Chairing Conference Panels

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One of the first tasks of a new scholar is to get used to delivering their research through academic conference papers. After that, once a speaker becomes better known, he or she might be asked to chair a panel at a conference. Here are some tips for becoming a successful chair.


Encourage speakers to keep strictly to time

Conferences are often scheduled very tightly with little leeway given for overrunning sessions. Most scholars are very professional and if given a 20 minute slot will speak for 20 minutes and no more. However, there are a few who will exceed their limit if allowed to do so, especially in the presence of an inexperienced chair. Do not feel intimidated, even by an eminent professor! Most chairs will either pass the speaker a piece of paper with ‘one minute left’ written on it, or gently interrupt the speaker verbally and ask them to wrap up their talk.

Think of questions to ask in case the audience is unforthcoming

Part of the chair’s job is to take questions from the floor after the papers have been presented. Often choosing between the many audience members wanting to speak is challenging, but sometimes no one volunteers a question. It is then the chair’s responsibility to ask a question. I would recommend formulating a question for every speaker on the panel so that in the case when one speaker has received no questions, the chair is able to step in and redress the balance.

Sound sincere!

Another part of your job is to close the session by praising each of the speakers and thanking them for their contributions. This is an important formality that must be observed, even if you spent the session feeling bored or annoyed, or were struggling to stay awake.


Discriminate between speakers or audience members

In this context do not treat senior or very eminent scholars differently from PhD students. The conference organisers will have allowed each speaker a particular slot, and it’s your job as chair to ensure that the schedule is adhered to, so do not allow professors extra time because of their seniority unless it is allocated on the programme. Equally with audience members’ contributions, do not give priority to senior scholars, but rather ensure that everyone has an equal chance to speak.

Tolerate bullying

Occasionally, debate can get rather heated at academic conferences. Usually audience or panel members will step in to offer a balanced view in order to prevent one academic from unfairly criticising and attacking another, but it is also your job as chair to ensure that debate remains civilised. If you feel that things are getting out of control, you are within your rights to interrupt and ask for another question or even to bring an end to the session altogether.

Try to take over

Novice chairs are unlikely to do try to dominate proceedings, but sometimes nerves can cause a chair to become too talkative.  If you have something interesting to contribute such as a brief question, a point that links a number of papers or an observation derived from your own work, then of course that will be welcome. However, no one wants to hear about your work or ideas in detail! If you have an extended comment to make, approach the speaker afterwards rather than airing your thoughts in public. Of course if you have been hired as a ‘commentator’ then your opinions on the papers will be solicited. But as a chair, try to refrain from hogging the floor.

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