Roundtables, where you invite a series of guests along to talk over lunch or dinner, are a great way to generate publicity (if you invite a journalist to discuss a topical issue) and effective at subtly promoting your firm whilst helping your existing and potential clients and referrers network and develop relationships. Here are the top tips for facilitating the perfect lunch or dinner discussion

1. Be clear about your objectives
What are you trying to achieve? It is hard to set objectives – particularly if you are organising an event that is not part of an integrated, ongoing campaign. But it may be that you want to thank people for their continued business or recent referrals, that you want an opportunity to get to know potential clients a bit more personally or you want to use a low commitment but high value entertaining opportunity to reach senior decision makers amongst target clients.

2. Do your homework
Find out about the people who will be attending. Research their current roles and organisations, but dig a little deeper to find out where they worked before and their interests (social media is a great market intelligence resource). Discover their current projects and issues and any particular areas of expertise. Not only will this help you with the informal introductions at the start of the event, but it will enable you to encourage participation from those who might have an interesting perspective during the discussion.

3. Brief people in advance
Once you know who is attending you should send out a list of the confirmed attendees – ideally with a short profile about each person and their organisation. You should send out a list of 5-6 key questions or issues that you plan to discuss at the event – this way people can get their ideas together and be ready to contribute. Be clear about the start and end times – you don’t want people leaving prematurely because they did not allocate enough time. If you have a guest speaker, it is important to provide some information about him or her and be clear about the “rules of engagement” – confidential, Chatham House rules or a public debate? It is also a good idea to arrange for someone to telephone each attendee the day before to confirm that they are attending and whether they have any special dietary requirements.

4. Check that the venue is suitable
There are many suitable venues for a private dining function – whether this is somewhere like the Institute of Directors, a private members club or the private rooms at numerous wine bars, hotels and restaurants in any city. However, in addition to being able to comfortably seat however many people you anticipate attending (and there is probably an upper limit of about 18 for a discussion around one table – so bear in mind that your seating plan is critical as it is likely that conversations will take place at the ends and in the middle) you should consider whether there is enough space for people to mingle a bit on arrival. Otherwise, they are limited in their conversation to those people whom they are sitting near at the meal. Please also make sure that the catering staff are aware of the procedures, do you really want to have conversation stopped mid-flow while the caterers ask questions?

5. Arrive early
Don’t just send your juniors along. Some guests are likely to arrive early. As host it is your job to welcome each guest on arrival, provide them with a drink (there must always be non-alcoholic choices available) and introduce them to some of the other guests. I was present when a very high profile client turned around and left in a huff because the most senior person at the firm was not immediately available to welcome him. Ideally, the entire host team should be assembled a good 30 minutes before guests are due to arrive. And if you haven’t already had a briefing meeting, this is a good time for last minute discussions.

6. Encourage early and short introductions
Once everyone is seated, introduce yourself and the home team. Do a quick run through of the timetable and proceedings so that people know how much time is to be committed to each of the discussion topics. Then invite each person around the table to provide a quick introduction. It will help the discussion flow if everyone knows as soon as possible exactly who is present. If you have a guest speaker, then you should have a short and punchy introduction prepared for them.

7. Facilitate discussion
Play an active part if you are chairing the discussion. This may mean that you have to speak to one or two participants in advance and gain their agreement for explaining their views or sharing their experiences at the outset. Try to ensure that everyone participates – by asking people for their views particularly. Guard against one person dominating the discussion – by asking others for their thoughts on the topic. Ensure that the discussion keeps moving. Once a topic has been tackled, introduce the next topic.

8. Keep an eye on drinks and the meal
Whilst I shouldn’t need to say that care should be taken with alcohol I am afraid that experience suggests that I must. Whilst you don’t want to appear mean, you also don’t want to appear as being overly generous. Keep an eye on who has an empty glass – and who might welcome another drink. Always ensure that there is plenty of water available – people should never be left with an empty water glass.

9. End on a positive note
Make a few notes about the key points arising during the discussion. Keep to the published schedule and perhaps draw things to a close by summarising some of the key points discussed. Thank any guest speakers. Check that everyone takes all of their belongings and has the necessary support for their ongoing travel arrangements.

10. Arrange a suitable follow up
Whilst guests are likely to send a thank you note, and make contact with others that they met at the event, you might facilitate this process by circulating a list of the attendees and their contact details (if you have their permission) and also perhaps having a list of the key bullet points discussed and perhaps attaching some more detailed information that may be useful. But avoid blatant and inelegant marketing of your organisation. Ideally, you will have gleaned enough information during the dinner and during informal chats before and after the meal to know how you might pursue the relationship in more detail – as a prospect, potential client or valuable referral source.