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Let’s Talk. Topic Tables to Facilitate Discussion.

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I consider myself a fairly social person.  I like meeting new people and making new friends.  However, when I go to a conference as an attendee, I’m just about the most uncomfortable person in the world.  There is something about that environment that leaves me awkwardly walking around the room, trying not to stare in one spot too long.  I know I’m supposed to mingle, but the idea of just breaking into a conversation seems unthinkable…

I know I’m not alone in this.  When I survey conference attendees after an event, many respond that, while they enjoyed the education sessions and speakers, they found themselves milling around aimlessly during mealtimes. 

So, how do you facilitate discussion at your next conference or event?

A colleague of mine recently introduced the concept of topic tables to one of our events.  The concept was simple.  Each table in the banquet room had a different sign indicating a specific topic.  Attendees then sit at a table based on what topic they would most like to talk about.  So, let’s say you are hosting an event for finance professionals - You might label one table “the global economy” and another “ethics and best practices.”  At an event for software engineers, you might have a table for “data security,” “mobile platforms,” or “the cloud.”  The logistics of the event may go a bit smoother if you print a guide to the topic tables somewhere in the conference materials.  A map may help depending on the size of your event and how many tables you have.

There are some real advantages to this format.  First, people are more likely to open up and get chatting if they have a preset topic of conversation.  There is no awkward racking of the brain for something to say or struggling to participate in a conversation you know nothing about.  Secondly, people sitting at topic tables of their choosing generally feel they have something to gain from participating in the conversation.  Finally, it makes networking a heck of a lot easier.  Think about yourself as an attendee.  If you are an engineer who specializes in nuclear safety, wouldn’t it be ideal to sit and discuss professional issues with those who have the same interests? Those who might know about job opportunities in your field?  Those who might be interested in your research or ideas?

Now, I know the obvious issue that sticks out.  Many people might not like this much structure.  What about those who just want to mingle and have a good time over a cup of coffee?  Might these people be turned off by the concept of structured discussion?  We thought the same thing, so when we planned the event, we created a few social tables where those who have had enough professional development for the day can chill out for a bit.  Ideas for these tables include – “enjoying your retirement,” “networking,” “new to the profession,” or just “hanging out.”

I know topic tables aren’t for every event.  If you have social attendees who enjoy traditional receptions, breaks, and meals, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel.  However, if you are noticing silent lunches or people awkwardly standing around, you might consider giving this idea a try.  If it gets your guests talking, chances are they’ll get a lot more out of the experience.


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