We are fast approaching conference season! That means that there are plenty of opportunities to present your work, as well as listen to the work of others. However, it also means developmental opportunities for things that may not be so obvious such as chairing.

But what exactly is the role of a conference chair? What are the qualities of a good chair? And, what makes good chairing practice?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that all conferences, symposiums and colloquiums are slightly different, which means the role of the chair and the needs of speakers might vary. But as a general rule of thumb, the role of the chair includes the following:

  • OPENING THE SESSION | Introducing the session and speakers
  • TIME-MANAGEMENT | Making sure everything runs to time
  • SEAMLESSNESS | Ensuring the session runs smoothly including managing technology
  • SUPPORT | Putting the speakers at ease – presenting can be terrifying!
  • MANAGING THE Q&A | Fielding questions and answers to facilitate a dialogue between the speakers and audience
  • ENHANCING THE CONFERENCE EXPERIENCE | Making the session meaningful and enjoyable
  • CLOSING THE SESSION | Tying up the discussion and themes

The chair is in many ways the facilitator of a particular aspect of the conference and the mediator between the presenters, and the presenters and the audience.

Sounds a lot, right? Yes, being a conference chair is quite a lot of responsibility. BUT it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. And it certainly shouldn’t be something only senior academics are entitled to do. Like anything, chairing is a skill, that needs practice (and confidence).

So, to equip you to be a brilliant chair, let’s think about what qualities make a good chair.

It might be useful to first think about what makes a not so good chair. Have you ever presented (or attended) a conference and was frustrated at the chairing and thought you could’ve done a better job? Unfortunately, there always seems to be a chair who (usually unintentionally) hasn’t quite done the job as well as they could. This includes but is not limited to:

The ones who don’t turn up … yes this does happen!

The ones who can’t tell the time …

The ones who mispronounce the speakers’ names (or make assumptions about pronouns) …

The ones who let awkward silences drag on. And on. And on …

The ones who don’t notice the shy hand-raisers in the audience …

The ones who take advantage of the opportunity to tell the audience about themselves / their fascinating research / their superior knowledge …

Let’s not be put off by these bad eggs. According to this great Guardian article, the qualities of a good chair are: organised, inclusive, selfless, attentive and firm.

Building on these qualities, we’ve outlined 10 top tips of what we think makes good practice to help you be a brilliant chair:

ORGANISATION | If agreed by the conference organisers contacting your speakers in advance can go miles to build rapport, check how to pronounce names and any pronouns. Whether you are at a virtual or face-to-face conference, it is also good practice to introduce yourself in advance of the session (over coffee or in the chat); as the chair you are their primary point of contact on the day. Remember to read the speaker’s bios and abstracts for your session in advance too in case you need to ask a question or make links between presentations.

FRAMING THE SESSION | Make sure you welcome yourself, the session and all of the speakers. It is also useful to highlight the length and format of the presentations, and especially how the Q&A will operate, to the audience. This is your change to curate the session and manage expectations!

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT | They say practice makes perfect, and chairing is no exception. We don’t necessarily mean the performance of chairing itself, but making sure you have tested any tech, including accessing and sharing presentations, in advance of the session.

TIMING, TIMING, TIMING | Always begin promptly and make sure you time each speaker’s individual slot. It can be useful to give speakers a 2-minute and 1-minute warning so they know how much time they have left, followed by something to indicate that their time is up. In the worst-case scenario, you might need to intervene, which you can discretely do by standing up or uploading the next presentation (awkward but also very important!). You may want to politely remind speakers and audience members as you introduce the session that you will be chairing to military precision so ensure that everyone gets an equal chance to speak and have a break on time (making a joke about this can also break the ice). This sets expectations and that you mean business as chair!

FACILITATING THE Q&A LIKE A PRO (Part 1) | This one also relates to timing but deserves its own spot on this list! Timing is also crucial here as it is very easy for one question or answer to become overly long and throw the Q&A off course. This is especially important if all speakers in the session will share the Q&A. Try to keep questions and answers concise and pithy and do not be afraid to remind everyone in the session of this at the start of the Q&A.

FACILITATING THE Q&A LIKE A PRO (Part 2) | Try to make sure that each person gets asked at least one question. Be prepared for an awkward silence when you first open up the floor but try to avoid the temptation to delve right in with your own question. That being said, it is helpful to prepare your own question for each speaker in case you do need to get things moving. Equally, if there is a burst of raised hands, you will need to be tactful in striking a fine balance in your own comments and making sure a selected number of questions only are allocated to the speakers.

REMEMBER THE SPOTLIGHT | This is your session to chair, but the spotlight should shine brightly on the speakers; one of the main functions of a conference is for speakers to have a platform to share their work and engage in peer feedback. Whilst there might be links with your own work (or you think this is THE most interesting thing ever and have suggestions), make sure you initiate conversation AFTER the presentation. If you are chairing virtually, keep your camera on for morale support and make sure everyone else is muted to hold that spotlight on your speaker.

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER | As you come towards the end of the session, it is your job to tie things up (even if it is super interesting and there are more questions). You might want to highlight some key threads connecting the speakers (or more widely tie the session to the conference). Don’t forget to thank all the speakers and make sure they get a supportive round of applause! Finally, signpost the audience to what is happening next on the programme and where it will take place.

FAIR AND FIRM | To keep everything running smoothly and on time, be prepared and confident to move the spotlight between speakers and to tie up any discussion. It is important to ensure that no one person dominates the session and absolutely critical that any bullying or non-constructive comments are nipped politely but firmly in the bud. If you do have a speaker who just won’t finish presenting, you will need to inform them firmly that you will have to stop them. Occasionally you may come across a ‘senior’ speaker who feels entitled to keep on speaking. Whilst a keynote presenter might just about be able to get away with this, remember for other speakers, you are the chair regardless of any perceived hierarchies.

ENJOY! | An extremely important job of the chair is to make sure that everything runs smoothly, everyone is at ease and importantly that the session is enjoyable for everyone who is there. This includes making sure you enjoy the experience too, even if you do feel a little bit of imposter syndrome.

Good luck! We’d love to hear some of your experiences of chairing. Send us an email at admpgr-studio@bcu.ac.uk

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