A Quick Guide to Organizing Successful Fireside Chats

Martina Cicakova
Fireside chat interview

Fireside chats provide a great alternative to the traditional presentation format. They are increasingly popular with event organizers and for many conferences, it’s a fixed element in their agendas. If you’re looking to freshen up your event, this is a session format worth exploring.

Here is your quick guide to fireside chats – what they are, their benefits, and tips for running them.

What is a fireside chat

Let’s cover the essentials first.

A fireside chat is an informal, yet structured, conversation between a moderator and a guest. It’s a unique opportunity to uncover the speaker’s personal stories and ideas. It also goes by different names, such as “Ask Me Anything” or “A Conversation With…”

As with any types of conversation, fireside is only truly valuable and engaging when all parties are included. That’s where technology like Slido comes into play. It helps scale up the conversation and enable the participants to join in and ask their questions.

The term was coined by U.S. President Roosevelt in the 1930s to describe his informal national radio addresses. Since then, the concept has evolved from one-way speeches to immersive conversations and has replaced solo keynotes at many conferences.

The why

Replacing the traditional presentation format with a fireside chat has many benefits. Here are 5 reasons why you should give it a go:

  • Get more high-profile speakers on board. It’s easier to get a “yes” from business leaders, as they won’t have to spend hours on crafting speeches or slide decks.
  • Give relevant content to the audience. The question-answer format naturally invites the audience to think up their own questions and tune in for the answers.
  • Release the pressure on the presenter. A naturally-flowing conversation will make the speaker feel more relaxed, as they are not the sole center of attention on stage.
  • Bring the guest speaker and audience closer together. The informality can help you create an intimate bond between speaker and audience if leveraged well.
  • Reveal the guest’s backstage stories and insights. Once the guest is feeling comfortable, he or she is more likely to open up and share unique personal learnings.

Related story: 5 Creative Ideas for Conference Sessions

Fireside chat conference session format

The how

If you’re organizing a fireside chat, here are 5 tips to help you nail it.

1. Create an informal setting

Turn the stage setting into a cozy lounge. It’s an effective way to create an intimate atmosphere and help the guest feel more relaxed.

You can achieve this by putting both the moderator and the guest in casual seating, such as a sofa or two comfortable armchairs. The right lighting can help you complement the setting.

At SXSW Uber fireside chats in Austin, the organizers took it to the next level and displayed a real fireplace on a screen to add to the atmosphere.

2. Have a well-prepared moderator

A well-prepared moderator is key to success of your fireside chat.

Ask the moderator to prepare a set of questions in advance. These should be open-ended but also specific enough to get the interviewee talking.

As Tristan Kromer from Lean Startup advises, “Have at least 2 to 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 letting them know the question in advance is a good idea.”

3. Determine the key points and structure ahead

Structuring the flow is another backbone of successful fireside chats.

A renowned corporate presentations coach, Jerry Weissman, advises, “Determine the key points of your chat in advance and organize them in a logical progression – including the length of each segment and the whole.”

Group related questions into themes, and plan how long you will spend on each part. As Jerry Weissman further adds, “Announce the structure at the start of the session and track the milestones as you proceed.”

4. Provide added value for the participants

But don’t cling to the structure too much. Ultimately, the fireside chat is for the audience.

Collect audience questions during the session and instruct the moderator to incorporate them into the flow. Few things are as engaging as the thrill of getting your own question publicly answered by an expert and hearing his or her tailored advice.

You can give everyone an equal chance to participate by using audience interaction tools, such as Slido – even those who are shy to raise their hand to ask a question. Letting people upvote questions will help you focus on the most relevant topics that the audience is eager to discuss.

Fireside chat session with Slido Q&A on screen

Related story: The Art of Organizing Successful Q&As at Conferences

5. Be conversational

By definition, the core idea of holding a fireside chat is to have a conversation. Remember the session is there for the audience.

“All too often, [fireside] chats tend to fall into the celebrity interview mode, where the interviewer merely serves up questions to feed a virtual monologue,” comments Weissman further.

Don’t just single-mindedly serve up the pre-prepared questions on a silver platter. Consider what the participants want to hear and encourage the moderator to give enough attention to audience questions. Lead a conversation with, and for, the participants.

Wrap up

Fireside chats have a number of indisputable advantages. This laid-back, interactive format puts speakers at ease and allows for a two-way conversation with the audience. Get inspired by these tips and leverage this format to bring the best value for your event attendees.

Crowdsource questions at your next fireside chat.

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