What is a Fishbowl Setup and When Should You Use It?


READ TIME: 3 minutes

We’re considering some different types of presentation styles. What is a fishbowl and what do I need to know?

What a Fishbowl Setup Is

A fishbowl is a presentation style in which audience members become the presenters. Chairs are arranged in concentric circles with a few chairs placed in the center, similar to a theatre-in-the-round setup. When the presentation begins, a few audience members take seats in the center and begin the discussion. Only the people in the center of the circle can speak. Speakers are asked to make a point or answer a question and then vacate the chair (return to the audience) when finished so that another audience member can come forward and speak. This rolling transition from speaker to speaker, often facilitated by a moderator, is really a variation of a meeting around a board room table.

Benefits of a Fishbowl Setup

  • By dramatically lessening the distinction between audience members and speakers, organizers help participants feel more engaged. Unlike a traditional staged presentation where the audience watches the speakers, here everyone feels like equals. This facilitates participant buy-in on what’s being discussed.
  • Set up is quick and inexpensive, as there are no tables, projectors, stage, or other software or equipment. Just chairs. This also makes it a good choice for when a topic comes up at a conference that demands discussion and you need to set something up quickly.
  • It works best for having an organized, yet unstructured, discussion on a topic that most participants are familiar with and interested in. It feels less formal than having a moderator walk around calling on people in a theater style set up.

What to Watch Out For

  • Because there’s no stage, slides, or pre-set content, a fishbowl set up is not ideal for teaching or explaining concepts. It’s best when most, if not all, of the audience know the subject matter being discussed.
  • Wherever you sit, you’ll eventually be staring at the back of a speaker’s head, given the round set up.
  • Fishbowls work best when speakers rotate frequently. This requires:
    • A decent portion of the attendees to be well versed in the material and willing to speak.
    • A facilitator to insure no one hunkers down in a speaker’s chair for too long.
  • Most people are not familiar with this format and it can take a little while to get things rolling. A good facilitator should pre-seed the audience with a few people willing to speak and start the process.
  • Many people are fearful of public speaking, so be mindful to let everyone know that participation is encouraged, but completely optional.
  • Due to the round layout, videotaping a fishbowl discussion is not easy or cheap. And without slides, it can be hard to document the session unless someone takes note. That said, fishbowl discussions often don’t need to be recorded or documented.
  • With no formal speakers, planners looking for audience feedback may have to ask different types of questions on the evaluation form.


A good facilitator can make or break a fishbowl session. They can keep the discussion moving, help participants adhere to the rules, redirect the conversation if it begins to stray too far off topic, and make sure that audience members wanting to join the conversation get an opportunity to do so.