Chairing a conference: what to do – and what not to do

By: Wendy Smith

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

Chairing a conference can be an onerous task, as anyone who has been asked to step up to the podium can testify. Get it wrong and you can be the most unpopular person in the room. Get it right and the most you can expect is a casual ‘well done’.

Like everything in life, getting it right takes preparation, dedication, practice and, in this case, a cool head on your shoulders. Think of it a bit like hosting a really good party. Your guests should leave with a warm glow – indicating they’ve had a good time, learnt much and met many interesting people. Job done.

Chairing a conference is not that much different, although you usually can’t ply them with alcohol. You are setting the stage to make sure everyone else has that essential feelgood factor when they check out.

Even chairing one session is not something you simply turn up and ‘do’. Like everything that looks simple, this is only because of the amount of preparation that has gone in to it.

Know your audience

As soon as you have received the conference programme, start researching the speakers and audience. You need to get a visual image of who is going to be in the room, how many will be attending each session, and which industries they are from. What are their nationalities and will you be working with an interpreter?

Know your subject generally – know your location specifically

Start your research on key facts about the subject area. You don’t need to challenge the experts, but at least be able to contextualise. If you are working in, say, Canada, have a few key facts about Canadian demographics, work trends and latest news. This will show you are localising your delivery as opposed to simply just turning up and delivering standard stuff.

Hone in on housekeeping

You must arrive early to check out the room, where and who is operating the tech and the location of all the essential facilities and other housekeeping topics. For example, are they expecting a fire drill?

Forget you – it is all about them

The main thing to remember at all times is that this is not about you. This is not the time for you to look clever, outshine the speakers and crack the wittiest jokes ever – although a little levity never goes amiss. You are there to make everyone else look good.

Go the extra mile to create added interest

There is nothing worse for a delegate than arriving at a conference, opening up the programme and then listening to the chair reading out what is printed in front of them. Introduce your speaker with standard name and title by all means, but how about going that extra mile and finding out something interesting to say about him or her beforehand? The best chairs will pick off the speakers at the start of the day and do a little mini interview with them to grab an essential anecdote from them, or garner some flattering insights from their colleagues to lighten up and add interest to the intro.

Lay out the mechanics of the day

In your introduction, let the audience know the general themes for the conference topics, how long sessions will run for, when the breaks will be, where the facilities are and how questions will be taken. This reassures your audience about practicalities and conveys your professionalism as their chair and host.

Create an inviting atmosphere

Try to be as relaxed as possibly and welcome them all with that all-important smile. People are often quite on edge when they arrive at a conference. They may have had a stressful journey, still be brooding about unanswered emails waiting for them, or just stepped out of the cold wind. Your smile and your warmth are what people need on arrival to settle them in before they concentrate on the speakers.

Talk to time – and ensure everyone else does

Timing at these events is crucial. Nothing is more frustrating than a panel discussion that runs over into lunch. Good chairs are great timers. This takes skill and diplomacy and sometime downright autocracy. Many of us have witnessed the desperation on the face of the audience when the speaker has been gently nudged by the chair only to continue the thread they were on with a few self-aggrandising anecdotes. Not sure who everyone hates the most at that moment – the speaker for losing sight of his or her audience or the chair for losing a grip on the job of chairing.

And what if they overrun?

This is when you go into head teacher mode. Tell the speakers very precisely how you will deal with overrunning. What signals will you be giving? Will you put up boards at the back of the room indicating the countdown? Will you ring a bell? If all else fails, the chair will simply have to interject when time is up with a blunt, “I am sorry our time is up – we have 30 seconds to sum up.”

What’s in a name? – everything

Check how the speaker would like to be introduced and make sure their name is pronounced correctly. Nobody like his or her name mispronounced, so make sure you write it down phonetically to get it right.

Preparing for questions

The chair’s job is to really understand and study the timings of the day. If you have a 20-minute presentation, how long have you got for questions? If you get stuck here and no one asks a question, make sure you have one or two jotted down to ask the speaker yourself. Why not ask the speaker what question he or she would like to be asked, and include that in your repertoire of questions? That way the speaker can get an extra nugget of information over to the audience they may not have included in their presentation.

Be a conference DJ – the manager of links

When introducing your next speaker, make sure you make a link with the previous speaker: “Thank you Doctor so and so for that excellent talk on biodiversity, and now Hannah Hill will continue this theme with her talk on her research in this area. She will take questions at the end.”

On the sidelines

When your speakers are delivering their presentations, the chair should sit to the side away from the main focus of the audience and, if necessary, take notes. When the questions are being asked, the chair must remember to look to the audience member and acknowledge their question or even ask for it to be repeated and swiftly paraphrase it for clarity.

The wrap

And finally…. At the end, rather like a clever magazine article, wrap it all up with a concise summary of what you have all heard that day, restate the main message and draw overall conclusions from the whole conference. Thanks are always in order – check with the organisers if sponsors are involved, mention the support staff from the AV team, the conference team, the caterers – and then send them on their way. With a smile.

In summary: top tips

Know your audience – where are they from, what are their roles, what do they hope to get out of the day?

