A Quick Guide For First Time Conference Chairs

Around this time last year I was tasked to organise the Post-Graduate Research Day of the University of Sheffield Department of Physics and Astronomy. It is a yearly event where 3rd year PhD students have the opportunity to present their work to each other. One of my jobs was to find students to chair each session, and I also wrote up some guidelines as to what the role entails, since for most it was a first time experience.

As it turns out, what I cooked up must not have been too shabby, given that I was asked to dug them up for my department this year and they will be using them again. I thought this might be useful to others, so here goes:

Introduce the session and the speakers

The first job would be to start by telling people what session you'll be chairing, what time it finishes and whether there is a break at some point. Then swiftly introduce the first speaker's name and presentation title. You should introduce each new speaker and their presentations; it helps if you read their name and presentation title in your head before doing it out loud in front of everyone.

This is easy peasy, it's a matter of seconds and I'm sure you all knew that already.

Keep people to time

This may go without saying but, seriouslyBeing a time-keeping tyrant is your main job.  Most conferences have a very tight schedule and a lot of talks.

Make sure you have a good idea of the timing you want to stick to: e.g X minutes per presentation + Y for questions. The organisers of the event should have told you; if not, ask them.
Using the stop watch on your phone rather than the hands of a clock ensures that you keep everybody to the same standard exactly. Plus or minus a minute may not sound like much, but it can make the difference between a rushed conclusion slide and a smooth finish.

Give people a “You’ve got Z minutes left“ warning. You can do that with your hands or with a sign. The number of minutes depends on the length of the talk and you can adapt it as you wish. Personally I would do the following:

  • 12 minute talk: 2 minutes warning

  • 15 or 20 minute talk: 3 minute warning + 1 minute warning

  • 45 minute seminars: 5 minute warning + 1 minute warning

Don't hesitate to grab their attention, raise your hand, wave it. If it takes too long for them to see your warning tell them it's a one minute warning (show 1 finger instead of 2 for example). 
When their time is over stand up next to themMake it painfully obvious their time is over — progressively invade their personal space as time passes. If they're pushing it and continuing nonetheless, ask them to go to the conclusion slide and finish promptly. My philosophy is “if people don’t finish on time, they don’t finish at all”.

Inclusivity Note

Before enforcing this like your life depends on it, it maybe a good idea to check whether one of your speakers has special circumstances, such as a form of neuro-divergence.

Do not sacrifice inclusivity for timing.

Q & A session

Ideally you want to make sure the Q&A session fits within the time allocated. If people are rambling don't hesitate the tell them we are "mindful of the clock" or whatever euphemism you think is appropriate. You should have an active role in mediating the discussion. Similarly if someone is making inappropriate comments, it is your role to put a stop to it.

If no one asks a question, you should try to ask one
. People should know to write their talk to an appropriate level for their audience so hopefully it won't be too hard, but there are always a few pitching their talks at too high a level. Don't panic. If you can tell from the intro that the talk is too high level for the audience and for you, you won't be the only one thinking that in the group. Pick a concept they didn't explain well at the beginning and ask them to re-explain that in more general terms "for the non-experts in the audience".

Thanks for reading!

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