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Chairing a Conference – Working Out Loud Notes

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Harold Jarche and I before the Edutech Workplace Learning Congress began. Photo by Shannon Tipton (@stipton)

Over the last two days, I chaired the EdutechAU Workplace Learning Congress in Brisbane.  In the spirit of working out loud, I wanted to share a little bit of the process of preparing and managing that experience. I will also share a separate post shortly on the conference itself.

Part 1 – Preparation

Any time you are presenting or facilitating, the work needs to be done before the event.  Preparation is critical to put you in the best possible position to do a good job but also to manage the likely eventualities.  The goal of preparation is not to enable you to follow the plan. The goal is to give you the capability to adjust to whatever happens on the day.

Clarity of expectations

That preparation began when I was asked to take on the role of Chair.  The first step was to answer the question “What do they expect from this role?”. Upfront I wanted to understand how I came to be offered the position and what they had been told by those who had suggested me. Understanding the role expectations involved a number of conversations with the conference organisers to understand the event, the audience, the experience that they were seeking to create, the speakers and how they saw the role of a chair. Making sure the expectations are clear up front helps both parties in the lead up to the event.

Understand the Speakers 

Bios & topics help you with the what and sometimes the how of speakers.  Mostly the audience wants to know why they are listening to someone. The more time you can spend understanding the speakers the better. I didn’t have an opportunity to brief with speakers before the event which would have been ideal. However, I devoted a weekend to reviewing the work of speakers and their accessible profiles on social channels and the internet.  That was very useful in helping develop ways to introduce the speakers with some consistency, to enrich their bios and also to anticipate the messages that speakers were likely to be reinforcing in their talks.

Plan any Panels

Planning a panel is more than putting together a list of questions on the chosen topic. You need to understand panellists’ positions, likely areas of conflict, any areas of expertise and areas where there is none. There is nothing more dull than asking a series of questions of the entire panel and running down panellist by panellist until time expires. The goal is to get the value of collaboration from the panel.  Work out where discussion, conflict and collaboration will add value to the audience’s understanding of the topic. Facilitate that debate and try to make it a cumulative and seamless experience with the design of your questions.

If your panel is going to involve a mix of questions from the chair and the audience you need to be prepared for all eventualities. How many questions is the audience likely to have? How much time do they need? To whom will you direct undirected questions from the audience? Work out when to give the audience a warning to get their questions ready. Prepare back up questions in case the audience is meek.

It is also important to think through how you will move on from audience members who want to dominate discussion and change topics when required.

Create Tools to Help

The conference organisers had supplied me with bios and a detailed runsheet. However, I needed to create a tool that I could use to guide me through the event. I settled on a simple landscape format document with three columns – times, comments and notes. The document used bullet points because I normally work to create any talk from a few guiding points of structure.

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I typed the information from the bios and the runsheet into this integrated document. I didn’t cut and paste. I typed. I retyped it manually for two reasons

  • To make sure I put understood things in my own words and could express them simply
  • To help me to remember the key facts so that I could more easily speak without notes

This process of recreating my own tool helped me to sort out a few ambiguities that I needed to check with the organisers. It also enabled me to see all the speaker information in a consistent format and work on balance and integration of the story of the event.

The advantage of a simple document was also redundancy. I had the document in the cloud, printed and available on two back up devices. I also made sure I had all the key source materials with me as well. That way I was covered for power failures, late changes and any nasty technology surprises.

Understand What You Want to Say

A chair is there to facilitate the event, not to star in it. My role models were some great chairs and masters of ceremony that I had seen at similar events, particularly Colin James, Anne Bartlett-Bragg, James Dellow and the MC of DoLectures Australia in 2014 Col Duthie. You aren’t hired to draw attention to yourself or deliver long speeches. However as someone who is a continuous voice through the event, there is a chance to tell a story across the two days by drawing connections and framing the speakers. I spent some time considering how what the speakers were addressing related to key themes that I address in my work and this blog.  That helped me see that there were consistent themes of transformational change, culture, leadership and a new role for learning in the future of work running through the event.  I wanted to share some of my personal purpose & stories of making work more human through drawing out these connections

Part 2 – Creating the Experience

A good chair will help create a great experience for the speakers and the participants at the event. Not everything will go to plan. Nothing will go to time. The role of chair to to help smooth the experience and also to help the participants to weave it together into one learning and collaborative experience.

Stay in Contact with Everyone: Everyone means everyone: the organisers, the AV team, the next speaker, future speakers and audience members. Check-in at breaks and use what you learn to think ahead. Check everyone’s understanding. Get feedback. Make sure everyone is on the same page as to what is happening next. Over communicate. When I had issues with the experience, it was because I didn’t follow this simple rule.

Pay attention: There can be a lot going on. You need to be concentrating for the whole journey of the event. A speaker might make a single comment that helps you to draw together the theme of the event. Time can quickly get away from you. Paying attention helps you to anticipate the speakers who are running behind and those that are ahead. That gives you ways that you can help them and the audience.

Roll with the Issues: We lost the time for opening remarks due to late arrivals. I accidentally spoke over an introductory video. Technical issues happened. Changes & corrections were needed throughout the event. Realise that this is all part of the live theatre that is a conference event.  Adapt and move on. Whatever you do, don’t panic.

Adapt the Plan:  My tool above had room for notes. As you can see there were lots of scrawls. I knew I would need to change what I had to say as I heard the full presentations from the speakers. I knew that if we got behind or ahead then timelines would need to be tweaked to adjust. Some times you will have time to do this in advance and other times you will need to adapt on the fly.

Make connections: Connect ideas. Connect people. Use the social streams around the event to share relevant information to help the speakers and the participants. Help audience members to connect to the speakers. There’s a lot that a Chair can do to assist the event to be a successful one just by bringing people together.

Help Make Sense:  Two days of talks, discussions and panels can be overwhelming. However, your role as chair is to help everyone to take away some insight and some themes from the event.  Take notes.  Digest those notes into themes and share them back to foster further discussion.

These are my notes. What else would you add? I am keen to learn more. Please feel free to comment on twitter or in the comments below.


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