Saturday 10 May 2014

Top tips for chairing great conferences – 20 golden rules

I’m still buzzing from a recent data protection conference I was recently associated with. It was held in Central London and involved over 200 delegates and a decent crop of speakers, some with global reputations as privacy gurus.

However, I was faced with a bit of a problem.

The chairman for the first half was responsible for introducing just three speakers and for holding two Q&A sessions.  Under his chairmanship (and despite a couple of good speakers), the session overran by 20 minutes, the mid-morning coffee break was severely delayed and the audience was wilting.  

It was my job, as the incoming chairman for the final part of the event, to introduce no less than 10 speakers and run 2 Q&A sessions. And, crucially, to finish on time. By lunch time.

How did I get on?

These are some of the very kind messages that were sent to me after the event:

“Just had to thank you for not only rescuing a moribund conference, but turning it round and making that second half into one of the best sessions I’ve been to in a long time (including my own conference sessions). Sorry I had to leave before the end of the Q&A.”

“What a barnstorming performance! Your enthusiasm and energetic timekeeping lifted the second half, whilst also demonstrating a  keen understanding of the issues.”

“You were the best moderator ever today!! It was great seeing you. Hope to see you soon!

“I just wanted to thank you for coordinating the conference this morning, it was not only interesting but also very lively (and on time!). And I can say that, yes, this time I did learn some things as opposed to other conferences, so thanks for your input on that. 

“I was at the conference today and very much enjoyed your rather different approach to chairing.” 

And, perhaps most kindly, the professional conference organiser praised me: “Martin, you come from the more militant wing of the Fierce Chair Party and it was very, very much appreciated”.

So, what do you need to do to get it right?

Follow these golden rules, and you won’t go far wrong:

  1. Start the session confidently, setting the tone for the day. Briefly refer to a couple of the themes that will emerge. The audience and the speakers want to be assured that they are in capable hands, and that you know what you are doing. So make a point of standing up for this part of the show.
  2. If you’re sufficiently confident to make an opening joke, make sure it’s funny and not derogatory.
  3. To inject the right note of respect into the proceedings, introduce each speaker by their surname.
  4. Avoid making a fool of yourself by making sure you can pronounce the speaker’s names.
  5. Agree in advance with each speaker just what is expected of them, including whether they will use slides, a prepared text, a lectern and how long they may speak for.
  6. Briefly introduce each speaker (without repeating the biographical information that has already been sent to delegates) and explain to the audience how long each contribution will last. This sets expectations about how long they will need to concentrate for.
  7. Make the speaker introductions from a personal perspective, briefly explaining why you admire them for whatever it is that they do / did. But make it short. The audience has paid to hear them, not you.
  8. Explain to delegates when they should applaud, ie after the speaker has concluded their remarks, or after the Q&A session.
  9. When the speaker has overrun their allotted time, announce to the audience they have one more minute.
  10. When the speaker overruns that minute, announce they have 30 seconds.
  11. Only ignore steps 9 & 10 if the speaker is saying something really interesting that spellbinds absolutely everyone.
  12. Briefly thank each speaker, perhaps referring to just one point they made, before introducing the next speaker. Respect each speaker’s contribution, without criticising it (unless the urge is strong and you are confident that the audience will appreciate your intervention).
  13. Speakers ought to have informed, educated and entertained the audience. If they did not, use this occasion to reenergise the audience. You should only “show off” if the speaker has failed to deliver. But you do have an obligation to the next speaker to ensure that the delegates are as fresh and as receptive as possible to the next presentation.  
  14. Before the Q&A session, announce to the delegates how the questions will be taken. For larger events, I usually explain that the questions will be grouped in 3s and that delegates should direct short questions to a particular speaker. Invite each delegate to identify themselves, even if (they think that) they are well known. Cut them off, mid flow, if appropriate, if the question drifts or gets boring.
  15. Take a note of each question, and after the final question in a group of questions has been asked, announce to the audience which speaker will be selected to respond to what (part of a) question. As Chairman, you have the discretion to ignore particularly detailed queries, and to rephrase questions. Make sure every speaker has an opportunity to comment about something, and, make sure that every speaker's contribution is  short. Cut them off, mid flow, if appropriate.
  16. Use the period provisionally allocated for the Q&A session to get right back on time.
  17. Wrap up the session you are chairing by rephrasing some of the key themes and refering to one or two quotes uttered by contributors. You are there to tell a story, and to assure delegates that what was promised has been delivered. Thank again the speakers – and thank especially the audience for their rapt attention. Remind everyone what a great event it’s been. Again, make a point of standing up for this part of the show.
  18. If you’re sufficiently confident to close the event with a joke, make sure it’s funny (and still not derogatory).
  19. Thank the event organisers but avoid referring to the hard work, effort and concentration you have personally expended to ensure the success of the event. If you’ve been any good, someone will let you know.
  20. Finish on time. Delegates have paid to attend a timed event. They should not feel that they are being held against their will, and they'll be happy to attend another event you will be asked to chair.