Chairing is caring (Johan Edelheim)

In this post Johan Edelheim outlines why the role of the conference chairperson is so important and offers some advice for novice chairs.

You can't imagine how hard it was to find just a vanilla water pistol. It's all about nerfs and /realistic/ guns!
By remysharp

Think back to the previous time you did a presentation at a conference, and specifically at the session where your presentation was delivered:

  • Did you feel welcome?
  • Did the audience know anything at all about you before it was your turn to start presenting?
  • Did you get the time that you expected to present, and to answer questions?
  • Did somebody ask you questions after your presentation?
  • Did you feel that you had one person “on your side” even though you knew nobody in the room before the event?

There is one role that is of special importance for presenters at conferences; this is the chairperson (or moderator) for the session(s) they have been assigned to present their research at. The reason why that role is of such an importance is that a chairperson can enhance the value of attending a conference for participants, both for presenters and for the audience. The reason I make this claim is that I have met my fair share of brilliant, good, mediocre, dodgy, and downright terrible chairpersons chairing the sessions where I have presented my research over the years.

There are times when I have returned home from a conference thinking that it was a big waste of effort and money to attend, due to a session chair, and there have been other times when I have felt that the whole event was more significant due to a splendid session chair.

Considering the importance of that role, it still baffles me that many conference organisers put so little thought into how to assign the role to colleagues, and give so few instructions for the task. I imagine that too many conversations like the following one takes place around the world:

Organiser: “Can you chair this session on…

Friend: “Me? Really? But what do I need to do?

Organiser: “Well, you know, the normal… introduce the speakers, keep time, and ask the audience for questions”. 

Friend: “Ah, ok, sounds fair – if you haven’t got anybody else, then I guess I can do it

But sorry, let me back up a little and tell you something about myself, and with what kind of background I come to this argument, to make these claims, and have these thoughts.

My educational background is diverse, to put it mildly. I started off in hospitality management, worked for many years at hotels and restaurants (and saw many conferences and meetings from the service provider’s perspective). I then went back to university and studied pedagogy and became a teacher, first in primary schools, later in vocational colleges, and ultimately in higher education. I continued studying on the side of my work: business administration, philosophy, and finally a PhD in cultural studies.

My own research is mostly connected to tourism and hospitality in different ways, but using a culturally critical paradigm, or an educational frame. This mishmash of studies and interests has given me the (apparently rare) opportunity to attend conferences for very different audiences, and thus to hear such a range of exciting research presentations. One of the biggest realisations of how diverse academia is, that I have had, is by attending two conferences after one another in some location, one for cultural studies, the other for tourism (management) studies. Respect, care, structure, presentation style, timeliness, all differ – they are there in different degrees, and with different emphasis, and it is only by attending both that the different fields’ own being crystallises into what they are. Thus, I have seen my share of chairpersons, and realise what a key role it is for a successful conference experience.

I co-wrote an article a few years ago with three PhD candidates about the emotional return on investment (eROI) that conference attendance provides. The article started off as a conference report, but grew into an article on its own, and it is through that article my interest in conferences as entities of research began. Donald Nicolson wrote a nice guest post for this blog in 2018 about conference ROI that referred to that article, though he emphasised the position of conference organisers, and the standard interpretation of ROI as tangible metrics. As Kimberly, Kajsa, and Giang (my co-authors to the 2018 article) were all PhD candidates at the time of writing, their conference reflections, which became the article’s empirical material, had the intention of highlighting the emotional return on an emotional investment for early career researchers (ECR) attending conferences. The point of the article was that we, as emotional and vulnerable human beings, invest ourselves in conferences, and at times the return we get might make or break a future career. It is from that aspect I would like to focus on the session chairpersons’ role.