Get to know your team from the people on the delegate desk to the IT team – you need to know who is there to help if and when you need it

Research your conference programme and individual speakers – prepare an overarching theme and individual biogs

Put your ego on the back-boiler – you are the host not the star turn

Greet with a smile at all times – your job is to inform, reassure and guide  

The best chairs are the ones that can keep calm and carry on – work to worst-case scenario, have your bases covered off and be solution-focused

Work out your timings for questions – if you have a ten-minute slot how many questions can you handle?

Know who to thank, from the sponsors to the catering staff

Prepare mentally – a positive mindset and a decent night’s sleep beforehand both help.

Good luck.



Delivering Bad News

Delivering Bad News from Coralstone Training

Delivering Bad News at work from Coralstonetraining

I have just been listening to an item on Radio Five live on my way to see a client in West London. When delivering effective communication skills I am often asked about difficult conversations and how to manage them. Therefore when I heard the proposed subject – I tuned in hard.

“So just how do you deliver bad news? “ asked the interviewer to a north country based GP. And then followed the best piece of reasoned common sense from a seasoned expert I have heard for a long time.  The good doctor herself explained her background: she had worked in numerous GP surgeries and local accident and emergency centres. She then proceeded the share the following with the listeners – the go to phrase that she always used in dire circumstances:

“ There is only one way to tell you this….”

To the point or what?

Her reasoning was that there is no point taking the potential recipient of horrendous news round the houses with detail they can’t take in and allowing them to build up false hope that can’t be delivered. This is precisely when a maelstrom of emotions will kick in at a time of extreme stress that potentially will take years to overcome. The doctor is in a position of power and she does not abuse it. She tells it how it is.

Of course not all news is off the Richter scale of dramatic like these examples but in day-to-day life we have to tell others things we don’t want to say.

The CBI estimates that workplace conflict costs UK business £33 billion per year, taking up 20% of leadership time and potentially losing up to 370 million working days.

It is possible and potentially kinder to take the assertive route to what may seem the unpalatable or unwanted news. This is not the time to beat around the bush. So often the person who is delivering the bad news that for example redundancies will take place, an order has been lost, the project is running is more worried about having to deliver the message than who is on the receiving end of it. As with any form of communication your emotions go on the back boiler and the only person or people that matter are the ones listening to what you have to say.  Get it right and you win trust and respect as a leader and communicator, get it wrong and it could prove costly emotional, productively and financially.

The Doctor in the radio interview told the listeners something that has really resonated with me and people I have talked to since. The two things people can’t handle in life are power and uncertainty. When you are in the workplace with any position of authority don’t abuse it and then add uncertainly into the mix. Moving the goal posts, being unpredictable is not an appealing trait in a work colleague.  A sure recipe for disgruntled and future job-hunting employees.

I remember working for a publishing house then based in central London and being told by the managing director that we would definitely not be moving. Oh good we all thought – carry on as usual. Phew.

The next month he called us all in to tell us we would be relocating to deepest Middlesex. “Where’s that?”, thought many of us and “where is the exit?”,  thought the rest.

Disbelief, anger and distrust resulted in a massive loss of staff and institutional knowledge to other companies and competitors and resentment from those left behind. All at a financial and reputational cost to the organisation.

So what needs to be done to avoid this?

It is not all simply about telling them how it is. Like all forms of communication there are other aspects to this you can learn.

In the meantime, here are a few pointers to help you with delivering bad news:

Be prepared.

  • With whatever little time you have preparation is still all. Rehearse it is just in your heard. Get your mind into gear. Keep your own motions in check.
  • Plan the conversation before hand. Think of the words you will use and the impact they will have on the receiver. Role-play it if necessary with a colleague. Check the word being used and err on the side of fact and avoid being overly emotional.

Soonest

  • Act swiftly – I recently witnessed a senior leader having to tell colleagues that the chief executive had died. The news was delivered literally hours after the news came through to ensure before body language of the senior team didn’t give gave the game away through furtive glances, built up fear and panic. There was initial panic but that was soon superseded by comfort and solutions. A dire situation that was not exerbated by needless delay and uncertainty.

Show empathy

  • Acknowledge the person’s emotions appropriately. Be attentive and supportive, but don’t say “I know how you feel,” because you don’t. How about acknowledgement in the form of, “This is a terrible shock to you.”

Paraphrase

  • Listen to what they have to say and paraphrase what you hear back to them. This shows you are really engaging and listening and connecting. It gives them a chance to hear back what they have said correct you if you are wrong or even correct themselves and retune their thoughts and opinions.

Keep calm.

  • So you have just dropped a big one on the listener, which may well leave them reeling and emotional. If they get emotional or even angry with you is not your job to mirror that behavior. Keep your voice low and acknowledge with assertive statements such as,“I am can hear that you are angry.” Another tip I learnt when dealing with anger – if you are sitting down stay seated even if the recipient comes towards you. Standing up and facing them down will escalate the tension. If you do want to remove yourself tell the person what you are doing, thank them for listening and set an alternative time to continue the conversation.

Of course all this improves with practice – and learning from what you got right and what you could improve on. Becoming an effective communicator comes through self-awareness, awareness of others around you and the right body language and choice of reactions and language. Trying all these techniques out in a safe and controlled environment can be one major step forward in redefining yourself as the better you.