How to chair a scientific conference session (and not look like a fool!)

Chairing a conference session at a scientific conference can be a daunting task, especially if it’s your first time! As we are approaching the 8th EUSPR Conference and Members’ Meeting, taking place in Vienna, Austria from 20th to 22nd September 2017, we thought it might be useful to highlight seven “top tips” for chairing scientific sessions based on our own experiences.

1. Come prepared

This is an obvious one, but what exactly should you prepare for your role as chair? At least a day in advance, familiarise yourself with the names and abstracts of the people speaking at your session (see the draft conference programme). A few things to consider:

  • Make sure you know how to introduce each speaker. If you need to formally introduce the speakers with a short biography, make sure you received the relevant information or do your own research. You can also ask speakers to introduce themselves. However, this is not always necessary (especially if time is limited). For parallel sessions at the EUSPR conference, it is sufficient to state the speaker’s name and institution and introduce the talk as noted below. Also, try saying the speaker’s names out loud in the comfort of your home or hotel room – are you sure how to pronounce them?
  • Make sure you know how to introduce each presentation. Read each abstract and prepare a sentence in your head paraphrasing the content of the presentation. If you don’t fully understand it, pick out what seem to be the most important terms or concepts to mention those in your introduction. Giving this kind of introduction is more engaging that simply reading out the title of the presentation.
  • Think about what the talks in your session have in common. For example, do they address a similar theme from different perspectives? If so, you can try and highlight this during the introductions, too (e.g. “and now our second speaker will also explore topic X but from perspective Y“) – this helps to guide the audience through the session. However, if there is no obvious connection, you can just say that “we have a great variety of talks ahead of us” and mention one or two of the topics.

In addition, it is useful to have a structure for the session in mind. Usually, there will be four parts:

  • firstly, an opening segment where you welcome the audience and speakers, introduce yourself and the topic of the session and make any formal announcements;
  • secondly, the individual talks whereby you briefly introduce each speaker/talk and hand over to the speaker;
  • thirdly, you invite audience questions, either after each talk or collectively after all talks (this can be agreed with the speakers prior to the session start); and
  • finally, a closing segment where you may make some closing remarks and thank the speakers and the audience for attending (you can use a closing phrase such “how about a round of applause for our speakers”).

2. Manage the time well

Perhaps the most important tasks of the chair are to finish the session on time (from the audience’s perspective) and to ensure that each speaker has an equal amount of time available (from the speakers’ perspective). And you need to do it in a way that doesn’t make the audience or speakers feel stressed. How to achieve this? Be subtle and make sure that everybody understands the structure for the session.

  • Bring a clock and remember to note when each talk starts so that you know when it should finish.
  • Bring a sign. On an A4 sheet, write (or print) “5 min” (on one side) and “1 min” (on the other side) in big letters. This will come in handy when you need to inform speakers how much time is left, as you can simply show them the sign instead of having to wave your hand or otherwise struggle to get their attention.
  • Inform the speakers and the audience. Before the session starts, inform each speaker how much time they will have for their talk and that you will use a sign to signal when there are 5 minutes and 1 minute left. At the beginning of the session, inform the audience about the format in terms of timing and when questions will be taken.
  • Be strict with the speaker. If a speaker does not end on time, don’t wait politely until they have finished. If they are ignoring or not seeing your “5 min/1 min” sign (see above), it is acceptable for you to interrupt and remind them of the time remaining. Consider also how far the presentation has progressed: If time is running out and the presenter is still describing their methods, you will want to warn them earlier about the time than if they are already talking about their conclusions. If the time is already up, ask them to wrap up their talk in one sentence and apologise by saying that “we need to move on to allow time for questions and the other speakers”. If they still don’t stop after a few more minutes, you can cut them off by saying something like “I’m really sorry but unfortunately we must end this talk here, thank you very much” and start clapping. This may seem rude but remember that it is equally rude to use up the time reserved for the other speakers.
  • Be strict with the audience. If the audience has a lot of questions, or one audience member engages the speaker in a heated debate, it is fine (and may even be necessary!) to not take all questions or to even stop an ongoing discussion. Politely but assertively ask the audience to continue the conversation during the coffee break. If the speaker ran over time, you should still allow one question, but probably not more (unless the first one was answered very quickly).
  • Be strict with yourself. Don’t be tempted to let a speaker talk longer or to ask them many questions yourself, just because you are personally interested in this speaker and their research. The same applies if you have been allocated to chair a session where you are also a speaker: don’t give preferential treatment to your own talk.
  • Stay flexible. For example, if the session started late, quickly reconsider the timings and inform the speaker and the audience of the adapted timings. If a speaker failed to show up, allow more time for the remaining speakers (splitting it up equally). It’s also useful to know what follows after your session. If the following slot is a half hour coffee break or a long lunch, you may be able to go overtime a few minutes. But if the next slot is only a 10 minute break, be sure to finish exactly on time.

