7 tips to being a great conference chair

Posted on: December 21, 2012

Agreeing to be the chair of a conference or seminar might be good for raising your profile (and that of your firm) and positioning you as an expert, but it can also be a bit of an own goal if you don’t get it right. There’s so much more to chairing than housekeeping, timekeeping and introducing the speakers.

You need to prepare almost as hard to be a good chair as you do to make an impact as a speaker. So here’s my round up of top tips – 7 tips to being a great conference chair – and I’d be interested to hear your views.

1.       Have presence and personality

The chair needs to have gravitas and be recognised (and accepted) as a leader by the audience. This means that he or she should be experienced in the breadth of topic being discussed. The minute that he or she starts to speak, they should have everyone’s attention. It helps too if they can generate a smile or two both at the start of the event to put people at ease and as the day progresses.

2.       Make connections

The chair needs to connect with the audience.  They can either do this by having come from a similar background or by doing lots of research to ensure that the language they use and the topics that they discuss resonate. They also need to connect to the speakers – but not in a way that alienates the audience.

3.       Picks up on key themes and issues

He or she also needs to see the connections between the topics discussed by the speakers. By paying careful attention to everything that is said by both the speakers and the audience, the chair will pick up on underlying themes and issues and “join the dots”. This is a way to support the audience and ensure that the event is more than the sum of its parts. A brilliant chair will help identify new themes and issues that were not apparent at the outset.

4.       Ask the question(s) that everyone is thinking

Sometimes, there is a question that everyone wants to ask – but may be reluctant to do so. A great chair will be so in tune with the audience that he or she will ask that insightful question to get the speaker to open up and encourage the audience to interact.

5.       Deal with difficulties

There are all sorts of things that can go wrong. A member of the audience who dominates discussions, a speaker that is seriously over-running, a technical hitch that halts proceedings, a no-show presenter, missing materials in the delegate packs – the list is long. A good chair will take control and provide a constructive route forward.

6.       Add some “je ne sais quoi”

There’s more to effective chairing than ensuring things adhere to the schedule, that the audience gets a chance to pose questions and have their say. A great chair will add a little something extra to make the event memorable.

7.       Finish on a high

Too many events peter out towards the end, and the event fades away rather than finishes on a high. The chair’s job – as well as thanking the speakers and the contribution from the audience – is to ensure that the day’s business – both that which was planned and the emergent themes – are summarised in a constructive and positive way.

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