How to be a brilliant conference chair
When you’re in the hot seat, don’t yawn or shoehorn in your own research. And for goodness sake, get speakers’ names right.
The Gguardian Higher Education Network
Think of the worst conference chairs you have ever experienced. The ones who forgot or mispronounced the speakers’ names, or failed to turn up altogether.
The ones who didn’t notice the shy hand-raisers, and only called on the masters of gesticulation. Or the ones who took advantage of the opportunity to tell the audience about their fascinating research and superior knowledge. Or the ones who apparently couldn’t tell the time, didn’t seem to care that the audience was gasping for a drink, or let awkward silences drag on and on.
The self-aware among us will know in our heart of hearts that we have been one of these at one conference or another (possibly after a late night at the conference dinner). Although such debacles can be something of a scholarly rite of passage, there are ways to avoid these pitfalls – here is our (hard-earned) six-point checklist to help you become everyone’s favourite conference chair.
Contact your speakers in advance, either at the conference or via email, to check if they’re happy for you to use their biography and title from the conference programme (people quite often change the focus of their paper by the time they come to present).
Then, find your speakers at the coffee before the session so you can introduce yourself, find out how they prefer to be addressed and check how to pronounce their names (writing them down phonetically if necessary). In order to ensure seamless transitions, make sure that presentations are preloaded, and check that your speakers know how to find and open theirs. And know how to contact IT support in case the tech gods let you down.
Do not give one speaker more prominence than the others, whoever they might be; highlight each person’s key publications and achievements equally.
Be prepared for a stony silence when you open up the floor – prepare your own question for each speaker. But if there is a flurry of hands, don’t hog the time. Prevent questioners from dominating, bullying, or patronising speakers by courteously reminding them to come to the point.
Scan the audience to ensure that early career researchers and more reticent colleagues have an opportunity to address the panel. Try to make sure that all speakers get at least one comment or question.
Keep anecdotes about your own research to coffee time and let the speakers take the spotlight. If you find links with your own work, or think of references that might help to inform speakers’ research, talk to them or email them later.
Encourage early career researchers and new speakers, and boost their confidence by thanking them for their presentation and showing an interest in their work.
You are the chair, in full view of the room, so listen attentively and take notes on relevant points that could be used for questions later. Don’t fidget, or yawn.
When it’s time for questions, stand to the side of the podium and scan the audience, leaving centre stage for your speakers. If multiple audience members raise their hands, make eye contact with each and nod discreetly so they know you have seen them.
Always begin promptly and make sure you time each speaker’s individual slot, so that each has his or her fair share of the session. However awkward it is, you must keep people to time. Be prepared to tackle a speaker even if they are higher up the academic ranks, self-important, or simply stubborn enough to ignore you.
Agree in advance with your speakers about what sign you will use to alert them that they need to begin drawing their talk to a close, such as a finger gesture (not that one). If necessary, know when to stop believing the speaker’s promises that they are about to conclude and inform them firmly that you will have to stop them there in order to introduce the next presenter.
When you get to question time, it is your responsibility to lead the discussion by encouraging a dialogue between the audience and speakers. This can be the most rewarding part of the session; otherwise the experts may as well have stayed at home and read their paper to the cat.
Ensure that everyone who wants to speak has the opportunity to do so, and try to read faces and feel the silences. This way you know when the questions have dried up and it’s time to thank the speakers and the audience, and say how great the session has been. When the time for the panel to end arrives, tie things up (even if there are more questions), allowing everyone to happily head for tea and biscuits or to the pub – where they won’t talk about you, because you did your job so well.
Joanne Begiato is a professor of history at Oxford Brookes University; Lorna Campbell is digital education manager at Edina at the University of Edinburgh; Steven Gray is lecturer in the history of the Royal Navy at the University of Portsmouth; Isaac Land is an associate professor at Indiana State University