Category Archives: Conferences

Confessions of a Reluctant Session Chair

I’ve done a few conference presentations now, but I still regard myself as a novice. The difference between the way in which I now actively submit proposals volunteering to give a presentation and the distinct lack of enthusiasm which used to greet any announcement that my undergraduate work would be assessed by presentation is not lost on me. When I was sent the programme for the eLearning 2.0 conference where I would be presenting on the Flipped Classroom, along with a note saying that I’d been allocated as Session Chair, I was back to those out of my depth feelings of presentations as a student all those years ago.

I tried to get out of it, arguing that there would be more qualified people than me in the room, and that I would be too busy mentally rewriting my presentation. An earlier speaker in the session had a very similar title for his presentation, so I was keen to avoid repetition and to pick up on angles where we had a difference of approach or opinion, so I felt I wouldn’t be able to clock watch at the same time. An email discussion with the Conference Chairs revealed that it was too late to change anything as the programmes had gone to print, but it wouldn’t be too daunting a task. The reason why I had been asked to chair the session was a cunning plan; the last speaker in each session acts as chair, because they have a vested interest in keeping those who speak before them to time so there is sufficient time for their own talk.

Resigned to the fact that I couldn’t get out of it, and heartened by assurances that there would be support available from the Conference Chairs, I read more about the role both from the conference’s own guide for Session Chairs and other guides I found online. Maybe this wouldn’t be too bad after all. An email to the presenter who had a similar title to mine resulted in him sending me an outline of what he was going to cover so I could preempt that by giving a slightly different focus to my presentation.

On the day, everything was going well. An unscheduled comfort/drinks break before my session meant we were running late, so I would have to amend my copy of the programme with the real timings once we got underway. I took the opportunity to highlight a few key phrases on my copy of the abstracts in case I needed to ad-lib a longer than planned introduction to fill awkward silences and was ready to go. The break was useful as the venue’s IT guy was having issues getting the sound system and the first speaker’s laptop to cooperate. Once he was ready, I kept my introduction simple, as we were running late and it wasn’t long since a scene-setting talk from one of the joint Conference Chairs, and soon the first speaker was on.

I was dreading the “have a backup question in case nobody asks one” aspect of the role, because the two other presentations in the session were so closely related to my own work that I was struggling to come up with something which I didn’t already know the answer to or would pre-empt my own presentation. I guess in the role of Session Chair trying to fill an awkward silence you have a bit of leeway to ask questions which would otherwise be considered poor form, but I wanted to avoid it.

The first presenter gave an interesting talk and threw up a couple of points which differed from the approach the literature recommends, so I was prepared to ask a question on that, but hoped to be able to keep it to use in my own talk. I don’t think anybody noticed that I’d made a slight mess of the timings by forgetting to leave some time for questions when I recalculated for the late start! I got away with it and took several questions from the floor.

So far so good. The next presentation involved a technical demonstration. The venue’s IT guy was on hand, but it took a little while to get their kit set up, which was eating into their allocated time. Their presentation would have benefited from a longer slot, and demonstrated perfectly why I like to use screen recordings in place of live demos where it’s practical and time is limited – much less stressful and more likely to work! They seemed to be barely past the introduction when I was holding up the 5 minutes card – even after I made the executive decision to curtail the questions so they could have the full 15 minutes for the presentation. As it happened their demo was foiled by a poor 3G connection so I suggested taking some questions while the presenters were waiting for their party piece to finish loading, which apparently it did some time during the next presentation.

Relieved that I hadn’t needed my (poor) backup questions, it was my turn. I’d kept my presentation simple because of the time constraints, with a very straightforward PowerPoint presentation. Having nobody to keep me to time, I used the stopwatch app on my iPad, and was amazed that even with unrehearsed asides to address points raised by the previous speakers and a pause for a glass of water when my voice started to disappear, I finished at pretty much 15 minutes exactly. Only one question, asking me to expand on something which I’d said I was glossing over due to time constraints. Maybe between myself and the previous speaker we’d covered most of the points which people were interested in, or more likely, people wanted to get out of the hot room and get to the coffee break.

I wasn’t entirely sure where to go from there, so I invited the audience to join me in thanking the other speakers in the session and was thankful for one of the joint Conference Chairs taking over to direct people to the refreshments.

Somehow, I’d got away with it, everyone had had their full 15 minutes and some questions, and despite a few delays the lack of questions for my talk meant the conference was unexpectedly back to the published schedule.

In summary, I have to say that once I settled into it, chairing the session wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be. With a little bit of thought beforehand, simple things like making sure you have an accurate clock or watch, making a note of the real start and end times of the sessions, and being prepared to be flexible when things do go wrong it can be an enjoyable experience. And “Session Chair at an International Conference” is certainly going to look good on my CV.


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