Tips for Conference Chairs

I have had the great privilege of attending and speaking at hundreds of conferences throughout my career. This year for the first time I have also begun chairing events. If the event is being held in a single room, with no breakout sessions, the role of the conference chair becomes an important one.

These are my suggestions for facilitating a successful single room event:

  • Bring energy and enthusiasm to the stage. Be upbeat. You have one chance to set the tone for the day and get things off to a great start. Engage the audience, use humour, ask the audience questions, get them to raise their hands and create a fun, energetic vibe to the start of proceedings. Make a connection with certain individuals in the audience. Encourage people to meet each other and even provide some 30 second activities to allow this to happen.
  • Make sure you know the correct pronunciation of all the speakers names you will be introducing.
  • Triple check that A/V is sorted ie. slides work, videos play, audio levels are correct, presenter is mic’d up.
  • Introduce the theme of the conference by painting the big picture. Be passionate, provocative and be optimistic. Use stories and current news events. Authentic stories are always a powerful medium for communicating a message.
  • Remember that the conference is not about you – share personal anecdotes where appropriate but don’t talk about your own work. Be curious.
  • Some speakers may have provided lengthy bios. When introducing them, take some creative licence and shorten where necessary.
  • Ensure speakers keep to time. Arrange beforehand how you will let them know that they 5 minutes remaining.
  • Lead audience Q&A if time permits. Always have a question prepared to ask the presenter in case the audience is shy.
  • When facilitating Q&A, remind people to stand, speak their name clearly, and to ask a short and pointed question. Do not accept 5 minute monologues disguised as questions. Trust me, the audience will thank you for this.
  • Sitting down for a whole day can be gruelling. Create opportunities throughout the day for people to stand, meet others and engage in small creative exercises.
  • Encourage positive human collisions at scheduled breaks. Often the best experiences at events come about through networking or meeting people that you haven’t met before.
  • Make yourself available to the audience during breaks to network, discuss and generally just be visible.
  • Closing the event is just important as opening. Create a call to action. Summarise briefly the main themes for the day. Challenge the audience to decide on at least one concrete action that they are going to go back with them into their own contexts and implement straight away.
  • Thank everyone – conference organisers, speakers, the audience, any sponsors.