Fireside Chats That Won’t Get You Fired

The author (right) chats with TruOptik CEO Andre Swanston at CES 2017.

The author (right) chats with TruOptik CEO Andre Swanston at CES 2017.

On-Stage Interviews Can Be The Best Or Worst Part of Your Event. Here Are Four Ways To Tip The Odds In Your Favor.

On a recent episode of the Content Pros podcast, co-host Randy Frisch (cofounder and CMO of Uberflip) asked me about the on-stage interviews that happen at conferences, otherwise known as fireside chats:

Sometimes, I get really nervous when I find out the next upcoming segment at an event is an interview, because it’s either going to be really, really insightful, or the biggest waste of my time.

. . . if you could write a blog post right now, “The Top Three Tips to Make a Conversation Engaging,” how do you make that happen?

Randy’s question starts at the episode’s 18 minute mark. I’ve refined and expanded my answer below — he did ask for a blog post, after all.

I wound up with four tips. They’re meant for anyone planning fireside chats for their next event.

1 — Choose the Right Interviewer

As Randy’s question indicates, some planners treat fireside chats as filler segments that require little preparation. In fact, it takes talent to create compelling conversations on stage. Ideally, you want both sides to know what they’re doing up there.

In practice, of course, some interview subjects are duds. This may be out of your control; for instance, you may need to accommodate a sponsor who lacks charisma. The interviewer, on the other hand, is typically a variable you can control. Make sure you choose carefully. The right interviewer can elevate an otherwise bland conversation; the wrong one can dull the appeal of an otherwise fascinating guest.

As a professional interviewer, my bias is obvious. If you want an on-stage interview to be good, find someone who is good at interviewing on stage. Don’t just pick the first person you make eye contact with in a planning meeting.

Knowing the Core Traits of a Good Interviewer is a good place to start. Pay special attention to trait number three: improvisation is crucial when you’re live on stage.

2 — Keep it Snappy

Interviews are more interesting when the dialogue flows back-and-forth. Encourage the subject to keep their answers short, trusting the interviewer to guide the conversation. An interviewer can always ask a subject to say more, but can never ask a subject to retroactively say less.

To be sure, a subject might still go long. But by making the request, you’ll at least boost the odds of a better conversation.

3 — Shake Up The Questions

Inserting a lightening round into the questions can keep the subject — and the audience — on their toes. Here’s what Tyler Lessard, Vidyard’s VP of Marketing and the other co-host of Content Pros, said about the format during our episode:

When we have a guest speaker here at our company . . . we always start with a lightning round to kind of get them in the mood, and get them warmed up. You see a total change in posture when you start off with something like, “Okay, yes or no answer.” Or, “One-word answer, Coke or Pepsi?” . . . Then they loosen up, and they get right into it, and then when you get into the meat of those questions, you’re getting much more comfortable, honest answers on camera, and it makes a world of difference.

4 — Know Why You’re Doing This

Event planners should know in advance what the interview is meant to accomplish. Are you hoping to make news? Do you want the subject to speak to a specific topic or tell a certain story?

Without direction, the interview can meander from topic to topic, failing to connect with the audience. Clear goals can help an interviewer pull the conversation back on track.

. . .

At their best, fireside chats radiate heat, sparking new insights on the spot and leaving the audience feeling inspired. They need not be an afterthought. Instead, you owe it to your audience to think them through beforehand.