How to chair a conference

Making sure you get the most from your conference chair

I always try to get out and about in November and this year I am speaking at Association Congress in London on the 17th November and I have two appearances during IBTM World in Barcelona at the end of November. So mission accomplished there!

As I was thinking about the content for my sessions my mind drifted to the role of the Chairman. I was thinking, how much of an impact does the chairman have on an event? And my answer: A LOT.

As an event organiser I know it’s no fun (quite literally) when you have a BAD Chairman. And as an attendee I know that a bad Chairman can turn a good day into a boring one. From a speakers perspective they can really be a drag on your session. However the fault does not always lie at the feet of the Chairman. Often the organiser has turned a potentially good chair into a bad one. And one reason sits behind this; the organiser has never actually explained what they want the chair to do.

So what are we organisers doing wrong?

Too many conference briefs are too logisitcally focussed: “Keep the conference to time”, “Lead the applause after each session”, “Don’t take a call when a speaker is speaking” (one of my conference chairs actually did this!) So, as organisers, we have to get beneath the logistical brief and really help our chairs. Here is an outline of the Chairman’s brief I’ve been using for the last few years.

The ideal chairman’s brief – how to chair a conference

You are a simple chairman only in name. You are the conductor: you are the ring master: if this conference were a car, you would be the engine.

Filling the chairman’s role at one of our conferences is so much more than keeping the day to time. There are few things that make such a positive impact on our event as having a great conference chair. This is your opportunity to shape the learning for a room full of your peers: it’s a big responsibility. So here are a few tips on how to make sure you shine in the best possible light:

Before the event:

  1. Realise how important you are to the day! You are the quarterback. It’s your role to make sure there is energy in the room, that people are relaxed and ready to enjoy the day.
  2. We would like you to speak to every speaker. Simple as that. Give them a call, say hello and ask them what they are covering and why they are covering it. Take the time to make sure there aren’t any obvious overlaps (unless you think those issues need to be reinforced) and that they are covering the important aspects.
  3. We will send you all the slides as they arrive. Look through them and come up with a couple of questions for each speaker.
  4. In the run up to the conference we may ask you to do a bit of promotion for us. We see that as extra profile for you and we hope that you do too.

During the event:

  1. Please get there early and speak to a few delegates. It always very useful to find out from them exactly what they are expecting to get from the day. Bare these in mind when you are quizzing the speakers.
  2. After each session do please lead the applause. Also please sum up each session. It’s likely that each speaker has only two or three important points and we consider it your job just to emphasise those to delegates.
  3. At the end of the morning session and the afternoon session, it’s time for a summary again. But this time, tell the delegates what you’ve taken from the sessions and perhaps even, what you are going do to with this new-found wisdom.
  4. Let’s all be flexible. If there is something that you want to cover, perhaps running over a bit, then do so; just let me know. But remember, cold coffee leads to unhappy delegates!

After the event:

  1. We really like to close the loop with our delegates. We would love you to spend an hour or two and send a note to all of the delegates summarising the day, perhaps adding a link to some content on the web that you think would be useful to them.
  2. And finally, please accept the cheque to cover your time and effort making this such a great day for delegates. We realise how important you are so of course, we are happy to pay.

No matter who your conference chair is you have to give them an idea of how important they are to your day.

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