How to chair a paper or a conference panel

In the academic world, at some point you’ll be asked to be the chair for a paper or a conference panel. You’ll need to introduce the speaker or speakers; keep time; and run the question session at the end. Having had some ‘interesting’ experiences recently, and indeed over my career, I decided I should be putting some simple tips out there!

Introductions? This really needs to be clarified with the organiser of the event. If the speaker has, say, 30 mins for her paper, and you spend 5 mins introducing her, you’re cutting into her time. That’s not on. At the very earliest stage, find out whether that 30 mins on the programme means 30 mins of her, or 25 mins of her and 5 of you. Ask. And double-check.

What to say? I’ve heard everything from a potted CV (honestly, no need for that – anyone wondering about the speaker’s credentials can just look this up online) to ‘And now our next speaker, Dr X’. If your organiser is expecting something in between these two extremes, it’s good practice to contact the speaker in advance, introduce yourself and ask if there’s anything in particular they’d like you to mention – for example, a forthcoming publication.

If you’re introducing someone who is giving a Big Lecture – a named annual lecture or something like that – then you will need to do a longer introduction making it clear why they were chosen for this honour. It’s good practice to warn the lecturer that you’ll be doing this.

I once spoke to a local Anglo-Hellenic group, where there was a period of 10-15 minutes of ‘news from Greece’ in between the intro and my lecture; the organiser warned me, but it felt quite odd being psyched up ready to speak and having to sit there listening to this. Still, local customs and all that…

Keeping time. You should know from your organiser how long everything can take. Check that the speaker has paid attention to the ground rules. This can be a simple ‘So, we’ve got 40 minutes for your paper, and then we are aiming at around 30 minutes of discussion’ (check if they look surprised by any of this!). Where the organiser has told you the paper should be, say, 40-50 minutes, ask the speaker just how long their paper takes. If (as has happened to me) they reply ‘I don’t know!’, be on your guard and issue more warnings to them.

Warnings: you can sometimes see from the pile of pages yet to be used that the speaker is not going to keep to the time limit. What should you do? You can try sitting in the front of the audience and holding up bits of paper saying ’10 minutes more’, ‘5 minutes more’, ‘1 minute more’, so that only the speaker can see them. This may, however, freak out your speaker, causing them to lose their place or their thread, so it’s best to warn them that you will be doing this. The very nervous speaker may not notice your pieces of paper; I’ve seen that happen. If you’re sitting at the front with them you can pass them these bits of paper instead, or try whispering at them.

It doesn’t always work.

A more scary approach is to say out loud ‘Excuse me, you have 5 minutes left’ or ‘Can I ask you to wind up now? We’re out of time’. This strategy feels very rude but may be the only solution; it also lets the audience know that you’re on the case, and I suspect most of them will be relieved. Your hope is that the speaker will say ‘Oh dear… let me just move to the conclusion…’ If the speaker doesn’t respond, getting up and moving to stand right next to her has been known to work. If there’s a sound system, you could pull the plug out. If they just won’t stop speaking, the nightmare scenario is when you have to speak over them and say ‘Well I’m sorry but we have to stop there and you can always continue talking about this in the bar’. If there’s a space for questions, never, ever extend the Garrulous Speaker’s question time – if their over-long paper has cut into that time, they just get fewer questions. You must keep to the rest of the programme or it’s not fair to everyone else. It’s particularly infuriating if the Big Name feels they are so important that they cut into the time of junior people. Don’t let them do this!

Questions. Traditionally the chair asks the first question while the audience members think about theirs, so make sure you have a couple of possibilities up your sleeve. Keep them simple and preferably general; this isn’t the time for the very detailed textual question. Then you turn to the audience for theirs (keeping your second question ready in case it’s needed). Maintain eye contact with the audience and acknowledge with a nod that you’ve seen any hand go up during the question time. Keep a list of who wants to ask a question, and invite them in the order in which you spotted their hand. If someone tries to jump in without first having caught your eye, you may need to let them do so if it is a follow-up to the previous question, but I’d say showing your displeasure is fine – you want a balanced question time with a mix of people joining in, not a free-for-all or a dialogue between the speaker and one audience member.

I’ve been at several institutions where there’s a custom that students ask questions before the staff are allowed to do so – this works very well, and if it’s local practice then you need to say so before the question time begins.

One thing worth watching for is the way in which you call on questioners. You may know some of them but not others. If you do the ‘Dr X?’ ‘Mandy?’ ‘Woman at the back in the red jacket’ then you are automatically creating an in-crowd and outsiders. Consistency is better, even if it means avoiding using any names. Your role is not to show how many people in the room you know!

Good luck, and do add any comments on your experiences!



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