Hints for session chairs


Get to your session early. Ensure the room is ready. Check the technology. In a well organized conference, there will be a technician to sort out any problems with computers, projectors, microphones etc. However, not all conferences are well organized, and even at those you may have to know about how to turn down the lights, turn off the air conditioning or similar.

Introduce yourself to the presenters and find out for each of them:

The presenter is not necessarily the first-named author. Find out who they are. Find out how their name is pronounced. If they come from a different country than you, you may have difficulty pronouncing their name. 'Now we have Dr Zizygo.' sounds much more professional than 'Now we have Dr Ziz..., Dr Zygot. Did I get that right?'
Title of the talk
It may have changed.
Agree how you are going to introduce the talk. Giving a detailed biography of the speaker is probably only appropriate if he or she is particularly famous. Otherwise, the speaker's name and the paper title is usually sufficient. Giving their affiliation can be problematic because people often have multiple allegiances.
Audio-visual needs
Check what the speaker is planning to use (overhead projector, 35mm slides, video or whatever). Then check that they have everything ready (slides loaded in carousel - and right way up, video in player and such-like). If a microphone is to be used see the section below - and you should also use one for your introductions. Let the speaker know about the availability of pointers and any other devices. If the speaker is using a computer display, they ought to preview all their screens on the projector; the colours are quite likely to not be the same as the ones on their monitor when they made their slides. This may be their last chance to adjust them to be visible and meaningful and to avoid the embarrassment of talking to the audience about 'the pink line' when the audience can see only blue and purple lines (I have seen it happen).
Time signals
Ensure that the speakers know how much time they have and what signals you will use to warn them of the time running out.

During the talk

Timing is important. If one speaker over-runs someone else suffers. Either another speaker gets less time or the audience get a shorter break after the session. Therefore warn the speakers you will be strict - and be so. Try not to let speakers eat into the question time with their talk; the audience has a right to expect to be allowed to ask its questions.

Think of a question to ask. (See below).

It is usual to applaud at the end of the talk. The audience may not be sure whether to or not, but if you start, they'll soon follow.

Question time

You should take charge of the question time (not the speaker). Select questioners from the audience. Try to ensure that people get a fair chance; do not let one questioner take all the time; attempt to keep things flowing. You may need to intervene if one questioner predominates or if the discussion starts to get at all heated. The usual formula at that point is to suggest the protagonists meet informally after the session.

Try to help the speaker out, so that if he or she appears not to have understood the question, you might try to re-phrase it (assuming you did understand it!)

You should have a question ready so that if there is no response when you ask for questions there will not be a long embarrassing silence. It is likely that your question will then provoke further ones from the audience. If it does not, then give up; you cannot be expected to fill the whole question time!

Normally you will thank the speaker again after the questions and lead some more applause.

Ending the session

If the speakers finish early (perhaps there were not many questions) you might invite the audience to ask further questions of any of the speakers from the session or to make any general points that they have. This is generally a better idea than finishing the session early, because it ensures the participants 'get their money's-worth' and anyway refreshments are unlikely to be available ahead of the scheduled time.

When the session is over, it is usual to thank (and applaud) all the speakers one more time.

Hang around and help clear up. Some of the audience will probably come to talk to the speakers informally and you may help out there too.

Alistair Edwards (email name: alistair, domain: cs.york.ac.uk)
9th April 2001