Discussion groups come in numerous forms, including:
- committee discussions
- internal corporate meetings
- customer strategy sessions
- industry or academic conference panels
- brainstorming sessions
- classroom discussions
- book clubs
Discussion groups also range widely in terms of:
- group size — 5, 50, or 500?
- length — 20 minutes, 1 day, or several weeks?
- setting — living room, classroom, boardroom, conference room, political chambers
- consequences — discussion between friends versus international policy repercussions
Despite this diversity, all successful group discussions share one trait: a competent discussion leader. Leading a discussion is an essential skill for a well-rounded speaker.
In this article, we focus on how to plan a great group discussion.
1. Set clear objectives.
Prepare a list of clear objectives for the discussion. It may help to complete the following sentence:
This group discussion will be a success if __________ .
How many objectives should you have? It depends.
- For a book club, a reasonable set of objectives might be to  share perspectives on the book and  have fun.
- For a corporate discussion session, your objectives probably tie to business needs or outcomes.
These objectives will frame everything else you do, so take your time and get them right. Don’t rush it! If you have formal stakeholders (e.g. the “sponsor” of the group discussion), seek approval on the objectives before doing anything else.
2. Set a realistic schedule.
Discussion sessions come in all shapes and sizes. Your session might be half an hour or an entire week; it might be set within a political context that requires careful steps, or it might be an informal, entertaining event. Whatever the case, set a realistic schedule that can — under your leadership — be achieved.
For sessions longer than an hour or two:
- Break it up into manageable blocks and assign each block to specific topics. Planning down to 30, 60, or 90-minute blocks usually works well for me.
- Remember to account for meals and other breaks. These will consume a significant portion of your overall time. (In a typical 8-hour session, about two hours are “lost” to lunch and breaks.)
Verify that the objectives are achievable in the time allotted. If they are not, either lengthen the schedule or narrow your objectives. You can’t solve global geopolitical problems in a two-hour session.
3. Invite the right people.
For corporate and organizational discussion groups, the list of participants can be highly political and depends upon many factors. Use your influence to insist that the “right” people participate. Ensure that your objectives can be met by the people in the room.
Who are the “right” people? There’s no simple answer, but a good rule of thumb is to make sure that all perspectives are represented in the room. For example, a corporate group discussing a new employee benefits program might require representatives from manufacturing, sales, marketing, accounting, and human resources.
When you can, choose people who  have a wealth of experience,  are good communicators, and  are inclined towards collaboration.
4. Establish the rules of engagement.
Decide how the discussion will be conducted to best meet the objectives:
- How should participants speak up?
- Will they be called upon to speak?
- Are formal procedures in place?
- Will minutes be taken?
- Is parliamentary procedure being used?
- Will there be a mix of presentation and discussion?
Tune the level of formality to the audience and occasion. Formal procedures may be warranted if there are heavy legal or financial consequences. For many discussions, however, you only need to remind people to be respectful and participate honestly. Don’t impose unnecessary rules on your group — they will only resent you.
5. Be the most prepared participant.
As the leader, your preparation must be strong. In addition to the logistics and schedule, you must prepare lower-level topics, questions to ask, visuals and props, and your general strategy. Think about when you might go to the whiteboard, or when you might show something previously prepared to stimulate discussion. Consider when you’ll ask specific questions to specific participants, or when you’ll take a more open-ended approach.
Because it is a discussion, you won’t be in full control like you are in a typical presentation; your preparation, however, should evident to all participants. Strong preparation is one way that you will earn the trust and respect of the group.
6. Communicate before the session with participants.
Share the objectives, schedule, and rules of engagement with your participants as early as possible. This establishes the framework for the discussion, and helps participants prepare.
For formal discussions (e.g. a week-long corporate discussion), I recommend sending information out at least a week in advance.
For informal discussions (e.g. a book club meeting), it is sufficient to kick off the session by sharing this information.
7. Arrange the logistics.
Every discussion group has different needs. What does your group need to be productive?
- Where will your group meet? Will it comfortably accommodate the size of your group?
- What extra furniture do you need that isn’t already present?
- Do you need flip charts, portable white boards, paper, pens, or markers?
- Do you need a projector, laptop, network connection, extension cords?
- Are you supplying food and beverages? For how many people? Does the timing fit your schedule?
8. Set up the room to promote discussion.
For small groups, a circular (or square) arrangement of tables and chairs is ideal. This allows participants to see you and each other.
For large groups, you may need to arrange microphones throughout the room for participants to access.
For all sizes:
- Aim for clear sight lines (between each other, as well as to flip charts, etc.)
- Provide ample space for participants, including laptop or a writing space.
- Comfort is important. Make it happen.
Don’t hesitate to move furniture around or even remove unnecessary furniture (to create more space). I do this almost every time I lead a session.
Think of the discussion groups that you have led or participated in recently.
Were they successful? Did the leader plan the session well? What could have been done better?
Please share your reflections in the comment section.