The Complete Guide to Successful Fireside Chats

Martina Cicakova
Fireside chat interview

A fireside chat is a great alternative to the traditional presentation format. Popular with event organizers, it is a fixed element in the agendas for many conferences. If you’re looking to freshen up your meeting or event, this format is worth exploring.

To help you get started, here is your ultimate guide to fireside chats.

You will learn what a fireside chat is, the benefits of this format and how to organize fireside chats. We included practical tips to help you make your audience part of the conversation.

Wait no more, let’s get down to it.

Table of Contents

  1. What is a fireside chat
  2. Why you should organize a fireside chat
  3. How to organize a successful fireside chat

What is a fireside chat

Let’s cover the definition first. A fireside chat is an informal yet structured interview between a moderator and a guest. It’s a unique opportunity to uncover the speaker’s personal stories and ideas. It also goes by names like “Ask Me Anything” or “A Conversation With…”

As with any conversation, a fireside chat is engaging only when it involves everyone. Including the audience. That’s where technology like Slido comes into play. It helps scale up the dialogue and enables 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. It has replaced solo keynotes at many conferences.

Related story: 15 Simple yet Powerful Tips to Fix Your Q&A Session

Why you should organize a fireside chat

Replacing the traditional keynote presentation 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 prompts the audience to think about their own questions. Addressing them during the chat will compel the attendees to tune in for the answers.
  • Release the pressure on the presenter. A naturally-flowing conversation will make the speaker feel more relaxed. With two people talking on stage, the speaker is no longer the sole center of attention.
  • Bring the guest speaker and audience closer together. The informality will help you create an intimate bond between speaker and audience. If leveraged well, it can help the speaker relate to the attendees and vice versa.
  • Reveal the guest’s backstage stories and insights. Once the guest is feeling comfortable, he or she is more likely to open up. As a result, the speaker will be more inclined to share unique personal stories and learnings.

Related story: 10 Awesome Event Concepts That You’ll Want to Duplicate

Fireside chat conference session format

How to organize a successful fireside chat

If you’re organizing a fireside chat, here are 6 tips to help you nail it:

  1. Create an informal setting
  2. Have a well-prepared moderator
  3. Determine the key points and structure ahead
  4. Engage the audience with poll questions
  5. Provide added value for the participants
  6. Be conversational

1. Create an informal setting

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

Put both the moderator and the guest in casual seating, such as a sofa or two comfortable armchairs. The right lighting will help you complement the setting.

The organizers of Uber fireside chats at SXSW took it to the next level. They displayed a real fireplace on a screen to create a genuine campfire atmosphere. See for yourself:

SXSW Uber Fireside Chats at Capital Factory

2. Have a well-prepared moderator

A well-prepared moderator is a key to the 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 to 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.”

Here are examples of open-ended questions to kick off a fireside chat:

  • What is the biggest challenge your industry faces today?
  • How did you get to where you are today?
  • What has been your greatest accomplishment?
  • What surprises you the most about your job?
  • Where do great ideas come from in your organization?

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. 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. “Announce the structure at the start of the session and track the milestones as you proceed,” Weissman adds.

4. Engage the audience with poll questions

Once you’ve got a storyline in place, insert some interaction points into the flow.

Create points in your planned storyline where you engage the audience actively. For example, run a quick poll. It’s a quick way to involve everyone at once and regain participants’ attention.

Polls can also help you understand the attendees’ background, introduce a new topic, or gather useful audience insights. Here are a few example poll questions you can use.

Understand your attendees’ background: What is your current role? (Multiple choice: IT, Finance, Marketing, Other)

Introduce a new topic: How healthy is the digital advertising ecosystem? (Rating scale 1-10; 1=completely unhealthy, 10=extremely healthy)

Gather useful audience insights: Using one word, what is the biggest trend in our industry today? (Word cloud)

Create your first poll now

5. 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 weave them into the flow. Few things are as engaging as the thrill of getting your own question publicly answered by an expert. Hearing his or her tailored advice can be priceless for the attendees.

You can give everyone an equal chance to take part by using audience interaction tools, such as Slido. It’s especially powerful for those who are shy to raise their hand to ask a question. Letting people upvote questions will help you identify the most relevant topics.

Fireside chat session with Slido Q&A on screen

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

6. 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 do that. Instead, consider what the participants want to hear. For example, encourage the moderator to give enough attention to audience questions and to lead a conversation with, and for, the participants.

Here’s an example of a fireside chat done right. It’s an interview between the CEO of TripAdvisor, Stephen Kaufer and Reuters’ Axel Bugge at Web Summit 2018. After the moderator’s initial remarks, the session is driven solely by audience questions.

And the result? Over 130 audience questions received and many of them answered in a space of 20 minutes. See for yourself:

Rating the TripAdvisor effect: What is the future of trip planning?

Wrap up

The fireside chat format has 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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