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In this recent question, the OP there describes a situation where they were assigned to be a session chair without being asked to do so.

After reading the above question, and having never chaired a conference session before, I wonder if I would be adequately prepared to take on such a task. For sure, one would expect the conference organizers to fill in the details upon request, but it'd still be useful to have an idea of what to expect; this would all be taking place at well-attended (electrical) engineering conferences.

What is typically expected of a conference session chair?

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    Not sure about EE conferences, but in math, you introduce the speakers, say "thank you" and start clapping at the end, ask if there are questions, after the questions end say "if there are no more questions let's thank the speaker again", clap again, next speaker. That's it. But surely you have attended conferences yourself, what have you seen the chairs do during these occasions...? – user9646 Jun 8 '18 at 16:47
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    what have you seen the chairs do during these occasions...? -- To be honest, I've never really paid attention to what they were doing. @NajibIdrissi – Mad Jack Jun 8 '18 at 16:50
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    It should be quite comfortable and recline slightly. – Valorum Jun 9 '18 at 20:44
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Perhaps things are different in electrical engineering, but in math, the chair:

  • introduces the speaker, sometimes just saying their name and the title of their talk, sometimes a lengthier introduction ("[speaker] is professor at XYZ University and works on blablabla");
  • says "thank you" out loud and starts clapping at the end;
  • asks if there are questions or comments from the audience;
  • [optional] if the questions are taking too much time, the chair will say something like "we can discuss this more during the break" and go onto the next step;
  • once the questions are over, says "let's thank [speaker] again" and starts clapping;
  • announces the time of the next talk ("in 10 minutes", "after the break at 10:30"...). Rinse and repeat.

Sometimes the chair will go as far as warning the speaker if the time limit approaches or has passed. An extra task that sometimes pops up is when the organizers want to make an announcement before/after the talk; then the chair will say "[organizer] has an important announcement, please listen". This is pretty much it.

A handy trick is to get the schedule with speakers' names and talks' titles ahead of time. Then you can practice pronouncing speakers' names, and there's no awkward silence while you say "The second speaker this afternoon is [speaker], who will talk about... uh... squints to read the title on the board [title]".

It's also more or less expected for the chair to prepare at least one question about the talk, even a very simple one. This way, if no other member of the audience has any question, then the chair can say "I actually have a question, [insert question]" after the pause that occurs after "any questions?", saving the speaker a bit of embarrassment.

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    Sometimes it's also expected from a session chair to ask a question if no other questions are asked. – Oleg Lobachev Jun 8 '18 at 17:35
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    Sometimes the chair will go as far as warning the speaker if the time limit approaches or has passed. This is an important responsibility. In fact, the chair needs to be prepared to actually cut off the speaker if it comes to that, awkward as that may be. This is probably the only potentially disagreeable part of being a chair. – Nate Eldredge Jun 8 '18 at 17:56
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    @NajibIdrissi: Yes, standing up is a good practice, but I can say from experience that it is not 100% effective. Sometimes the speaker is facing the screen or chalkboard and not looking at the audience at all (not good lecture practice, but it happens). Sometimes the speaker keeps thinking of one more thing that they can't resist mentioning. In some cases they might keep speaking out of pure arrogance. For me, after standing up, the next step is to slowly walk across the stage toward the speaker. But the chair owes it to the audience to really take charge if necessary. – Nate Eldredge Jun 8 '18 at 18:08
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    Tactfully but effectively enforcing the time limit is indeed the main responsibility of the chair, IMO. One way to curb speakers who run over time is to discreetly show them a piece of paper or cardboard with the remaining time written on it (or with 'please wrap up'). – henning -- reinstate Monica Jun 8 '18 at 20:44
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    @Najib - "Five minutes overtime" may be wayyy too long to wait, depending on the setup of the conference, and what comes next. If it's the last speaker before lunch, and there's a 10-minute break between the session and lunch, then maybe you do have that five minutes of slack. But if it's a 45-minute session with three speakers, each allotted 15 minutes, well, five minutes is simply too long to wait before cutting a speaker off. By using 20 minutes to give a 15-minute talk, the next speaker must cram their 15-minute presentation into 10 minutes, and the session chair has let that speaker down. – J.R. Jun 8 '18 at 22:42
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  • As a chair, it is a good idea to find and meet your presenters before your session, especially if you don't know them. Few things are more embarrassing than introducing a speaker you don't know, then asking "Uhm, is professor X actually in the room?", only to see X stand up in the first row right in front of you.

  • You should make sure that the presentations are available and easily found on the presentation computer, e.g., on the desktop.

Both of these are really joint responsibilities of speakers and the chair.

  • Make sure that there is paper on the flipchart and that the whiteboard is clean, and perhaps wipe it down between presentations. It's also considerate for the next session if you take charge to leave the room in a presentable state, with a clean whiteboard or flipchart etc.

  • If you notice that a speaker is new at the conference (maybe a first time presenting grad student), it's nice to make a little small talk with her or him and make them feel welcome. Works wonders to reduce the jitters.

  • Sometimes a speaker will have handouts. You should take charge that these are distributed, so the speaker can concentrate on the talk.

  • Similarly, sometimes you should hand out feedback forms, or remind everyone to vote on their conference app, or other things, depending on the conference.

Overall, the theme is: make the session easy on the presenters, and enjoyable for everyone.

  • About the first point, up to a few years ago, a well-known conference in my field used to organize so-called speaker's breakfast, where the chairs could meet the speakers.Unfortunately, these breakfast were usually around 7 am at the conference venue, to everyone's discomfort, and the tradition has been abandoned. As for the other points, in twenty years, I've never seen a whiteboard used at a conference nor anyone distributing handouts, but this probably depends on the field and on the size of the conference. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 9 '18 at 17:01
  • @MassimoOrtolano: I guess it does depend on the field. I sometimes do see someone using the whiteboard or flipchart for spontaneous additional work, graphs, derivations or similar, typically in response to a question. And I have seen people give out hardcopy with an outline of their talk. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Jun 9 '18 at 17:35
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Disclaimer: As usual, there can be different traditions depending on the field. I'll answer on the basis of my experience in a relatively small field, that of metrology, which is between physics and engineering.

The session chair is usually chosen among experienced researchers for the following reasons:

  • At least out of courtesy, they are expected to ask questions when nobody else has one, and this usually requires deep knowledge and a sufficiently broad view of the session topic.
  • At the beginning or a the end of the session, they are expected to outline the direction of the research about the session topic, taking into account the presented results.
  • They can better introduce most of the speakers if they already know them.
4

In addition to what the others mentioned, in the Q&A:

  • Steer the Q&A: keep audience questions fresh, focused and constructive, avoid non-questions, rants, ad-hominems, personality clashes, know when a back-and-forth needs to be (gracefully) taken offline vs when it doesn't. Know when to let things roll and when to change the topic.
  • When needed, generate discussion If the speakers did not engage with each other (or the audience), try to compare and draw parallels, ask questions on where they differ, mention stuff from other sessions (if relevant) or publications, generate an interesting and lively dialog then sit back

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