Discussion Circles — a new way to host a conversation

Empty seats and no moderator. Trust me.

Phil Morle
3 min readAug 5, 2023

Portfolio days in venture capital firms can be transformative … or excruciating. Taking a whole day out of building a business is a big ask of a startup founder, so it matters to me that we strive for the transformative.

Founders don’t want to be lectured to or attend ‘startup school’. They want to hear real stories from the same arena that they step into each day.

While we used this format for a portfolio day, I suspect this is a useful format for other community gatherings.

  • Create a trusted space to talk authentically about topics that may feel difficult.
  • Raw and true is better than polished and prepared.
  • The value lies in the community, not in the minds of ‘experts’.
  • Space: a circle of comfortable chairs on a raised platform in the centre of the room — see photo above. Yes, some speakers will have their backs on the audience. This is a feature.
  • Lighting: use lighting and decor to pull the audience’s attention to the centre.
  • Sound: speakers all with microphones so that they can speak normally without ‘performing’.
  • Chatham House Rules. Do not record the conversation and let everyone know that is the case. If the audience wants insights, they must be there to share the moment.
  • No moderator. Agree on a topic and perhaps who will start. Then trust the group.
  • For preparation, we asked each person to suggest a question one of the others might ask them. We encouraged participants to allow vulnerability and explore failures as well as successful approaches. We encouraged finding threads of disagreement or at least different perspectives.
  • Everyone in the circle considers what they REALLY want to know from the others.
  • If something resonates, riff with it and share your perspective.
  • Just have a conversation. Think about a great long-form podcast.
  • Have at least one empty chair. This is how the audience can join the conversation temporarily or ask a question. Demonstrate how this works early on to break the wall between the audience and the circle.
  • To bookend the circle, have your MC join the circle at the start and the end so that everyone knows we need to end when the time comes.
  • It’s OK to see the back of someone’s head. When we are in the audience, it feels like we are listening to a private conversation. It feels more real. And we can see some people’s faces. It’s OK. Relax.
  • The circle format stops the need to perform from the participants’ perspective in the circle. Because the participants are facing each other, not the crowd, there is a wonderful moment a few minutes in when they forget they are not alone and settle into a marvellous conversation.
  • Having no moderator is frightening for all until you trust the format. Arguably the dependency on a moderator is how panellists outsource interestingness and the curation of what is valuable. Without a moderator, the circle inquires into itself to learn what it needs to know.


I am a deep tech investor, and I’m building out loud. Subscribe here or follow me @philmorle

Originally published at https://medium.com on August 5, 2023.



Phil Morle

Deep tech VC — Main Sequence Ventures. Ecosystem builder. Maker. Director. Startup Scientist.