Session Chair

Many conferences have session chairs (sometimes called moderators). Their job differes from conference to conference and between types of sessions. In any case they are in a way the representatives of the conference organizers or the program committee in the room. They introduce the speaker, make sure he has everything he needs and that he ends on time. If the speakers doesn’t do it himself, they can also moderate the question and answer section at the end.

In most cases session chairs will be responsible for a few talks which somehow fit together, a session. This can be because there is a common subject focus or just because they have been scheduled together in the same room between two breaks.

Every conference will have different ideas on what jobs the session chair has to perform. I have included a PDF (there is also an Open Document Format version if you want to use and modify this yourself) with a short overview which I have given to session chairs in several conferences. I modify these instructions slightly with every event to fit the special circumstances.

For some conferences you have people delegated to help with technical things like beamer/laptop problems, microphone, lights, power, etc. The caterer will probably bring the water for the speaker. It is the job of the chair to act as interface to those people. If you are planning your event on a budget he can assume those roles, too.

As representative of the organizers the chair can also announce important information such as program changes.

Timing

In any multi-track conference where several events take place a the same time in several rooms it is very important too keep those events in sync. Every talk must start and end on time. If you don’t make sure that this works smoothly, you’ll have people missing part of the talks they want to here or all the noise and distraction associated with people leaving a talk early or coming in while a talk is still going on.

Breaks can alleviate this problem somewhat but it is still a problem when people come late for the break and find the buffett empty and the coffee cold. So I can’t stress this enough: In the interest of everybody you have to keep to the schedule. Don’t let a few people who can’t stop create a problem for everybody else. Of course, all of this can be handled far more relaxed if you don’t have several tracks going on at the same time. But even in this case you should try to not deviate too much from the schedule, because people might have plans outside the conference which you don’t know about. This is especially important for ending the whole event on time, because people have booked trains and flights which they have to reach.

The chair should talk to the speaker beforehand and make sure they agree on how long the talk and the question-and-answer-session are going to be. The chair should sit down somewhere in front where the speaker can see him easily and agree on hand signals for timeout. I usually use an open hand with spread fingers as meaning “5 minutes left” and a “T” formed with two hands as meaning: “Stop now!” This will work with almost all speakers, but there are always some who seemingly can go on for ever. In that case I get up and slowly move into the direction of the stage giving them a cue to wrap up. If it’s really getting late I can cut them off from there. This is really hard to do, especially if it is an interesting topic or discussion, and you have to decide on the spot how to proceed. When standing up there you can also watch the audience and judge by their faces and actions on what to do. If the speaker is rambling and everybody is bored, you can cut him off. If the audience is listening and interested you might give him some more time.

Sometimes the question-and-answer-session drags on for a long time with only a few people really interested and participating. Inexperienced speakers sometimes have a hard time controlling overzealous audience members, in which case the session chair can come to his rescue.

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