You may be asked to chair an event such as a meeting, conference presentations, panel seminar, or even a whole conference. If you haven’t done this before, the prospect may fill you with dread. You’ve seen other people who have made it look easy. But nobody has ever told you how to chair an event; it’s as though you’re supposed to have learned it psychically or by osmosis or magic.
There is a difference between chairing different types of events, but there are also similarities. As a chairperson, your job is to help the event run smoothly; to encourage participation; and to be self-effacing. You are not on show, to impress or even to be noticed; you are there to serve. Your greatest achievement, as a chairperson, is to be the forgotten facilitator of an incredibly memorable event.
Helping an event run smoothly involves good preparation and timekeeping. Find out as much as you can, ahead of time, about the purpose of the event, who will be involved, the venue, and so on. For a meeting, make sure the agenda is timed and that all the papers are sent out far enough in advance to enable everyone to read them before the meeting. One potential booby-trap is the Any Other Business agenda item. There are two good ways I know to deal with this. You can ban it altogether because, as the chairperson, You Have The Power! Or, at the start of the meeting, you can ask who wants to raise what under A.O.B. This should be very quick items such as announcements or corrections. If someone mentions a topic that you think is likely to generate discussion, you can suggest that it should be an agenda item for the next meeting. Or – if it is urgent – rearrange the agenda for the current meeting to accommodate it, perhaps by deferring another item to the next meeting.
While you are chairing a meeting, you need to keep one eye on the clock and the other on your colleagues. It is your responsibility to keep everyone to time which is not always easy. It is also your role to help the shy and quiet people to speak, and encourage the verbal gerbils to give space to others.
At conferences and seminars, you need to introduce the event or the session, and again this involves good preparation. Get hold of speakers’ biographies in advance, and prepare your introductions: to yourself (briefly), to the event or session, and to the speakers. Find out how to pronounce any unfamiliar names. Make sure you and the speakers understand the format and the time allocations. Ideally sort this out by email ahead of the event or session; failing that, meet with the speakers ahead of the start time. Arrange a signal you can use to let speakers know that they have, say, five minutes left. If speakers want to use slides, make sure you see them in advance, in case they have prepared, for example, 38 slides for a 10-minute talk. In such cases, you need to be firm. One slide every two minutes is a good rule of thumb. Make sure slides are loaded and audio-visual equipment is working properly.
When you are introducing an event, it can be helpful to set some ground rules for the audience. I often say that I will welcome questions as long as they are actual questions, but if people in the audience have lengthy speeches to make, perhaps they could save those for the refreshment break. That usually gets a laugh as well as making the point. It is also worth saying that you will keep speakers punctual to ensure everyone gets their fair share of the available time.
When the event is underway, listen to the speakers and come up with a couple of questions to ask. You can do this beforehand if you are knowledgeable enough about the topic, but even then it’s worth listening to make sure your questions will fit. Make sure they are open questions, e.g. ‘Can you explain why you decided to do X?’, to encourage speakers to talk.
Be firm if a speaker over-runs. It really is unfair to the others, or – if the last speaker – to audience members who want to ask questions. When the last speaker has finished, thank the speakers for their interesting and thought-provoking talks, and then invite questions from the audience. You may see hands going up straight away, or there may be a pause, in which case let it run a little way past your comfort zone before you ask a question of your own. Your question is likely to get the audience going. Don’t allow any audience member to get into a discussion with a speaker; two exchanges is enough. If they look set to go on, suggest they meet for further discussion at the end of the session. If lots of hands go up, try for a good balance of gender, ethnicity, age and so on.
Another option, after you have thanked the speakers, is to ask the audience to have a quick chat with their neighbours about what they took from the presentation, what they would like to know more about, anything they disagreed with, questions and thoughts they may have. Give people a few minutes of discussion, then ask for questions. This can be very stimulating and lead to richer interactions with speakers.
Ask questioners to state their name and affiliation before they pose their question. Conversely, if there really are no questions, facilitate a discussion between the speakers. Engage with their themes, draw them out, and encourage speakers to interact with each other. If all else fails, go to the break early; nobody ever minds that.
If you’re chairing a whole conference you will have some extra responsibilities. There will be people to thank, such as the conference hosts, and perhaps sponsors, or volunteers who are helping on the day. You will have to cover ‘housekeeping’, i.e. where toilets and fire exits can be found, whether any fire drills are expected, and where the gathering point is in the event of an evacuation. There may be a hashtag to mention and social media reporting to encourage. You will be introducing, and timekeeping for, plenary speakers; it will be necessary to set ground rules and devise questions, as above. At the end of each session you may need to signpost the audience to what will happen next.
When time is up, thank the speakers again – and, if appropriate, the organisers – and lead a round of applause. Then you can have a big drink. You’ve earned it!
Chairing isn’t particularly difficult. However, it is tiring, because you have to pay attention all the time. There is no option to daydream, play on your phone, or whisper to your neighbour. It is, in some ways, a fairly thankless task. But it is also an essential role which helps to make meetings, sessions, and events run smoothly.