At Fireside Chats, the Talk Is All Smoke and No Flames

(Bloomberg) -- Man invented fire. Business Man ruined it as a metaphor.

The fireside chat is a mainstay of the corporate conference. Businesspeople fly in from around the country, check into their hotel and fortify themselves at a coffee buffet as they listen to colleagues drone on in a beige event hall. But on the agenda something beckons – an intimate tete-a-tete between the event’s bold-faced speakers.

Billed as a “fireside chat,” it promises the sort of woodsmoke-infused insight that can only come from stacking several important men next to flaming timber. But one thing is almost always missing  fire. 

At event after event, the fireside chat has no fireplace and no crackling flame. At best, the panelists might get a high-backed leather chair and a glass of water.

“Well, yeah, there’s no fire. There’s never been a fire,’’ said a woman helping organize presentations at a bank-hosted investor conference in San Francisco last month. “That’s just what they call it. They call it a ‘fireside chat,’ but there’s obviously no fire.” She turned and hurried away before giving her name.

People have been conversing next to fire as long as there was a chill in the air and something to talk about. But as a public relations prop, the fire’s popularization is credited to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who held a series of radio addresses beginning in the Great Depression. His press secretary said the informal talks where meant to make people feel like FDR was talking to families next to his fireplace, according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

It’s not clear when firesides began showing up at any business event trying to spark a conversation, but the format is now everywhere. Yet they still often get billed as a special surprise. At the San Francisco investing conference, JPMorgan health-care analyst Lisa Gill spoke from stage as hundreds of clients took their seats inside a cavernous hall. 

“We're going to do something a little bit different,” Gill said. “We're going to do a fireside chat.” 

It was the event’s seventh fireside of the day, as the metaphor burned from morning to night. 

Some have flirted with authenticity. At a New York University event on a cool October day, the panel’s experts were arranged next to a tantalizingly open fireplace. The topic was hot  a debate about the price of drugs in the U.S.  The hearth, however, was not. 

“It's a good question. I mean the weather outside, it's nearly 60 degrees," said Julia Cartwright, chief of staff at New York University’s College of Global Public Health.

It turned out that the fireplace was purely decorative, but it served its function, Cartwright said, creating a place where the panelists could engage convivially.

“Having the fireplace lit might have made an already hot topic even warmer,’’ she said.

S’mores and a Log 

At the frontier of the meetings industry, there are signs that some are moving on from fire-influenced formats.

“Everyone loves to make a general session sound sexy, so they put in ‘fireside chat,’” said Melinda Burdette, the director of events for Meeting Professionals International, a 17,000-member events-industry group that describes itself as “the association for people who bring people together.” 

The group shares some flame blame. It started using the term “campfires” several years ago to describe small group discussions, which she said sounded a lot more interesting on an agenda than “small group discussion.”

“We’re always looking for some catchphrase that makes it more enticing,” she said. “Campfire makes it sound like you might be sitting around with s’mores or on a log.”

At the next meeting for the people who plan meetings, however, firesides and campfires are out, Burdette said. They’ll be using “storytellers,” though the goal of conversational intimacy and intellectual connection is similar. 

“People learn by not sitting in a lecture hall for 90 minutes while somebody drones on,” Burdette said. 

Not everyone has gotten the memo.

At the CES electronics showcase in Las Vegas, attendees packed a fireside chat with a senior AT&T Inc. executive to talk about “New Frontiers in Mobile.” It featured no new frontiers in combustion, however just two white leather chairs and some arguably flame-colored flowers on a slim table.

Asked about the lack of fire or fireplace, Jessica Swain, a spokeswoman for the telecommunications giant, emailed back three flame emojis.

“Best I can do,” she said.

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