you don’t want to feel distracted on the table.

Once this is all done, go and mingle or wait for the attendees to arrive…

Starting off the roundtable

Shake hands and say hello

Be friendly and get to know people. Many people might be a bit shy, so make the effort to say hello. You might also have the chance to gain information that will help guide the discussion.

Remove visual barriers and obstructions on the table

If there are any obstructions in the middle of the table that prevent people easily seeing each other on the table (such as table titles, large vases etc.), take these off just before the roundtable begins.

Once the roundtable is due to begin and everyone is seated, run with your preplanned introduction

This will be at the top of your notes. Briefly say who you are, housekeeping etc. Once you have done this…

Get everyone to introduce themselves

The way I do this is to ask the person on my left or right to say who they are, who they work for and what their biggest challenge concerning the roundtable topic is. The person next to them then does the same, and so it follows until everyone has introduced themselves.

As they do so, I write down these details on my table plan. This is critical as it will allow you to direct the conversation in the direction in which it is most important. Once the introductions are finished…

Kick off the agenda and pose an open question to a specific person

To start things flowing, you will need to take control. Use a point on your agenda to open the discussion.

After a sentence or two to open it up, pose an open question and ask the person at the table you feel is best placed to start the discussion. Hopefully things should start to flow…

During the roundtable discussion

If you are lucky, the roundtable discussion will flow naturally after the first introduction. However, it is likely you will need to help keep it on track. These tips will help you do that.

As people speak, make a tally next to their name

This will help you identify those who haven’t yet spoken versus those who have spoken too much.

Pass the conversation to those who need to contribute more

As the discussion progresses, look out for opportunities to hand the conversation over to someone who hasn’t yet had the opportunity to speak.

If you hear an opportunity, interject at the right time with an observation and a question to hand it over. If you can, wait for the opportunity rather than midway through someone speaking.

Such an interjection might look like this:

“[Facing the frequent speaker] That’s a really interesting point John Smith. [Turning to the infrequent speaker] John Doe, you mentioned that Acme co had been struggling with this issue. What has been happening there?”

They will then speak and hopefully the conversation will flow from there.

If people keep turning to you, pose questions and then put your head down and remove eye contact

This might seem rude or a bit strange, but is essential if the roundtable keeps turning to you as an expert.

Remember: the roundtable isn’t about the moderator — it’s about the attendees.

Unfortunately they might not automatically realise this and they will address their answers to you, rather than their peers sitting at the table.

If this happens, after posing the question, put your head down and start writing something. This behaviour might seem a bit bizarre, but will force them to make eye contact with other people at the table and hopefully the discussion will then flow naturally.

Change topics once they become overly heated, irrelevant or dominated by a small number of people

At some point your discussion might drift off into a direction that isn’t best for the table. At this point you will need to interject, move on the discussion and hand it over to someone else who hasn’t commented on the discussion.

Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief ☺

Look for opportunities to move through the agenda

As the discussion continues, it should flow naturally, but it is likely you will have to steer the conversation in the right direction.

Look for opportunities to pose a question to someone that will help open up the next point of the agenda.

King Arthur knew how to run a round table

The last ten minutes

As the roundtable progresses you should keep an eye on your watch, which hopefully you have left on the table so you can discreetly look at it. So as the last ten minutes approach, this is what you should do.

Look for an opportunity to close gracefully

You will need to interject at some point and start to close the table. At around the 12 minutes to go mark, keep your ears peeled for opportunities.

Penultimately, choose a closing gambit

There are loads of different ways to close a roundtable, but I feel the best ones involve handing back to the table for the last ten minutes. Here are some nice questions you can pose and get people to answer them as they go around the roundtable.

  • What is your main takeaway from the roundtable?
  • What do you think you will do differently when you go back to the office?
  • What’s your number one tip you would like to share — either on the roundtable topic, in business in general, or even in life!
  • What can you not do without for your everyday work?
  • What’s your favourite app?

Finally, thank them and give a look forward

Once the answers are done, thank everyone for their attendance and give a quick remark on how much you enjoyed the discussion.

Then, send them on to their next destination — whether it’s the coffee table, the lunch buffet, the workshop or the bar.

Such an example might be:

“It’s been a really great discussion today and I have learnt a lot. I just want to say thank you for coming and if you’re interested, I believe there is beer and wine in the lobby. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with some of you there. Thank you again!”

And that’s it!

What are your roundtable moderating tips?

I’d love to have your feedback and tips on how to moderate a roundtable. Did I miss anything out? What would you do differently.

Let me know what you think on Twitter — you can reach me @agwp, or if you prefer, connect with me on Linkedin.