In the hot seat: Five steps to being an excellent chair

Published: October 13, 2015

“The difference between events you enjoy and those you squirm through is often down to the chair.”

I wonder how many fringe events and meetings took place over this Party Conference season? Somewhere in the hundreds is probably a sensible estimate. That’s a lot of people who faced the often unenviable task of chairing; steering discussion and guiding debate. Having been at a fair few of the events at this year’s conferences, here are my five steps to excellence when it comes to chairing an event.

1. Know the subject matter. Even if the specific topic is not your area of expertise, read the briefing notes thoroughly and do some prior research to make sure you understand the theme and the various viewpoints of the different speakers.

2. Know you’re there to chair. Not to give speeches or presenting your own opinions on the subject. Be clear in advance about what you want and expect in terms of how the event will run, and make sure you know what each of the speakers will be talking about in advance.

3. Keep speakers to time. Make sure the organisers include this in their briefing notes to speakers and then reiterate in your introduction. During the Q&A section, don’t be afraid to politely stop speakers if their answers start to get too long.

4. Manage the Q&A via paper, not a mic. Ask the organisers to provide all attendees with a piece of paper on which they can write their questions, then have them collected during the course of the event. This means you can bundle questions together and address themes in one go – and prevents the event getting hijacked by one attendee.

5. Push speakers to be interesting. For example, during the Q&A, follow up with your own questions, or push speakers to clarify a point. One particular moment from an event we helped organise stands out. In response to an audience question on energy, the chair asked all the speakers if they believed there should be regulation to enforce zero coal – and when they all said yes he followed up asking them for a date by when it should be implemented. It brought that issue to life and put the speakers on the spot.

Ability to chair events may not make it on to many people’s CVs, but having attended numerous events at this year’s conferences it’s clear to me that the difference between events you enjoy and remember and those you squirm through and wish you could forget is often down to the chair.

Jo Nussbaum
Senior Consultant

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