Fireside Chats: An Alternative to Traditional Presentations

The more time one spends in educational and professional environments, the more presentations they inevitably see. Of course, quality varies depending on many factors. It’s generally true, however, that the most engaging presentations transcend overly traditional formats like lectures.

To overcome the limits of audience members’ attention spans, speakers must figure out how to truly engage everyone watching so they retain the most important information. This explains why presenters are increasingly playing with formatting, hoping to hit on something that optimizes the experience for all involved.

Fireside chats, although not a new concept by any means, are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to traditional presentations. Keep reading to learn more about utilizing them effectively.

The Historical Significance of Fireside Chats

Fireside chats began as radio broadcasts delivered to the nation by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. These sessions are often associated with descriptors like “informal,” “conversational,” “comforting” and the like. Instead of addressing constituents from behind a podium, FDR tried to create more of an intimate dialogue through both medium and setting. Listeners would gather around their radios-according to History, around 90 percent of American households owned a radio.

Though the president was covering difficult topics, like bank closures, which conjured an echo of the anxiety citizens felt during the recent Great Depression. Many cite fireside chats as one contributing reason the national managed to avoid another financial panic-they helped him connect with listeners to reassure them in a meaningful way.

In short: fireside chats conjure up images of a friend sitting in the glow of crackling flames, delivering information in a digestible manner without frills.

Using Fireside Chats in Professional Environments

If you’re delivering a presentation in a professional context, audience response technology like Poll Everywhere can help you harness the advantages of a fireside chat-like its conversational tone and potential for opening up a dialogue. By nature, these sessions tend to feel less alienating than ones in which presenters and audiences are separated by a podium. This principle holds true whether you’re hosting a remote talk using videoconferencing technology, speaking in real life or some combination.

As one Forbes contributor notes, the best fireside chats “bring the audience into the discussion” by way of the speaker “opening the floor to questions either during or after the chat.” Interactivity, or the lack thereof, is the primary determining factor in whether or not people walk away feeling that the session addressed their concerns and allowed for constructive two-way communication. Incorporating an audience response system goes a long way in turning viewers into active participants, as they can then vote in multiple choice polls or contribute freeform responses in real time using their mobile devices.

One company called Museum Hack has started holding regular fireside chats to boost transparency in companywide communications. Here’s the loose format this organization uses: A facilitator uses the first hour to deliver a remote presentation with visual components. The next segment, called Ask Me Anything (AMA), opens the call to anyone with questions or comments. In closing, participants are able to brainstorm topics and suggestions for the next fireside chat, so organizers know what employees want to talk about. Topics range from how to meet goals like increased ticket sales to improving collaboration between various internal teams.

And, although fireside chats are meant to facilitate a less-formal environment ripe for honest communication, it’s still important to start with an agenda. When executed successfully, this presentation format can retain all the organization of a more traditional speech with the colloquial nature of, well, a chat by the fire with a friend. Consider this alternative next time you’re looking to update how you can best deliver information to an audience.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.