How To Chair An Event

chair 2You 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.

Creative Research Methods Summer School 6-8 July 2017

casic-logofinalPhD students and Early Career Researchers are welcome at this event organised by the Community Animation and Social Innovation Centre (CASIC) at Keele University.

The Summer School will be held in central England at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme (6-7 July) and Keele University campus (8 July), where you will experience the KAVE and our Makerspace facilities.

The facilitator will be Dr Helen Kara, author of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. Speakers will include:

  • borderlinesProfessor Mihaela Kelemen – CASIC Director
  • Dr Lindsay Hamilton – Keele Management School, Keele University
  • Véronique Jochum – Research Manager, National Council for Voluntary Organisations
  • Dr Emma Surman – Keele Management School, Keele University
  • Dr Ceri Morgan – School of Humanities, Keele University
  • Professor Rajmil Fischman – School of Music, Keele University
  • Sue Moffat – Director of New Vic Borderlines, New Vic Theatre

keele-logo-2The Summer School will enlighten, inspire and guide ECRs and students at all stages of scholarly or professional doctorates. Each day will be packed with interactive hands-on sessions addressing six broad topics:

  • Arts-based research
  • Transformative research frameworks
  • Mixed-methods research
  • Knowledge co-production
  • Research using technology
  • Writing creatively for research

We are offering an “early bird” price of £230 for bookings received and paid by 21 April. After that date the price will be £270. The cost includes refreshments and lunches and a complimentary copy of Dr Kara’s book on creative research methods.

There will be a dinner and performance of ‘Around the world in 80 Days’ at the New Vic Theatre on July 6th, at an extra cost of £20.

For more information click here.

Please follow #CRMSS17 on Twitter for pre-event updates.

Creative Research Methods conference – 8 May 2015

This SRA conference, where my latest book was formally launched, was a wonderful gathering of diverse researchers. We had academic researchers, government researchers, researchers working in research companies and charities and other organisations, and independent researchers. There were researchers from North and South America, Canada, and other European countries as well as the UK. And we had researchers from across the arts, humanities, and social sciences: from media, design, law, sociology, psychology, and geography, among others. This diversity made for an incredibly stimulating environment. A delegate commented to me that the conference could easily have run over three days, not one, and I think they were right.

Some of the delegates during the pipe-cleaner exercise (photo by David Gauntlett)

Some of the delegates during the pipe-cleaner exercise (photo by David Gauntlett)

The keynote speaker was Professor David Gauntlett. He spoke about the ethical imperative of reciprocity and dialogue in research, and how making and discussing metaphorical artefacts could provide a positive experience for participants. David often uses Lego, but on this occasion he used the pipe cleaners in delegates’ packs to involve us in a participatory demonstration, asking us to build a metaphor of our feelings on our journey that morning to the British Library conference centre. This short exercise was entertaining and instructive, and David built on that to show how making things and talking about them could yield richer data for researchers than simply asking questions. His presentation was dynamic and set the tone for the day.

The morning and afternoon workshop presentations made up a wonderful patchwork with 24 vibrant blocks of colour. They were in four concurrent streams, which regular readers of this blog will recognise: arts-based research, research using technology, mixed methods research, and transformative research frameworks. Presentations included:

This is only a small selection, chosen because they had further information online that I could link to for anyone who wanted more than just a headline. Details of all the workshop presentations can be found in the conference storify which was ably created by our official live-tweeter, Annika Coughlin. The presentations I went to (in the transformative research frameworks stream) were excellent, and I gather from those in other workshop streams that the quality was consistent throughout.

One of the most exciting moments for me came just before lunch, when I discovered the conference hashtag #CRM15 was trending on Twitter! After lunch Jude England, Head of Research Engagement at the British Library, gave a talk on ‘The Pleasures and Perils of Digital’. She encouraged researchers to find, use, and reference secondary data, and gave some good tips on how to do this, as well as explaining how the Library works and how it can help researchers.

At the end of the conference, I gave a short speech to launch my book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. This was immediately followed by a celebratory wine reception, kindly sponsored by my publisher Policy Press. Overall it was a wonderful and inspiring day. I can hardly imagine a better conference, or a more enjoyable book launch.

Centre for Methodological Research

Last autumn I was delighted to receive a personal invitation to the launch of the new Cent2014-10-12_1413075996re for Methodological Research at Durham University. Research about research – now that really floats my boat!

The invitation said ‘The aim of the Centre is simply to foster the methodological imagination.’ That appealed to me, because I think imagination is both essential to research and undervalued by researchers. They had two international speakers: Professor Teun Zuiderent-Jerak, from Linköping University, talking about ‘sociological experiments in healthcare’ (cross-disciplinary = interesting, to me), and Professor Charles Ragin from the University of California, who I know from his work on Qualitative Comparative Analysis, talking about ‘noise and signal in social research’ which also sounded interesting. And the email ended, ‘We would very much like you to be involved in this given your expertise and interest in methodological research,’ which was flattering.

Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect. I was a bit nervous about going to Durham in mid-December, figuring it would probably be three feet deep in snow by then, but in fact it was a mild and pleasant day. I reached the venue on time, spotted a couple of people I knew, and was soon deep in conversation over the sandwiches.

There were about 40 people present, most of whom seemed to be from the north-east. After lunch we headed into a comfortable lecture room and settled down for the talks. Several people from Durham University gave brief introductions, saying the usual things about how delighted they were etc etc. Then we heard from the first speaker, who was indeed interesting, followed by time for discussion.

The discussion was interesting too. There was lots of talk about the importance of being collegiate; working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries; breaking out of the old silo mentalities. But all the talk was about making these changes within academia. I sat on my hands for as long as I could, but eventually one of them shot out from under my bottom and up into the air. When I was called upon to speak, I made a polite but fairly impassioned plea for people to think beyond the academy walls; pointed out that someone already had, because I’d been invited; and tried to make the case for the contribution that independent researchers outside the academy can and do make to social science research. My comments seemed to be quite warmly received, and I felt cheered, and more optimistic.

After a tea break, we heard from the second speaker, who made some good and different points. Then there was more time for discussion. There was lots more talk about the importance of being collegiate; working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries; breaking out of the old silo mentalities – and guess what? Once again, all the talk was about making these changes within academia. I didn’t even try to sit on my hands this time, and when I was called upon to speak, I said reproachfully, ‘You’re doing it again!’ This time I went further, and talked about practitioner researchers and community researchers as well as independent researchers, and stressed that ignoring the work of all these people would cause the Centre to miss a number of key dimensions of social research as it exists in the world today.

I also mentioned the need for academics to find resources for work with non-academic researchers.

I wonder whether my words fell on any hearing ears.