How to Make a Conversation Onstage Succeed


A conversation between one speaker and a host onstage is an effective way to engage an audience at any corporate event or employee meeting. At its best, a hosted conversation with a speaker combines the interaction of a panel and the depth of presentation. But you have to take the right approach for an onstage conversation to succeed.

On an event agenda, a hosted conversation usually is described as “A Fireside Chat” or “A Conversation with . . . ” They are often conducted with popular speakers such as celebrities or business leaders about whom there is a high level of curiosity. With a hosted conversation, a speaker does a presentation about a particular topic, followed by a question-and-answer with a person designed as the host. Typically, the designated host knows the topic of the presentation well enough to tease out of the speaker additional insight about the topic at hand. Although the speaker and host may not know each other, they bring complementary perspectives on the topic and are comfortable with having a conversation in front of an audience.

The goal of a hosted conversation is to create a deeper level of understanding into a specific topic by giving a speaker center stage and then digging deeper through the interaction with a host. Here are some tips to make sure you achieve that goal:

  1. Choose Your Participants Carefully

You need a speaker who is both an exceptional speaker and conversationalist — someone who can carry the stage alone and then segue into the give and take of a conversation. Not everyone can do both well. In fact, sometimes speakers look to an extended conversation as a way to fill a 45-minute speaking slot just because they don’t want to carry a stage the entire time. Make no mistake: the speaker needs to be very comfortable carrying the stage for at least half the allotted time.

You also need to choose your host carefully. The host should have enough knowledge of the speaker and the topic to ask thoughtful questions that bring out a deeper level of insight than the audience might have gotten from a standalone speech. And the host needs to know how to guide a conversation. For instance, the host should have enough experience to know what to do if a speaker freezes up, rambles or becomes combative. The host should understand that the speaker is the center of attention, not the host — meaning that the host should focus on asking good questions instead of taking over the conversation with their own opinions.

  1. Allot Enough Time for Content Delivery and Conversation

For a hosted conversation to succeed, you need to give the speaker at least 20 minutes to set up the discussion with a thoughtful topic. Although the audience may very well be aware of the speaker, the speaker still needs enough time to get the audience up to speed on the topic especially if the material is topical and affected by recently announced news. At the same time, a good conversation needs a few minutes to unfold. You’ll want to allot a solid 20 minutes of Q&A, too.

  1. Prepare the Speaker and Host

There’s nothing more awkward and painful to watch than seeing two people onstage who either lack rapport or are unprepared for their conversation. Ideally, you should select a speaker and host who know each other, but doing so is not always possible. At a minimum, insist that the speaker and host conduct two prep sessions — one well in advance of the event so that they both get on the same page with the purpose of their session, and then another close to the event so that they can rehearse their conversation. Although you don’t want their time together onstage to look stilted, a walk-through beforehand at least gives them the chance to get familiar with each other’s conversational style and to develop rapport.

It’s also useful for the host and speaker to agree on questions that will be asked while allowing for spontaneity onstage. The speaker should be reasonably aware of the questions a host will ask so that they can prepare knowledgeable answers. A hosted conversation is not supposed to be an episode of 60 Minutes. You want both the host and speaker to be comfortable and relaxed onstage to create a pleasant experience for the audience.

  1. Involve the Audience

Leave time for the host to invite the audience to ask questions. It’s often best to wait on audience Q&A until after the host and speaker have had a chance to conduct some Q&A of their own onstage. The conversation between the host and speaker will give the audience additional time and fodder to think of their own questions. It’s important for the host to moderate the questions, too, so the audience Q&A is managed effectively.

With the right amount of preparation, a hosted conversation will make your audience feel engaged, informed and illuminated. How do you prepare for a hosted conversation?

Image source: TEDMED

We Love Live. For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing


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