3. Make the speakers feel at ease

The speakers are probably nervous about their upcoming talk. Try to create a calm environment for them, as this will increase the quality of the session.

  • If possible, try to be in the room ten minutes earlier. Check if the speakers are there already, introduce yourself, give them warm smiles, fill their glasses with water, check that their slides and the equipment are working (e.g., computer, microphones or pointers), etc. If there are any problems, see if there is a technician on site or ask one of the conference organisers for help. At this point, you can also ask the speakers how to pronounce their names correctly (usually people with difficult-to-pronounce names will be grateful that you are asking). Confirm what is their role and institutional affiliation if you would like to mention this in your introduction (as they may have changed jobs since submitting the abstract).
  • Agree on a format for the session. Besides talking through the timings, you can also ask if the speakers would prefer questions after each talk or a round of questions after all talks? The latter may be appropriate, for example, if the talks address very similar issues.
  • Prepare emergency questions. If there are no questions from the audience, most speakers will appreciate if the chair asks a question. Based on the abstracts, you may be able to prepare 1-2 emergency questions in advance (or you can write down questions whilst listening to the talk). If you can’t think of anything, ask a general question1. Before the session starts, you can also ask the speakers directly if there are any questions that they would like to receive after their talk.
  • Remember to thank the speakers – before the session, during the session (after each talk and again after all talks), and after the session.

4. Put yourself into the shoes of the audience

It’s easy to forget about the audience, given that most of them are just sitting there quietly. But a confused, bored or distracted audience will increase your stress levels. So consider the following:

  • Formally welcome the audience. Rather than simply starting by saying “this is a session about topic X”, make sure to engage the audience directly by making eye contact and welcoming them to the session. At the end, thank them for coming, again making eye contact.
  • Introduce yourself. It’s amazing how often people forget to do this. Most people in the audience won’t know who you are. You don’t need to recite your CV but at least state your name and institution.
  • Don’t let the audience drift away. Take a moment now and then to assess the situation from the audience’s point of view. For example, to reduce noise levels, close the door at the beginning of the session and close the windows if it is noisy outside. If somebody is talking loudly outside, go outside and ask them to lower their voice. If it is too dark or bright in the room, adjust the lighting. See below for more on distractions.

5. Expect the unexpected

You can be almost certain that something unexpected will happen during the session. Some common problems and other odd things that we have witnessed:

  • Speaker doesn’t show up
  • Speaker called to say she will be late because her wallet has been stolen and she is still at the police station
  • Speaker won’t stop talking
  • The session is supposed to start but there are only four people in the audience
  • The audience can’t think of any questions to ask the speaker
  • People in the audience just start shouting out questions
  • A heated debate between the speaker and a member of the audience takes over the session
  • One presentation was about an accident victim; the victim and his family were all in the audience, and the presentation was so emotional that the audience almost started crying
  • The first speaker started the session herself because she didn’t realise there was a chair
  • Two teenagers were passionately kissing and hugging each other outside the building and their shadows fell onto the projector screen (!)
  • Projector turns itself off, the operating system decides to run an update, and many other technical problems …

What to do in such situations? Simply knowing that it can happen might already help you to stay calm. Also, by following our tips you can avoid some of these unpleasant situations. Some additional ideas:

  • Take control. Sometimes it can feel like the speakers or the audience are in charge of the session. Take back control by using phrases such as “I can see there any many questions about this topic”, “please continue this conversation in the coffee break” or “let’s give all speakers a fair chance to present their work”. If at the start of the session there is not yet much audience in the room, wait up to 5 minutes but then start (more people may join later).
  • Decide whether it’s better to ignore or to acknowledge distractions. If there is something that is clearly distracting but you can’t do anything about, it can be a good idea to acknowledge it (e.g., “I know you hear that strange noise too, it’s really distracting, isn’t it, I’m sorry but there’s nothing we can do about it right now, so let’s try and focus on the speakers regardless”). This can help the audience to direct their attention back to the talks. However, in some cases, it may be better to ignore and not mention it, if you fear that doing otherwise would risk “losing” the audience even more. Make that decision depending on how much it seems to distract the audience.

6. Remember that everyone is just human

Finally, remember that you, the speakers and the audience are all just human!

  • Know yourself and only do what you are comfortable with. For example, some chairs love to comment on the talks themselves, or to summarise the session at the end. This is a great skill to have, so if you feel comfortable doing so, you can comment on what you found really interesting, what you learnt at this session, etc. But if you feel insecure about this, don’t force it.
  • It’s OK to have and express emotions. For example, if a talk is clearly touching or unsettling, you can comment on that aspect. It’s also okay to admit it if you are overwhelmed and lost for words. Don’t feel you have to act like a robot in order to appear “professional”.
  • If strange things happen that are outside of your control, remember that the speaker and the audience are probably more understanding and forgiving than you realise. Don’t fear that they would blame you, and don’t blame yourself.

7.   Learn from your experience

Wow, you just completed your first session as a chair and are still buzzing from all the excitement! What to do now?

  • Feel proud of your performance 🙂
  • Request feedback from colleagues sitting in the audience – if you didn’t know anyone in the audience, you could also ask informally for feedback from the speakers or audience members during a coffee break.
  • Make a few notes for yourself on what went well and what didn’t go so well.
  • Try to improve on your weaker points for next time by sharing and discussing your experience with other researchers. Early-career as well as more advanced colleagues will have interesting insight to offer.

We hope that these tips will help you enjoy your chairing experience. If you have any other tips or examples of strange things that have happened at conference sessions, please feel free to post them as a comment below!

About the authors:

Angelina Brotherhood is a doctoral student at the Institute of Sociology, University of Vienna, Austria, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University, UK. Her thesis is a mixed-methods study on how perceived characteristics of everyday spaces relate to substance use. She has worked on various policy- and practice-related activities, including evidence reviews and quality standards in drug prevention. From 2014 to 2017, she served on the EUSPR Board and led the Early Careers Forum. You can find her on Twitter as @pbm_AB.

Alexandra Morales is a postdoctoral researcher on sexual health promotion in the Aitana Research Group at the Miguel Hernández University (Spain) and the University of California, San Francisco (United States). Alexandra completed her doctorate in Health Psychology at Miguel Hernández University, focusing on sexual risk factors and the evaluation of efficacy of HIV and STI prevention interventions for adolescents. She has worked on the development, cultural adaptation, implementation, and evaluation of school-based prevention interventions. Some of her main interests include sexual risk factors, cultural adaptation of prevention interventions, and methodology in prevention research. You can read more about her work by following her on ResearchGate.

Aniek van Herwaarden is a researcher in Developmental Psychology and Pedagogics from The Netherlands. She is involved in research projects which address intervening in behavioral problems of youth and providing culturally sensitive healthcare for people with intellectual disabilities. She is affiliated with Radboud University Nijmegen, Utrecht University, as well as the department of Research and Development of Driestroom, a healthcare service for people with intellectual disabilities. You can find more about her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Notes

  1. Some general questions that work in most situations are: “Have you got any specific question or problem where you would like to have feedback from the audience?”, “Could you explain a bit more about why you used method XXX and not another approach?”, “You mentioned concept/theory XXX – please could you tell us more about it?”, “What do you see as the next steps for this project?”, “How did study participants react to your methodology/topic/…?”, “Based on your experience of working on this project, what advice would you give to someone contemplating a similar project?”, etc. []

2 thoughts on “How to chair a scientific conference session (and not look like a fool!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *