Attending Conferences - Level 3

Posted 17 Jun 2016

This is the last in a series of five blog posts about attending academic conferences (HCI ones in particular). This post describes some last tips and tricks for session chairs.

Being a session chair is sort of “advanced attendance” stuff. I have only played this role a handful of times, but managed to bomb enough times that I can provide a bit of a primer on this.

Your Role: Master of Ceremonies. As the session chair, you are in charge of the session. This means that you are in charge of getting things started on time, keeping to the time, and ensuring that things run smoothly. The most obvious part of the job is to introduce the authors and the papers, and then to run the question/discussion period. Keeping this all on time and running smoothly is key.

There are a surprisingly large number of ways this can break down, but I can’t emphasize the “master of ceremonies” role enough. When things have broken down, it is your job to: (1) ensure it gets fixed; (2) keep people apprised of the situation, and (3) entertain the audience if necessary. I have only seen #3 happen twice well – in one instance, the chair got up and started a discussion between the authors and the audience about some common theme (I think two talks had already happened); in the second instance, the chair started telling us about a funny story that happened, and managed somehow to time it perfectly with the issue getting resolved (computer needed to be rebooted).

Something I have seen once or twice that went well was that the session chair tried to drive a discussion between the authors during the question/discussion parts. I think this depends a lot on the papers themselves, and charisma of the session chair.

Pre-Conference Preparation. It is best to probably to have read the papers before arriving at the conference. Having done this gives you a sense of what will happen in the papers, and perhaps give you some insight as to why the session has the papers grouped together. As part of preparation, you should come up with at least two questions per paper. You would use these to get the question/discussion started if no one has raised their hand within the first 5-10 seconds or so. Email the authors to let them know you will be their session chair, figure out who is the presenting author, and encourage them to meet with you 15 minutes before the session begins.

Pre-Session. Meet with the presenting authors 15 minutes before the session begins to ensure that A/V works. Make sure to learn their names, particularly how to pronounce the names. Make sure they are comfortable and know the order in which they will present. Get a few cue cards so that you can cue 5, 2 and 1 minute(s) remaining and STOP. Let them know these are coming.

During Session. Be hyper-vigilant on time. Start on time, end each talk on time, end the question/discussion period on time, and cut people off if necessary. Drawing the ire of one member of the audience is sometimes the price that you, as session chair, get the honour of doing in the name of keeping the conference running on time – believe me, the rest of the audience is thanking you for doing it.

One subtle thing that helps things run smoothly is to ensure the transitions are smooth: when a speaker is answering questions, usher the next speaker up, and encourage them to get set up. Wait until the next speaker is ready before ending the question period. Do not introduce them until their title slide is up and they look ready (remember: you can talk to them off mic).

Related to this, if you have two mobile microphones (with SVs), direct the SVs to the next question asker so that s/he already has the mic as the speaker is finished responding to the previous question. This keeps things running smoothly.

Use the microphone. People can’t hear you, no matter how loud you are projecting.

Lead the audience in thanking the speaker after the talk, and then after the question/discussion period.

Post-Session. Lead the audience in thanking the speakers. Conclude the session meaningfully: encourage people to speak with the speakers after the session, and tell the audience members what else is next–even if they know (e.g. “Coffee and donuts are across the hall”), and let them know about big events that are coming later that day and information about it (e.g. conference reception, demo reception, etc.). The information is right in the schedule of course, but being reminded is always nice.

When Things Break Down. Stay cool. Help if you can, send an SV to get help if you can’t. Make sure your speaker is calm. Keep the audience entertained (e.g. tell them about upcoming things at the conference, start a discussion, whatever). Once the disruption is fixed, then make sure your speaker is ready before restarting the session.

This post is one in a series of five about attending academic conferences.

My thanks to my colleague Carman Neustaedter who provided comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.