4 mistakes to avoid when planning a roundtable discussion

Microphone against purple background

No matter your profession, one thing is certain: You don’t have to figure everything out on your own. You may work independently, but when it comes to generating new ideas and tackling tricky challenges, you don’t have to rely on just yourself.

You see, while you might be the only one of your kind in your organization, chances are high that there are others like you in your state, the country, and the world. (Yes, even if you’re self-employed.) And, every so often, it’s helpful to get a group of people together who share similar roles.

Whatever the purpose is for gathering, roundtable discussions can be incredibly helpful. They’re a great place to share ideas, ask questions, and connect with others who know what you deal with every day. But, in order for everyone to leave the room feeling like it was time well-spent, your roundtable discussion needs to be executed correctly. To do that, you need to avoid these four mistakes.

Mistake 1: There’s no roadmap for the conversation

As with any meeting, having a clear focus is crucial. It’s especially important in this type of discussion because you want everyone to participate equally. Without an agenda, you’ll either get stuck on one topic or you’ll aimlessly bounce from one to the other. Attendees will leave the room feeling no better off than when they entered it.

What’s the overall goal you want to achieve during this roundtable discussion? What questions can help you get there? For instance, let’s say you’re a group of café owners and your end goal is to determine the best coffee bean roasting technique. Some questions that could help you are:

  • What techniques has everyone already tried?
  • What were the results?
  • What are some challenges you faced?

Questions such as these are specific enough for the topic at hand, while still being broad enough to include everyone in the discussion. Good roundtable discussion questions give each participant a chance to share something interesting.

Once you set your agenda, send it to your participants so they can mull it over beforehand. The more prepared they are, the better the conversation will be. And you can even ask if there’s anything else they want to add in case there’s time left over.

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Mistake 2: The moderator is inexperienced

Your perfectly prepared agenda will mean nothing if you have no-one facilitating the conversation. It is far too easy to get lost in tangent conversations during a roundtable discussion and miss the original goal. Before you know it, time will be up and your café owners will leave without knowing how to best roast coffee beans (the whole point of the conversation, remember?).

You need a moderator. And she needs to be comfortable keeping the train on the tracks. When the conversation strays too far off course, she needs to be able to respectfully step in and take control.

This skill is also vital for preventing someone from monopolizing the conversation. This isn’t a lecture or a motivational speech. This is a group discussion where everyone’s thoughts and opinions matter. If someone doesn’t know how to stop talking, the moderator needs to be able to cut him off, thank him for his input, and ask others around the table to throw in their two cents.

Mistake 3: There are too many (or too few) participants

There’s a reason it’s called a roundtable discussion. Everyone in attendance should be able to fit around a large conference table. (No, a table isn’t required, though it is nice for people to have someplace to set their notes.)

A good range to shoot for is eight to 12 people. Any less than eight, and you might not have enough material for a comprehensive and productive conversation. And if you surpass 12, you risk the discussion becoming unmanageable. Side conversations will break out, there will be no clear focus, and some people will fade into silence because it’s too hard to get a word in.

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Mistake 4: You invited the wrong people

No, I don’t mean that you accidentally sent the invite to the wrong email addresses (oops!). Rather, you didn’t create an attendee list that fosters the most helpful, diverse discussion.

For example, let’s say you invite university representatives to discuss the college drinking problem. Depending on your end goal, you might want to invite representatives from all different types of schools — large and small, public and private — so you can hear several different program ideas. Or, you might want to just invite representatives from large, public universities so you can zero in on solutions for that specific type of population.

In either case, you don’t want to accidentally invite someone whose background isn’t suited for the topic at hand. She’ll likely get nothing from the session because her specific experiences and resources are so different.

When deciding who to invite, keep your end goal in mind. Then, do some light research on your possible attendees. What are their job responsibilities? How long have they been doing this type of work? What industries have they worked in? Do they belong to any professional organizations? Make sure they will be able to contribute productively.

If you’re looking for a way for individuals in different roles and industries to gain more knowledge and continue developing professionally, a roundtable discussion is a great choice — just make sure you avoid these four mistakes.