5 Rules for How to Chair a Conference or Webinar

ConferenceOK, to some extent I am going to stick my neck out here, and I would love to hear alternative opinions. I am lucky in that I have chaired hundreds of sessions at conferences, webinars and workshops, with audiences ranging in size from over one thousand through to just two.

Note, I am not going to cover, in this post, how to help create and curate an event – the focus of this post is entirely about the event on the day. Let’s assume that somebody else has selected the speakers, the topics and checked the presentations.

Rule 1 – It’s not about you
You should be honoured that you have been selected to chair the event, and it is probably going to be good for your profile, but it is not about you. Your role is to make sure that the objectives of the organisers, the presenters, and the attendees are met.

What does this mean? It means no long introductions for the session, you, the speaker or anything. No stories about you (e.g. ‘This reminds me of the time I first saw Hans Rosling present …’). You only ask questions if the audience doesn’t come forward with a question. You don’t summarize at then end of each presentation or session.

Rule 2 – Create a narrative flow
Look at the presentations that are going to be presented, look at the synopses, and check out the speakers. Build a picture in your mind of what the content is going to be a try to find connections that will improve the flow of the session.

For example, if you have a presentation in the afternoon that is looking at gamification and one in the morning that talks about survey engagement, then during the morning session, perhaps straight after the engagement presentation, flag up ‘and this afternoon we will hear about a specific form of engagement, namely X talking about gamification.’

If two presenters in a session are talking about related topics (for example one on Automation and one on AI), then when introducing that session or the first of the speakers make it clear we are going to see two presentations about a related topic.

Rule 3 – Don’t bore the audience
We have already mentioned not doing lengthy introductions or summaries and not insisting on asking your favourite questions, but there are plenty of other ways to bore the audience, so let’s try to avoid:

  • Reading the bios, this tends to be boring, eats into the session time, and is especially unnecessary if the bios are the programme.
  • Stock phrases, please avoid ‘needs no introduction’ (some people in the room won’t know the speaker and you alienate them further when you say ‘needs no introduction’) and ‘without further ado’.
  • Irrelevant extracurricular material, for example don’t get the speakers to give you an interesting fact about themselves, most of these are not interesting to the audience – and it eats into session time.

But, you may be expected to perform specific duties, such as thanking the sponsors or ensuring speakers do not overly refer to their companies. Check in advance what is expected and try to do these duties in ways that minimise the boredom factor.

Rule 4 – Help the audience
Tell the audience the rules of the session or day. What devices should they turn off, how and when do they ask questions, are the slides and/or recordings going to be available.

If you are having a Q&A at the end of each presentation or the session (not all conferences do these days), ask people to put their hand up, and before they ask a question tell them to say their name and where they are from (let them decide if they are from Coca-Cola, Atlanta, or USA). Unless you have lots of Q&A time, politely interrupt questioners if they are going on too long.

If there are several hands raised for questions, try to pick people who have not asked a question earlier.

If the audience is surprisingly small, e.g. two people, then proceed with the session, respect the people who have turned up, not the ones who have not. However, you might want to make the session more interactive, for example at the Q&A asking each attendee to express an opinion, and letting a more general conversation happen.

Rule 5 – Help the speakers
Tell speakers before the session how strict you are going to be with time. Tell them how you will deal with overrunning. This will depend a bit on the tech that is being used – if the speaker can see a clock counting down, I interject when time is up with ‘I am sorry, but you are out time, could you sum up in about 30 seconds so we can move to Questions’ – or ‘to the next speaker’. If there is not a time counter, I ask whether the speaker wants a 5 and 1 minute warning.

Ask the speaker how they would like to be introduced, in terms of name, company and job title. This is particularly important when working across cultures as people have a preference for first name, or last name, or full name. Try to pronounce their name properly – ask them to say it to you and then jot it down phonetically.

Ask the speaker if there is a question they would like to be asked – but also warn them that this will only be asked if insufficient questions come from the floor.

If a speaker is not confident or not performing well you might want to make the Q&A a bit shorter, and perhaps this is a case where the chair asks a friendly question, rather than leaving it to the floor.

If a question is not clear, try to get the questioner to clarify or simplify it. If the speaker looks puzzled either a) simplify it yourself or b) suggest the speaker and the questioner take this one offline and chat later.

Ten final tips
Here is my personal preference for how to run things:

  1. The intro by the chair is purely functional, e.g. thank you for attending, here are the rules, here is the plan, here we go.
  2. Everything to start and finish on time.
  3. The speaker cannot use the Q&A time for their presentation, that belongs to the audience.
  4. Speakers will always receive at least one question, so ask one if nobody else does – so either ask for one in advance or create one while listening to the presentation.
  5. If the audience has questions, don’t ask any questions (even if you really want to know something).
  6. Keep the introductions very short, e.g. ‘E.g. here is Jane Smith who will present on neuroscience’ – don’t read out the title or the bio.
  7. Have a slide sorter view of the presentations, e.g. 9 slides per page, so you know how far through speakers are, and where they are heading.
  8. Try to point out where a presentation fits in the bigger scheme, for example in connection with later presentations.
  9. At the end of the day, thank everybody including: the speakers, the organisers, the AV team, catering, and, of course, the attendees themselves – wish them a safe journey home.
  10. Use politically correct language, which is part of the session not being about you. Refer to the chair (not chairman, chairwomen etc), do not describe speakers as attractive or veteran, do not use overly casual or coarse language (remember, it is not about you).

Your perfect chair?
Well you have done me the privilege of reading my thoughts, now I would appreciate hearing your views.

  1. What do you think the key things a conference or session chair should focus on?
  2. What are your pet hates in terms of the way sessions are sometimes chaired?
  3. Which chairs would you shout out as examples of people who do a good job?

2 thoughts on “5 Rules for How to Chair a Conference or Webinar

  1. Very thorough – not sure there is much to add. I would say that I always appreciate the MC allowing some of their own humor and personality to come through and NOT just to read from a script. Allow it to flow naturally (because they are so well prepared, it can.)
    If there is to be a Q&A at the end, definitely remind attendees of this before the talk so that they can identify potential probes/questions they might want to ask in the Q&A session rather than spring it on attendees at the end of the talk when they can’t think of a darn thing to ask! Great article – thanks for being thought provoking.

  2. Some great points here. Totally agree. Particularly with “it’s not about you.” The objective of the conference is to inform the audience, not make it a sales pitch for the presenting company. Secondly, I always feel the best conferences are the ones who offer practical tips. Take X, Y, and Z back to the office and improve your processes tomorrow.

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