By Guest Author 03/12/2018

Dr Lucy Stewart

Chairing talk sessions at conferences can be a weird gig. It’s a skill we expect people to learn by observation, but we rarely talk about how to do it well. Instead, we bolt our lunch while grousing about yet another overrun session, as if it had been caused by uncontrollable forces of nature.

But that’s not the case. So, because it’s academic conference season in New Zealand, I’m going to offer my tips on how to be a truly great session chair – and trust me, people will notice the difference.

First and foremost, you have two jobs as a session chair. And they’re not “introduce the speakers and ask the audience to clap at the end”.

  • Make sure your audience gets to hear the speakers they are expecting to hear, at the times they expect to hear them.
  • Make sure your speakers feel like at least one person cared about their talk.

That’s it. Everything you do as a chair should be with the goal of making those things happen.

So…how do you actually do that?

Slot Lengths Are Not Talk Lengths

A session of 15-minute talk slots is a session of ~ 12-minute talks with time for a couple of questions and changeover to the next speaker. It is NOT a session of 15-minute talks. (A 20-minute slot is a ~ 15-minute talk, etc, etc.) Speakers should know this. Speakers routinely fudge this. Your job is to remind them.

Manage Expectations

Just before your session starts, welcome everybody, tell them who you are and which session this is, and explain to both your speakers and your audience how you are going to signal that speakers are reaching the end of their talks. Aim for firm but friendly – you’re here to help speakers…by keeping them to time.

The Fun, Noisy Bit

Generally, you’ll want three signals; one for ‘end of planned talk’ time, one for ~1 minute before the end of the speaker’s slot, and one for ‘you are DONE, sit DOWN, ma’am or sir or gentleperson’ at the very end of their slot. Signal one should be silent; signals two and three should be progressively more emphatic.

Start As You Mean To Go On

Unless the room is absolutely empty, start your session on time, and hold your first speaker to the time limits. It is very easy to think ‘well, we’ve still got loads of time…’ but the limit is as applicable to the first speaker as the last. This will also set the tone for your other speakers about whether time limits are going to be enforced.

But They’re Still Talking

Sometimes speakers see the finish line of their talk and, like horses headed for home, plunge towards it, oblivious to anything else. If they’re still in full flight when you’re closing in on the end-of-slot time, despite your nice clear time signals, stand up. Get in their line of sight and move towards them. If they are STILL going when their slot is done, with no sign of a wrap-up, do not be afraid to be obnoxious – clear your throat, tap the desk, ring a bell and don’t stop – until they acknowledge you and wrap their talk up. That’s your job, and, never forget, the audience is on your side in this.

Questions, Questions, Questions

This is a big topic, so a few pointers on it:

  • It is your job to ensure speakers who run to time get at least one question. You should be spending their talk thinking of one.
  • Good conference talk questions are requests for clarification or further explanation of the work the speaker presented. They are not ‘comments’, diatribes, or extended discussions of the wider literature. Use your Chair Powers for good and model good questions, when necessary.
  • People who run to their full slot time, or over, do not get questions. No exceptions.
  • People who run to their actual talk time do get questions, but be mindful that questioners can be unexpectedly rambly, and that in all cases, you NEED that last minute of the talk slot to introduce the next speaker and ensure changeover of slides/microphones/etc.
  • If someone in the audience starts to ask a question and it turns into an extended comment, interrupt and ask them to phrase it as a question. Again, the audience is on your side in this.
  • If someone in the audience tries to turn their question into an extended back-and-forth, cut them off. They get a question, and maybe a quick clarification if there’s time. To facilitate this, if a microphone is being circulated, have it returned to you or moved to the next questioner (if there is one) after people have asked their questions.

I’m Afraid We’re Running Short On Time

Everything above having been said, if previous speakers have forced you to manhandle them offstage to stop them talking, or the session started late because previous sessions ran late, or whatever, do not penalise later speakers for their predecessors’ sins. They get their full slot, and if they run to time, they get a question or two.

Some Formal Stuff

Introduce every speaker by at least name (find out the pronunciation beforehand) and general topic (do not repeat their full talk title); ask the audience to thank the speaker again after questions; ask them to thank all the speakers at the end of the session; thank your audience at the end of the session for being good listeners.

Yeah, This Stuff Is Hard

We (particularly women) are often trained to avoid interrupting people. You may feel obnoxious and/or awkward enforcing time limits, moving on from ‘comments’ disguised as questions, and so on. You’re not being awkward. You are doing your job by keeping everybody on track, and – please, believe me – the audience will notice and they will be grateful.

Thank You

Good sessions don’t happen without good chairs, and good conferences don’t happen without good sessions. Thanks for stepping up.