Notes to Self: How to Moderate a Session at a Conference

I've been going to lots of conferences recently, and I've been asked to chair a few sessions here and there. Some have gone well, others have been disasters, but I think after doing a few and seeing a lot in a short space of time, I've come up with a nice list of things to do to try and keep things on track.

The idea is to moderate (or chair) a session to balance the speaker's need to do their thing and say what they want to, with the audience and conference organiser(s) need to get on with the bloody conference and get out on time for food and coffee.

Once I went looking for a list like this, I couldn't find anywhere. (This chap's list is useless for academic presentations, though might be useful for other types of gigs I just don't go to, hence the uselessness of his post.)

Not one thing here is my idea, I just saw some behaviours I thought worth writing down and noting to myself. If anyone has any more insights, leave them in the comments and I'll update the post if there is sufficient interest. If anyone wants a Nobel Laureate's ideas about conference ettiqutte, go here, it's hillarious.

Here's the list:

Communicate with the speakers. At the usual coffee break between sessions, speak to the people in the session, say hi, and get their presentations loaded. Make sure their presentations are uploaded on the computer in a folder they can recognise with their name on the presentation (because everyone is going to name their presentation for ABC conference 'ABC presentation.ppt'). Click the file once, change it to 'blogs.ppt' in a folder you can recognise on the desktop, and you're golden. Load each file and play all the way through with media bits and everything while the audience is chatting. There is nothing worse than watching someone's funny bit fall flat on them. Don't let speakers change computers halfway through the session unless they can do it really, really quickly and it is necessary beyond belief. Most of the time it's not. This practice eats time and upsets the audience.

Get the timing right. Explain directly to each speaker how much time they have. If there are, say, two papers in a 1.5 hour session with discussants, you want each speaker to have 20 minutes for their presentation, 10 minutes for the discussant, and 15 minutes for general questions. When each speaker starts, note the time exactly on a piece of paper, then add 20 minutes. This will be important in seeming fair.

Give the speakers time warnings. Explain to the speakers you are going to give them TWO warnings on time, one at five minutes towards the end of the session, and one at one minute. This allows the speaker enough time to land their main points home before finishing up on or under the time. It also chills everybody in the audience out if the speaker happens to be awful, or if the speaker is brilliant and the audience really want to quiz them. Either way it keeps people on track. With the warnings, don't be too obvious. Making eye contact and putting your hand up should do it. You don't need a sign or anything.

Give the discussant their time. Whatever happens, you must allow the discussant their time to make whatever points they want. Usually discussants have read the papers and have thoughtful, useful, and constructive comments to make on the presenter's paper. Budget 10 minutes, but if it takes 15, so be it, it is only eating into the audience's question time, which you are going to monitor for time anyway. These comments are important for the speaker, and usually lead the audience's discussion. If the discussant obviously hasn't read the paper and is making stuff up, hew to this rule anyway. It's just good form.

Take questions from the audience in 'batch mode'. The audience members ask questions, the speaker writes them down, and responds to all of the questions one by one at the end. All (and I mean all) academics give general comments followed by questions, making each individual question last 1-2 minutes at least. If you allow one windy chap (or chapette) to monopolise the speaker's time with a roundabout half lecture and the speaker's reply followed up by a comment from Mr/Mrs Windy, this will upset those in the audience who wished to speak, and generally disrupt the flow of people's happiness if audience members didn't want to speak. Don't let it happen. Budget for 3-5 questions in 15 minutes. After thanking the discussant, call for brief questions and note that the session has 15/14/12/etc minutes for questions. Participants put their hands up, amd you note down who wants to speak, and let them speak in the order you see them. This method is more time efficient and avoids overlapping of topics, as well as keeping everyone on a nice, respectful keel, and lets the speaker come up with more complete answers to boot.

Finish off early if you can. Thank everyone with applause, and hand the floor back to the main organiser of the conference for logistical details and more information on the day's programme.