I was a self-funded international PhD candidate in Australia 20 years ago, and the first conferences I attended were paid for from my own savings. I considered it a valuable experience, and a good place to network and learn about other peoples’ ideas; I still do, most of the time. My first international conference was in an Asian city, a large postgraduate conference for my field. I knew a few other people from before, and I searched out others with similar interest to me on the first day. My presentation was due on the second day after lunch, in one out of five concurrent sessions. Each session had five presentations, and my presentation was scheduled second last in the session (see Henderson & Henderson, on the ‘Graveyard slot’). When I arrived at the room in good time to load my presentation there were surprisingly few others in the room, actually we were the only three people there…

A few minutes before our session started a professor rushed in and sat down on the first row without talking to anybody. At the time when the first presentation was due the professor got up, looked around the room, and asked for the first presenter’s name. None of us three in the room said anything. He then asked for the second presenter’s name, and again silence. A repetition with a third name, two more people arrived in the room, but none of us were any of the first three presenters. He then said my name and I said that I was the fourth presenter, the person next to me said that he is the fifth presenter. With none of the three first presenters in the room he then asked me to come up and start my presentation. I said I would rather not, as none of those with similar research interests were in the room, they were off in different concurrent sessions. This was not looked upon, and he demanded me to get up right then and start.

I was new to academia, afraid, and insecure. I gave in to his demand and thought I could take a little longer as there were just the two of us presenters there to present. So, I started my presentation slowly, and hoped that anybody who cared to hear what I said actually would show up. When my allocated time was up, I was asked to stop. No questions asked by the audience, no questions by the chair, and I went back to my seat to listen to the other presentation. A few more people had showed up, and some turned out to be amongst the first three presenters that were due before me. By the time my friends showed up and asked why my presentation was not on, I could only tell them that it had been rescheduled, and I was already done. I headed home from that conference feeling that it had been an utter waste in all senses, despite being held in a beautiful city, having had brilliant opening and closing ceremonies and a tasty conference dinner. But, I didn’t go there as a tourist, I invested not only money but my own expectations and wishes in the conference (see Xuemeng Cao’s post on ‘Conference regret’).

I started this blog entry with a few questions about the previous time you presented at a conference. If the answer to all the questions was: yes, then I congratulate you for getting what we all should be getting when attending a conference and investing ourselves in the effort. If it was a mixture of yes and no, then I presume it was sort of what most of us expect/get when attending conferences. If the answer was no to all of them (like it was for me at my first international conference), then I am very sorry on your behalf, and ask you to remember that event – and promise never to return that feeling to anybody if it is within your power. The importance of the session chairperson cannot be understated, and I suggest that it is a ‘make or break’ for how we view many of our conferences, even if we might not be fully aware of this fact. At the beginning of this year, I attended a conference where the session I presented at had a chair that almost destroyed that conference for me. The person knew one presenter from before, and spent the whole pre-session time talking to that person. The chair mispronounced all presenters’ names, and during presentations it was clear that it was some social media account on a tablet that was the focus, not presenters or their slides. But, self-reflection on my side, and support from a friend turned the conference around, and that experience inspired this text.

In my imaginary discussion above, where session chairs are asked to do the role, I summarise the role as: “introduce the speakers, keep time, and ask the audience for questions” – let me take these issues as a starting point for how we can better care for one another, and the knowledge which is being produced and debated via conferences:

I. Firstly, a chair should make the presenters feel welcome; already long before the session is due. I have attended conferences where the organisers arranged for presenters and session chairs to meet up at assigned times and places, where presentation slides or other paraphernalia used at the presentation have been checked, and where times and roles were discussed and agreed upon days before each session. There was time to learn a little about one another, and the whole session took on a feeling of a community with a joint goal. These conferences are unfortunately few and far between in my experience. Mostly one reads the information about what room one is presenting in, and who the chairperson will be, in the program on the way to the conference (or after getting a ‘welcome bag’ with a printed schedule). If the chairperson is not familiar from before then it might be a first meeting in the busy minutes ahead of the session, when presenters are preparing their material. This can still be a good time for the chair to walk around and talk to each presenter, make sure that they are settled. Ask them how to pronounce their names. Ensure that all details about institutions, roles, and presentation titles are correct. Remind presenters about time limits and formats, and check if they have any questions or concerns. And, if there is time, learn a little something personal about the person, or the research that will be presented.

