Summers, I. How to be… a conference chair, Don't Forget the Bubbles, 2017. Available at:
You check your in-box and there it is, another e-mail from one of those pesky conference organizers. You make sure it is not just a repeat of the one about being a Twitter moderator but this time the tag line is different. “Dear X, would you be interested in being a chairperson for a session at our upcoming conference?” Again it is time to hit up some friends for their words of wisdom.
What is a session chair?
A session chair is a facilitator that helps the presenters get their message across to the audience and helps the audience get the most out of the session. This means everything from putting the presenters at ease, to helping source technical support, guide questions and summarise. They make the session enjoyable and tie the session back to the broader conference themes to help attendees place the knowledge in context.
So just how do you do it?
A/Prof Stuart Marshall is an anaesthetist and the Clinical Director of the Centre for Health Innovation at the Alfred in Melbourne. He is not to be confused with the guitarist for Sydney heavy metal band Empires of Eden who also happens to be called Stu Marshall.
He has chaired more conference sessions that all of the DFTB17 OC put together.
Before the conference
Often, conferences have extensive notes about how to chair a session and what is expected. Ask for any instructions at least a week in advance. There may be additional tasks such as scoring of the research for a prize, or unusual timings or panel discussion requirements. Read the abstracts in the session too. Why? You need to know something about the research so that you can ask a question if necessary. You should also be able to summarise and if possible explain links between papers.
Before the session
The conference instructions may give different expectations to those suggested here (make sure you
Arrive at the presentation room at least 15 minutes in advance. You’ll need this time to check:
Room: Look for additional conference notices to read out for the delegates before the session. Ensure the projectors, microphones and other technical equipment works. If there is a technician assigned to the room introduce yourself, ask if the speakers have contacted them and if there are any anticipated problems.
Presenters: For each of them you will need to know who they are, how they would like to be introduced (you may have been provided with short bios of each of the presenters) and if they have tested their presentations. Remind them of the expected timing of their presentation and suggest a schedule of when you will inform them of the remaining time. For a 15-minute presentation, warnings at 5, 2 and 1 minute from the end of the allotted time are common but you may adapt this depending on the circumstances or requests from the presenter. Be very clear on what you will do if they go over time. State, “I will stand up and move towards you if you run over time” to set the expectation from the start. This is particularly important with short presentations.
Presentations: Check the presentations with the speaker and with the technician, particularly if requirements are complex. If you can, take a quick look through the slide deck. If there are more slides than one per minute of the presentation, beware, the presentation will likely go over time.
During the session
Introduce yourself and the session and set the scene around the topics that will be discussed. Outline how long the presentations will be and when there will be questions to the speakers. Any other housekeeping or specific instructions from the conference organisers should come after this. Introduce the presenter: Give a brief introduction of who they are and what they will talk on. Try not to pre-empt any results or any strongly held view on your part about the topic – this is their moment not an opportunity for you to look smart. After the presentation: Summarise the talk in your own words. Take questions if they are to be asked directly afterwards, or (for the latecomers) explain that the questions will be held to the end if those were the rules in your introduction. Thank the presenter and lead the applause.
This is tricky because it depends on the room, the formality and the presence of any technology. In a ‘normal’ scientific conference I often open the questions by also setting rules such as “come to the microphone”, “put your hand up and wait for the microphone / wait to be asked” and “please state your name and where you’re from and keep your question brief if you can”. If there are no questions you should have one of your own that you have thought of during the presentation (you need to pay attention!).
Closing the session
This follows the final part of the generic ‘Set, Body, Close’ teaching structure (or ‘tell them what you’re going to teach them, teach them, and them tell them what you taught them’!). Summarise and draw together the threads of the session. Sometimes the presentations are diverse and you can merely note this. I try to state one learning point from each talk and summarise it for the audience, or create three lessons from the session. It can be tricky!
Reorientate the audience to the next item on the conference agenda or the notices from the start of the session (“before we go, don’t forget…”, “next up is a fantastic plenary session at 1030 / morning tea and we’re back in here…”)
“Please join me in thanking all the speakers…” and lead the applause.
But what about…
Known troublesome speakers?
