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.