Whether you’re chairing a meeting of six or a conference of six hundred, hosting the show is one of those skills that look considerably easier than it is. But like any skill, it can be mastered (or at worst faked) with some thought, planning, and tips from those that know.
The best conference chairs and presenters often come from news and broadcasting backgrounds. That’s because they’re used to taking a brief, running to very strict timings, cutting people off without offending them, and thinking on their feet. For the most part they’re good at those things because they do them every day and they’re learned from their mistakes. Here are some of the things they do to ensure a smooth, successful event that can be applied in a number of business situations:
Chances are, unless you a professional facilitator taking on a wide variety of conferences with which you have little regular connection, you’ll be chairing an event or meeting you know something about, which is a helpful start. That shouldn’t mean you don’t do some swotting up beforehand. Look at the subjects up for discussion. Try to understand the take those contributing have on their subject. Speak to them or ask for a short summary. You don’t need to be an expert on every element, but you need to know what’s happening.
Draw up a running order of what will be presented, by whom, and for how long. Allow time for questions or wider discussion. Make sure everyone involved knows what’s happening in advance, what’s expected of them, and encourage them to feedback any thoughts beforehand.
That said; be firm. If someone wants more time or wants to add more subjects to the agenda, stand your ground. Should that subject be addressed at another time, in another meeting? Is there time? Agree an agenda, but if necessary impose one. Should the meeting really last more than an hour? Should a speaker really be allowed more than 30 minutes? Tell all involved that you will be ruthlessly sticking to the final agenda. If anything comes up as a result of discussions, it can be addressed later.
Remember: time is not on your side
Things often over-run. Whether it’s someone being sidetracked on the way to the meeting or delegate registration taking longer than planned.Yet it is your job to get things to run to time or as near as possible. Be prepared to improvise. If it’s a meeting, consider cutting an item from the agenda and address it later (although ideally, a really well run meeting shouldn’t have anything on the agenda that is extraneous or could be discussed at another time or via another medium.) If it’s a conference, look at reducing a coffee break or cutting out questions to a speaker.
On the other hand, you could run early or something might go wrong. Be prepared to fill, ask questions, take questions, but always do something useful. Don’t allow people to start reaching for their phones to check emails or play Plants vs Zombies. In a conference, it’s useful to have at least two or three questions ready for every speaker. British audiences in particular can be reticent to ask a question when prompted, and the chair needs to get things going. Indeed itmight be that no-one has a question, and having some of your own will avoid an awkward silence at the end of a speech. You can easily drop these questions if you need to, or have them in your back pocket if you have time to fill.
It might seem unlikely that you’ll cover your 60 minute meeting agenda in 45, but you never know. Perhaps someone is ill or a subject is thrown out because of events. It’ll be tempting to use those 15 minutes to get back to the desk and do other things, but consider covering a secondary issue or raising something that would have been discussed at a later date to get a head start.
Keep it short and to the point
Nothing should drag on, but nor should you omit important things. Whether it’s a conference speaker or a manager in a meeting, they need to focus on their point and get to it as soon as possible. As chair, speak to them beforehand, in as diplomatic a way as possible. Ask them what they want to say, how they want to contribute, and make it clear there are other items to cover, other people who want to speak.
On the day, don’t be afraid to ask them to wrap up what they’re saying if they’ve exceeded (or look like exceeding) their time or have started going on tangents. At conferences it’s useful to agree with speakers a signal you will use to warn them they are five minutes and then one minute from the end. It may annoy some speakers, but your duty is to the audience or to the majority of people in the room. In serious cases you may need to interrupt someone, thanking them for their contribution before they’ve actually finished. Thank them in effusive enough a tone, and it’ll be hard for them too be too angry with you.
Don’t intimidate; be an authoritative friend
There’s a temptation to think you’re Jeremy Paxman and to hound people into submission or bully them into making their point in ten words or less. In reality the chair should be almost invisible, like a match referee – they run things, make sure the rules are adhered to, but the actual content is driven by others and the discussions they provoke.
Stay with it
The chair is the only one in the room that has to listen to everything that’s being said, know what time it is, and have something to contribute in summing up. You need to stay alert, make notes, and be aware of when things might be about to go awry.
In conclusion: think of a story
People like a story. They remember a story. It’s how we’re all taught to think, learn and understand from a very young age. It also makes things interesting in a way a list of facts or figures can never be. Whilst it may not always be possible, try to thread the issues and presentations together, from the sales and financial figures to next year’s marketing campaign to that motivational speaker, there will be a common idea that unifies everyone in the room and what they’re trying to achieve.
This is, of course, easier with conferences because you’re gathering with a particular goal or aim in mind. It might be to review the year just gone, announce a new strategy, or look at the work of a particular department or sector, but meetings often have one or two key foundations too.
It may appear that the contributors are disparate, with little in common in their subjects. But leaving it at that will give those attending the sense they’ve only gained from a small proportion of what they’ve heard. Use your questions to tie things together. Ask a speaker what they thought about the previous speaker’s comments. Find some cross over in their background.
When everyone has spoken, and those in the room have hopefully learned something, been inspired, informed or entertained, you just need to remind everyone why they were there. Conclude with the story of the meeting or conference in just a few short sentences. Don’t go on too long though – everyone will be more than ready to get to the bar, their desk or home.
Whilst it can look intimidating, and a job strictly for the professionals, chairing is a vital skill for many managers and leaders. Following a few rules and thinking about what you’re doing in advance, even when you’re busy, can save time and make a meeting or conference considerably more memorable and useful.