Being a speaker at a conference and chairing a session are two very different experiences. With the focus being on the speaker, a chairs position can often be overlooked. In saying this, a good chair can make all the difference to a conference. Apologies if that’s not what you wanted to hear – I know the experience can be daunting enough as it is!
Recently I had the opportunity to chair a session at an IMA Mathematics in Defence and Security conference. Not only was it my first-time chairing – I knew very little about this field of maths. So here are some of the key lessons I learnt through the experience…
1. There’s only so much preparation you can do as chair.
Knowing what to prepare can really make a difference (especially to your nerves). However, the role of chair also requires you to think on your feet when it comes to knowing what to say to prompt audience discussion. Familiarising yourself with the abstracts of speakers, planning short introductions and having back-up questions prepared can ensure the sessions run as smoothly as possible.
For me, it was the Q&A part of the session I was most apprehensive about. Having the topic so far outside my comfort zone, where do I even start with questions? What if I ask something that is so obvious to everyone else?
Having access to the abstracts beforehand allows you to prepare some emergency questions. Sometimes the abstracts can leave you with no better understanding – so what can you do then? Reach out to other members of the organising committee. Some of these members are sure to have ample experience in this field and are usually more than happy to help! Failing that, you could even ask the speaker themselves what kind of questions they would like to receive (this can be helpful to them if they want to steer the audience discussion in a certain way).
2. Timing is a very important part of the role.
How do you cut someone off professionally if they’re running over their time slot? Remind the speakers of the time limit beforehand and let them know signals you will use to indicate how long they have left. Speakers are often passionate about their research and love to talk about it – this makes it easy to run over time in the Q&A part of the session. To make sure you are sticking to schedule, you can let the audience know to follow up their questions with the speaker in the networking sessions.
3. Get to the conference early.
Check the speakers have everything they need and have no issues sharing presentation slides. This can give them one less thing to worry about!
4. Don’t be afraid to chair differently!
This is the great thing about having a diverse panel of people chairing a session. It brings variety to the conference and can help keep the audience engaged.
One last thing – don’t forget to thank the speakers and the audience for taking their time to attend!
By Holly Jones