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Roundtables are among the most successful and productive conference-style events you’ll ever host. Essentially, they’re keynotes in which everyone is able to offer conversation points and suggestions; a conversation between a small group of industry experts. At first glance, that probably sounds a lot like a traditional meeting – you know, the ones that everyone says are a total waste of time?

The difference here, of course, is that the people who attend roundtables do so voluntarily – they actually want to be there, and they’re actually interested in having a discussion.

That said; a roundtable can easily end up being a complete waste of time if the event planner who’s running the affair doesn’t know what they’re doing. When improperly managed, a roundtable is little better than the business meetings everyone’s so keen on bemoaning – unfocused, boring, and nonproductive. It sort of goes without saying that running something like that could represent a pretty big black mark on your event management career.

So how can you avoid doing so?

According to veteran event planner Kevin Newman, the most vital component of any successful roundtable is a clear focus.  What he means here is that your roundtables topic cannot deal in generalities. It needs to be incredibly specific – laser-focused on a single issue or question within an industry.

That rule also extends to who you invite to the presentation, says Newman.

“Most issues aren’t simple,” he writes. “The more precise the topic is, the more successful it will be. We often like to theme around industries or specific specialties. These are largely self-contained; the participants take a huge amount from meeting people ‘like them.’”

He’s touching on another important insight here, as well – be selective in who you invite. Don’t just shotgun out a bunch of invitations with the hopes of warming your seats. Go for quality over quantity – it’s far better to have six intelligent, passionate professionals than twelve people who are just phoning in.

To that end, you’ll be able to foster better, deeper conversation by introducing everyone. Give your attendees a chance to get to know one another – ask each guest’s name, company, area of expertise, and expectations for the roundtable. Don’t spend too much time on introductions, but don’t ignore them, either.

Another recommendation from Newman about running a roundtable is that it needs to have both a well-composed and comprehensive agenda and a strong moderator (basically, a guest speaker who directs the conversation). The agenda’s sort of a given – without an organized list of talking points, the presentation’s probably going to lack direction.

As far as the moderator’s concerned, however…that’s kind of tricky.

Whoever’s been chosen to chair the roundtable needs to be confident, articulate, and knowledgeable. What’s more, they need to know how to manage conflict. If an argument breaks out or the conversation ends up losing focus, your moderator has to be capable of getting things back on track.

Basically, you need a strong, charismatic individual to fill this role – otherwise, it’s irrelevant how much preparation you do elsewhere; your event’s probably going to flop.

Depending on how you run them, a roundtable can be one of the most successful events you’ll ever run or one of the least. By carefully selecting who you invite, focusing your discussion with a strong agenda, and chairing the presentation with a great speaker, you’ll ensure everyone leaves satisfied. Neglect even one of these points, and you might as well just run a bare-bones meeting.