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I'm an undergrad and I have invited a speaker to come and speak in my department. He's a mathematician at another university, and although what he will talk about is relevant to mathematics, it's not an academic talk or seminar. It is an academic speaking to other academics and students in an academic setting, however.

I've organised this completely alone so it's down to me to introduce the speaker and make sure the talk runs smoothly. I've never done anything like this and I'm worrying about how I should do it. I'm especially worried about how to run the questions section - which will be a substantial part of the time (at least 15 minutes of the hour).

Here is how I imagine it should go:

  • I thank people for coming and introduce the speaker.
  • I sit down and the speaker... speaks.
  • At the end of his talk I stand up and ask if there are any questions. If people raise their hands I'll point at them so they can ask the speaker their question. I'll keep an eye on the time so when there are just a few minutes left I'll say "there's time for just a couple more questions".
  • After the last question, I'll thank the speaker again and that'll be it.

Should I be doing the questions? Or should I let him call on people himself? (In the latter case, how should I make sure we stay in the time limit?). Where should I stand if I'm moderating the questions? The lecture theatre has a stage where he will stand to give the talk. Should I just stand to the side of him? If I'm standing up there, is it ok for me to ask questions (particularly if nobody in the audience is doing so)?

This is in the UK, in case that's significant.

  • 13
    Good for you for doing this! I will say (based on my experience in the US) that it is good manners for the host to ask questions after the talk if no one in the audience does so. If there are lots of questions from the audience, often the host saves his/her questions for later private discussion. – Anonymous Mar 3 '15 at 13:02
  • As @Anonymous says,have some questions ready. I'm in the UK too and the introducer/chair might need to ask the first question to get things going, or even the only question. Where you stand is preference, but step down off the stage if you can and sit in the front row, moving back towards the stages as the speaker reaches the end of their conclusions. – Chris H Mar 3 '15 at 19:46
  • Your timetable is really standard. I'd only recommend keeping the introduction very short -- maybe 30 secs and focus it on the credentials of the speakers. No weather talk basically. – Heisenberg Mar 3 '15 at 19:50
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First of all, stop worrying - I am sure that, no matter how you decide to approach this, the quality of the talk will be much more memorable to the participants than how you ran the Q&A part from an administrative point of view.

Further:

I thank people for coming and introduce the speaker. I sit down and the speaker... speaks. At the end of his talk I stand up and ask if there are any questions. If people > raise their hands I'll point at them so they can ask the speaker their question. > I'll keep an eye on the time so when there are just a few minutes left I'll say "there's time for just a couple more questions". After the last question, I'll thank the speaker again and that'll be it.

This is pretty much the standard layout of such sessions, and I see no problem at all with running it like that.

Should I be doing the questions? Or should I let him call on people himself?

It is more common that you as a "moderator" call the questions, but I have certainly seen it handled differently as well.

Should I just stand to the side of him?

Probably not during his talk, but when you are moderating the Q&A part you may get up the stage. However, most moderators seem to prefer to stand somewhere to the side, presumably to not steal the presenter's thunder.

is it ok for me to ask questions (particularly if nobody in the audience is doing so)?

Yes, you should make sure that you have at least a few fallback questions as a discussion starter.

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    If only every conference chairman read these couple lines... – yo' Mar 4 '15 at 13:38
8

You should take a seat in the audience, near the front, after you've introduced the speaker. When the speaker calls for questions, ask the first one, on which you and the speaker have agreed in advance. That should break the ice and start questions from the audience. If it doesn't, have about two follow-up questions ready.

When the time limit is approaching, you or the speaker should announce, "We have time for one more question." After answering that last question, the speaker should thank the audience. You stand and face the audience; the audience applauds, and the speaker leaves the stage.

  • and make sure to alert the speaker when they have 10min, 5min, and 1min remaining. people tend to go over if you don't. – atk Mar 3 '15 at 16:00
  • Very good suggestions on the agreed-upon follow-up and fall-back follow-up questions. – Wayne Mar 3 '15 at 17:07
  • This idea of the host asking the first question is something I've never seen carried out in practice. It would seem rather odd to me (and perhaps a bit selfish on the part of the host), unless nobody else in the audience had a question. Though I suppose the convention varies by field and by department. – David Z Mar 4 '15 at 9:49
  • @DavidZ: The host has one or two prepared questions in case there's not a question immediately forthcoming from others.. The idea is to be ready to break the ice. Also note that the host is seated in the audience at the time such a question might be asked. – Bob Brown Mar 4 '15 at 14:55
  • @BobBrown yes, what you said in your comment is more or less how I've seen it work in practice. What you said in your answer, where the host asks the first question without first giving an audience member a chance to ask, seems very strange. – David Z Mar 5 '15 at 5:53
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As a host and chair of the session you have many conflicting duties: keeping the speaker happy, keeping him from running overtime, preventing awkwardness if there are not enough questions, preventing awkwardness if a person in the audience asked improper questions (too low-level, too specific, dismissive of speaker), etc.

How you do these things depends on the speaker, the subject, the audience, and lots more (are there refreshments in the room? Is there some important meeting after the talk so people start getting up and walking out? Is the speaker socially awkward or is he well versed in manipulating a crows?). I am probably much more experienced than you in handling such occasions, and often I find myself struggling to find the appropriate response to each situation.

Here's what I've learned through experience that may be helpful to you:

  • I think about the options in advance, but make the final decision on the spot, depending on the situation.

  • I coordinate with the speaker in advance just before the talk - even if I previously told him everything by email, I speak to him just before the talk starts telling him something like 'ok, you remember that you have 45 minutes, and then we'll probably do about 15 minutes of questions - I will let you know 10 minutes before your 45 minutes are up'.

  • Remember that you are in charge of making the decisions throughout the event, but you can ask people for help in making them. You can ask the speaker and the audience for input, like "Too bad you couldn't finish the last example - will you be able to complete it if we take 5 minutes out of the questions session", or "Is that noise too annoying? should we stop and look for an alternate room?"

  • You are only in charge because sometimes someone must make a dictatorial decision. But you should avoid making any decision unless you have to. Let the speaker choose who asks questions unless for some reason this is not appropriate, let him decide how long to talk about each subject unless it is becoming awkward, let him fend off inconvenient questions unless he is too shy/weak/nice to do so, let the audience ask him to talk more about some topics or to stop and better explain a definition or whatever, and let the speaker decide what to do as long as it doesn't result in anarchy or is clearly the wrong path to take. You are only there to solves problems that would not be solved naturally.

1

In addition to the excellent answers, a couple more tips:

  • pay attention during the talk for slides that the speaker may skip, details which are only glossed over. In case the audience is particularly shy/uninspired, you can always ask the speaker to talk a bit more about those parts. He/She obviously has something to say about them even if they were less important.

  • during question time, make sure the rest of the audience can hear the questions. If not, try to use a microphone or repeat the question yourself before the speaker replies.

  • depending on the occasion it may be useful to ask the people asking questions to briefly introduce themselves before the question.

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