10 tips for chairs of seminar/conference papers

A chair tip

A chair tip

1. Don’t read out the speaker’s past history from a printout of their webpage: look as if you know something about them. And for multi-paper panels, all you may need is ‘next up is Jo Public from Edinburgh’.

2. Don’t read out the speaker’s original title, which may have changed since submission. Check the title in advance, or just introduce the speaker not the title. You may also want to check how to pronounce the speaker’s name/university.

3. If possible, tell speakers well in advance how long they have. The organiser may already have done this, of course.

4. If possible, warn speakers well in advance that you will be controlling time carefully. Graduate students and junior faculty may worry about saying this to senior faculty; but if a speaker overruns in a multi-paper panel, it’s discourteous and unfair to other speakers, and if a speaker overruns when she is the only speaker, it’s discourteous and unfair to the audience.

5. Keep speakers to time. Don’t congratulate them on the timing: it’s their job to finish on time, not something which merits praise. If you comment on the timing of the papers, it makes the session about you not them.

6. Before the session starts, tell speakers at what times you will warn them at (e.g. 5 minutes, 2 minutes, time up). Think too about how to warn speakers about timing; it’s not always physically easy (e.g. when someone uses a lectern). A hastily scribbled piece of paper can be hard for speakers to see: if you can, pre-print sheets or use a board-marker pen.

7. Keep questions and answers short, especially when several questions remain near the end of a session. Be firm, be fair. If you’ve asked for short questions and someone starts a four-parter, it’s your job to politely interrupt them. Don’t feel embarrassed: it is they who are being insensitive, not you.  

8. Try not to ask your own questions unless needs be. (Needs sometimes be.)

9. Never collate questions: it’s spectacularly pointless. [UPDATE: I no longer agree with this. Collating questions can save time at the end. E.g. if you have five minutes left and three questions, there’s something to be said for giving each questioner 30 seconds, then letting panellists pick and choose what they respond to.] Be flexible about question order: if someone has already asked a question, she’s less important than someone who hasn’t.

10. Don’t overrun. Don’t overrun. Don’t overrun. Not everyone will want the session to keep going: some people will be bored, others will want a pee, a cigarette or some coffee. When time is up, time is up. In exceptional circumstances, break briefly to let some people escape before you continue.

 

The underlying principles are as follows:

(a) Speakers are more important than the chair.

(b) The audience is more important than the speakers.

(c) Timing matters.

(d) Think ahead.

(e) Be firm.

(f) Be fair.

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