Making a presenter feel welcome does not end there, rather – these steps are merely the preparation for a good experience for all involved. The session chairperson could and should also consult with other session chairs in concurrent sessions about common ground rules. In enormous conventions with dozens or hundreds of concurrent sessions this is naturally not possible for the individual chair, but there tend to be more stated structures too, to these events. But in smaller and semi-large conferences with up to maybe ten concurrent sessions, it is not an impossible task to check with other chairpersons that they are all running on the same assumptions. Does 20 minutes time mean 20 minutes for each presenter to present? Or, is it 15 minutes presentation + 5 minutes for questions, or any other rhythm? Does somebody decide that all questions to the presentations are to be done as one bunch at the end of the session, with all presentations after one another? All of these assumptions are important for audiences who want to swap rooms to hear different presentations, and thus important for the presenters to get the audiences in attendance for their whole presentation who really wants to hear what they say.

Still, all of this is operations, and it is simply laying the framework for the actual welcome. When a session starts then it is important for the chairperson to really welcome all in the room. The presenters who will tell about their exciting research, and the audience for attending and preparing good questions that can take the research the presenter presents even further. Give a short overview of the session topic, and give the room some ground rules for a collaborating to produce a caring and supportive session (see the three rules about asking questions below). Then, focus in on the first presentation and the first presenter. Give a small introduction to the person, don’t read out a vitae, but present them like you would present a friend or a colleague at a party with name, affiliations, position, and preferably something small and personal that can put both the presenter and the audience at ease. The point is for the chairperson to extend the community that the presenters are already making up (from the pre-session chats) to also include the audience – all belong in the session, and nobody needs to fear anybody else. Then, step back, and give the floor to the presenter, let each deliver what all of you agreed upon before the session.

II. Second point of the task: Timekeeping! Again, such a simple thing, and oh how much of an experience can be spoiled by not realising how important this is. Firstly, how much time is allocated for the session? Secondly, how is each presenter’s time going to be managed? And thirdly, how will you make sure that you keep each presenter to their word? It is important already in the pre-presentation chats and in the introduction to the session to explain the time ground rules again. Every person in the session has the same right to get the time they were promised. It is our respect and love for others that should stop all of us from extending our presentation beyond our allocated timeslot. “I’m just coming to my final slides…” “Another minute…” “Oh, I thought I had 20 minutes, let me just…” etc, we have all heard them, and we have all groaned silently (or out loud). For every minute over an agreed time there will be less time for the poor last person(s) in that session, and the syncing between parallel sessions is destroyed.

Sure, it is the management side of me that comes out here when I want to see all of this timely order. However, it is simultaneously my critical scholar side that protests at injustices and how people in positions of power overrule those with less power. I once attended a conference at Taylor’s University in Malaysia where each chairperson was given a water pistol, loaded with water – ready to squirt at any presenter taking up more than their allocated time. Let me tell you, I have never attended a better time managed conference in my life. As the chairperson showed the ‘five minutes’ and ‘one minute’ signs for time left, and slowly started to grip their pistols, presenters wrapped up their final slides and finished safe and sound (and dry) ready for question time. But it is quite sad that we need such a threat. The chair is again in a key role – why are there chairpersons that are embarrassed for showing the ‘time left’ signs? Make the signs visible; raise them over your head; stand up and announce the remaining time; do not presume that somebody is seeing your little wave – a self-possessed (or simply enthusiastic) presenter will definitely not.

If the ground rules have been agreed upon, then it is no question – all involved are better off for times to be held. The final presenters get the time they deserve, and people are not deserting the room to rush for lunch or coffee break just as they are getting started. Attendees that want to swap rooms can do so confidently, knowing that they can trust the program, and that they can leave during question time, and sneak into the next session whilst they are also in question time. Finally, the presenter is better off. If you are given ten minutes then it is ten minutes – it is short, but make the most of it! Ten (or 15/20 etc) minutes is an eternity when you wait for something, but flies by when you tell something exciting. If a session chair sees that a presenter has an excessive amount of tightly printed pages or slides of material prepared, then make sure that the rules are set. If something can be culled, then do it before the session. It is the care for one another in that shared event that should lead to a better experience for all involved.

