How To Present A Fireside Chat In 4 Easy Lessons

This blog was originally published on Forbes as How To Present A Fireside Chat In Four Easy Lessons on Sunday, March 20, 2016.

In case you haven’t heard, presentations delivered standing behind a lectern are out and fireside chats are in. Whether it is an effort to emulate the format originated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt* or an effort to avoid the curse captured by the old Jerry Seinfeld joke: “To the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy,” chats are the new way to present.

Whatever the reason, at conferences, symposia and even the current political campaign, presenters are telling their stories seated in an armchair, discussing their ideas with an interviewer. Last week, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton sat down for just such an exchange with MSNBC host Chris Matthews—in what was surely a welcome relief from her seven intense toe-to-toe debates with her opponent Senator Bernie Sanders.

FDR, whose patrician voice and dignified manner made him sound formal and distant, developed the fireside chat to create a more intimate bond with the public. But the format has another equally-important benefit and, although FDR didn’t need the help, it reduces the pressure that presenters invariably feel when they are the sole center of attention. “Yikes! They’re all looking at me!”

In my pre-presentation coaching career, I was a producer/director of public affairs and news programs at WCBS-TV, and I used the chat format to reduce the pressure that our guests—from the business, scientific, academic, and governmental sectors— invariably felt when they appeared in front of live television cameras. “Yikes!”

We put our guests in dialogues with professional anchorpersons or hosts. The format is still used today and has broadened from in-studio to two-way split-screen exchanges from remote locations. Today, I use the same conversational approach in coaching presentations.

On March 31, I will be using the format at the Global Technology Summit in San Francisco. As part of the conference theme, “Inspiring What’s Next,” I will be interviewing a bright and accomplished young woman named Puneh Ala’i, who is the founder of For The Unseen, a most worthy not-for-profit organization devoted to helping Syrian refuges.

If you are invited to a give a fireside chat, here are four simple recommendations to help you do it well:

  • Set a roadmap. Determine the key points of your chat in advance and organize them in a logical progression—including the length of each segment and the whole. Announce the structure at the beginning of your session and track the milestones as you proceed. Sound familiar? It’s telling them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and…
  • Interact with your chat partner/interviewer. All too often, chats tend to fall into the celebrity interview mode where the interviewer merely serves up questions to feed a virtual monologue. Avoid that trap by involving your chat partner’s point of view.
  • Involve the audience. Bring the audience into the discussion by opening the floor to questions either during or after the chat.
  • Eye Contact. Of course, engage with the interviewer, but also involve the audience further by addressing some of your remarks to them.

Above all, be conversational. It’s the best way to calm your nerves and avoid the Jerry Seinfeld curse.

*Maureen Dowd writes about FDR’s fireside chats in The New York Times today.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as How To Present A Fireside Chat In Four Easy Lessons on Sunday, March 20, 2016.