Some speakers are known for going over time. If I can, I try to move them to the end of the session so the audience can choose to leave and other speakers are not disadvantaged. With these presenters, be very clear on your timing signals and that you will invade their personal space if they go significantly over time. Allow some flexibility but don’t allow them to hog the stage.
The topic that you are not familiar with?
If you need to ask a question you can use a few generic questions: ‘What do you think the strengths/flaws are in your research”, “If you ran this research again would you do anything differently”, “What has this research taught you?”, “How do you think this will change (clinical) practice?”.
Consider changing presentation order if you can. If you can’t, a good speaker should have a backup when the technology fails. If they don’t, you might need to negotiate to shorten the presentation (“your technical issue has eaten into our schedule by 10 minutes, can you cut some of your slides to finish only 5 minutes late?”). Have a high index of suspicion of trouble with speakers that use embedded videos, internet and polling systems in their presentations.
The question that isn’t a question?
We’ve all seen the audience member that needs to give their own talk from the floor. “It’s not a question but…”. There are three ways of handling this; the first is to interrupt and ask if there was a specific question to the speaker; the second is to say you’ll “take it as a comment, thank you”; finally you can ask for it to be discussed in the break time.
Rob Roseby is a paediatrician, Head of Medical Specialities and Director of Medical Education at Monash Children’s Hospital, Melbourne
He has organized, chaired and spoken at multiple conferences over many years. He is also a fanatical cyclist who once rode a bike across the Simpson Desert.
An excellent chair can make a big difference to how a session runs and how a session is perceived to have run. These are my thoughts:
The conference organisers will have a system for loading talks before a session starts- know it and know how to troubleshoot.
It is crucial to keep to time- the session you chair is clearly THE most important one…but there are other sessions the audience needs to attend, schmoozing to be had in breaks, etc. The session MUST end on time. Each speaker MUST be kept to time. I always let the speaker know that at the allocated time I will ask them to finish, mid-sentence if necessary. I check with them if they want a signal, say, with one minute to go or if they want a timing indicator at a different point. That can be a hand wave, movement to a different seat- whatever. Guess what? I rarely have speakers try to go over time.
Chair question time fairly, letting everyone know who is next. When people put up their hands try to acknowledge them with eye contact and a signal. Be ready with a question yourself if the audience is not forthcoming. You need to have read the abstracts and possibly done some wider reading or Googling.
Leave every speaker feeling good about themselves and every attendee feeling good about the session. The speakers and audience will absorb some of your enthusiasm and enjoyment for the subject and the session, so demonstrate it through what you say in intros and closings, and your body language.
Be prepared to manage contingencies. I have seen all sorts of things, from technical issues to speaker or audience LOC (!), etc. and the audience always expects someone to be in charge- that’s you. Stay calm and manage the situation as best you can, respectful of everyone, and get on with the show if you can.
And what do you do if you are a speaker?
It’s an important conference and you are keen to do well. You have been arranged in a session with two other speakers presenting around a similar theme and you are, let’s admit it, anxious. You don’t know any of them. With a few weeks to go, an email appears, addressed to you and the other speakers in the session. “Hi, its Dr X, I’m going to be chairing your session at……… I would love to be able to give you a warm and personalised introduction, so please tell me a little about yourself and what your passion is, why you are talking about your topic”. You send something back as reply all, as do the others, and you read little amounts of your co- speakers introductions and suddenly you find the speakers and the chair having a brief to and fro about an unusual hobby. It’s all a little less threatening.
When you arrive, you naturally start a quick chat with the co-speakers. The chair wishes you luck and
says, “I’m looking forward to hearing you speak”. You co-ordinate the introduction and the timing cues. The reminders about keeping to time, well yes, of course you will because it makes sense and it’s respectful. The chair arrived early and can show you around the A-V system because the tech has disappeared for a moment. Your talk is loaded and runs smoothly. The chair enjoys a joke and a chat to a few of the strangers entering the room, and casually moves them towards the front. They have been asked what they are hoping to get out of the presentations, and later a question around that theme is pulled from the audience. It starts on time, keeps to time and allows for questions.
The chair has created an environment in which you were able to do your best, and the mini-theme to the session and conference has been bound together. You felt comfortable.