III. Finally, making sure that there are questions asked. In question time, the chair plays a key role to make the presenter’s efforts worthwhile. We have all been there, in those presentations where the last words have rung out, the applause has echoed through the room; the chairperson stands up and asks: “Any questions?” … and then, silence … until the chair maybe tries to assemble something on the hop. The presenter replies with a yes or no, and again silence, until the embarrassment takes over and the chairperson saves the situation by announcing that it is now time for the next presenter, or coffee break or whatever, leaving the presenter mortified to pack up and return to the audience. How can this be avoided? Well, again in the pre-session chat, ask each presenter if there is any question(s) that they would like to be asked. And if this chat is between the chair and all presenters, then the questions can be allocated to somebody with similar interests. One of the key points of a presentation is to tell where one is with one’s research, and to build a frame for future research. Question time is where the conference’s ontological being meets its epistemological potential. The best conferences in my mind are those where presentation time is limited, but question time extensive. This is also where a good chairperson makes all the difference. There are situations where there are too many questions, or where some in the audience start to dominate – for all of this to be handled properly the chairperson needs to be confident enough to actually decide how to allocate time, space and importance to discussions – and make sure that it is the presenter who gets to clarify their intention. This leads me to the final part of a chairperson’s role: how to ensure that questions are appropriate, constructive, and focused.

There are three rules of asking questions that I have developed over the years when I have been chairing any session (see also Emma Becket’s ‘Thanks for your question!’), and I repeat these also when I happen to be the chair for a conference session. They are:

 1. There is no “I” in a question; in other words, the question should focus on the presenter’s research and presentation, not on what the person asking questions might be doing. We’ve all been there too, I’m sure. We sit and listen to some exciting presentation and then in question time somebody gets up and starts talking about their research, their experiences, or what they do. Well, honestly: who could give a…? If a person asking a question includes an anecdote or an example, then fine if it contextualises the reason for the question, but it is the role of a chairperson to interrupt people who get off track and start making the moment about themselves. The person presenting has been given some few valuable minutes, do not let any self-centred colleague steal that away.

2. The question is short enough for one breath; thus, it is construed with a clear intention, and it is not double- / triple-barrelled with lots of extras. If the person wants to ask more than one thing then fine, but state that up front. To ask questions is a skill too, and by focusing on asking good questions we might realise the answer on our own. If a question is so long that it cannot be asked in one breath, then it is probably too complicated.

3. There has to be a question mark at the end.Well, it’s not really a question, it’s more of a comment…” This is also something we’ve all probably heard – and groaned. Alternatively, people just do the comment without announcing it in advance and when the rest of the audience, and the poor presenter, is trying to understand what it meant, the person making the comment says that same sentence. Well, comments can be good – but they are often better to deliver one on one after the session. Comments are way too often related to the two rules above, they are examples of colleagues aggrandising themselves and their cleverness, they are often the result of people who actually did not understand the presentation, but who feel that their voice needs to be heard for whatever reason.

A well chaired session is a joy. It can be a highlight of a conference as the intellectual level combined of the room rises as a result of presentations, questions, and camaraderie. Topics that might not at all sound as if they would be related to what one does take on a new significance, and staying in the room becomes more valuable than rushing off to another concurrent session for another soundbite. A good chair makes sure that all presenters felt welcomed, respected, cared for, listened to, and supported – and in the end, is that not what we all would like to experience when we set off on our conference adventures? Thus, whenever you arrange a conference, or are asked to chair a session, revisit this advice, and be part of creating something worthwhile for your colleagues.

About Johan Edelheim

Johan at his last (but hopefully not last) in-person conference

Johan Edelheim is a Specially Appointed Professor of Tourism and Media at the Graduate School of International Communication, Media, and Tourism Studies at Hokkaido University, Japan. Johan’s research focuses on a) the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), especially connected to tourism and hospitality Higher Education; b) Critical Tourism Studies (CTS) connected to climate change, equality, identity, ethnicity and care; and c) the philosophy of tourism and hospitality, especially ontology and axiology. Johan does not Tweet, but his research can be found at

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