How to Create a Great Roundtable

I’ve attended a number of roundtables and been on a few at this point. While even the worst roundtable is better than the average paper panel (in my humble opinion), they are not all created the same. Here are my tips for creating a really stellar roundtable that attendees will remember for years and for all the right reasons.

1. Topics: questions, approaches, broader ideas tend to promote the best conversations. Another alternative is the “behind-the-scenes” roundtable. Basically, offering information and perspectives about how something was started or how something is done that wouldn’t be available normally to most people. Lastly, skills panels are so needed! When I shared my previous post on roundtables on Twitter, there was an overwhelming request for skills panels, from both graduate students and established scholars.

Image from here.

For example, I went to a fantastic roundtable at the Political History Conference on the podcast, BackStory. It was recorded by CSPAN and you can watch it here. A panel on behind-the-scenes journal publishing or book publishing would be great, and panels on writing op-eds for the public have been really popular lately.

2. Have scholars that work on a variety of different loosely-related topics. You want variety, but not so far apart that they can’t occasionally speak to each other’s subfields or work.

Image from here.

The best roundtables also have people that work in different types of positions (i.e. public history, museums, traditional tenure-track, documentary editors, etc.). Conversations tend to be more interesting when people can offer different perspectives.

3. Chair/Comment Provider: Either decide that this person is part of the panel or make sure that they are just fielding questions. There seems to be a divide on this issue. Some people want a chair that controls the conversation to defend against aggressive or dominating audience members. In my experience, overly-involved chairs can stifle the conversation. You don’t want one person dominating the conversation and the audience, or the room will feel stuffy and the discussion won’t flow organically. Ideally, they will select questions and monitor the conversation with a very light touch—unless an audience member gets aggressive or disrespectful, then they should take a very active approach.

4. Preparation, preparation, preparation: all the participants should be on the same page about the overall topic.

Everyone should prepare a few quick minutes of remarks, but no more than a few. The chair may want to come up with a couple of questions to get things started, but I’d recommend not sharing them all with the panelists. Or the chair could share general thoughts, but then have spontaneous follow up. You don’t want the answers to feel too scripted. Encourage the panelists to have questions for each other. At a panel at the SHEAR 2019 conference, I attended a roundtable on public-facing history and it was the first time I had seen panelists do this, but it was fantastic!

Image from here.

It’s a fine line to prepare your information, but not have scripted answers. You don’t want the chair to ask a question and each panelist to answer in a row. That’s kind of boring.

5. Don’t be afraid to court controversy or disagreement. While you want everyone to be respectful and you don’t want to discourage anyone from participating, having differences of opinions tends to generate lively conversation and is way more entertaining for the audience. Just don’t be an asshat.

In case you missed it, here is part one of my conference series, Let’s Get Rid of Paper Panels. Part three will be out next week!

And if you want all of my tips on how to make the most of your conference experience, download my complete guide here!

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