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David Sidwell

Chairing a Conference

Most of us have attended plenty of conferences, and over the years I’ve presented at quite a few. So when I was asked to chair the National Information Security Conference (NISC) in Glasgow, I looked forward to it. 3 days, 150 attendees: a proper event, and the chance to meet some top speakers, with the added bonus of a Q&A with Sir Ranulph Fiennes as the closer.

Here’s the 3 things I learned…

1: More depends on the conference organiser than you think.
The logistics of NISC were brilliantly managed by Tina: a lovely lady with the perfect organiser’s personality, combining a charming, humourous unflappability with Rottweiler determination and attention to detail. Tina delivered the speakers to me 15 minutes before each session, outlined session times/workshop/bar/dinner arrangements, and made sure the technology (radio mikes, roving mikes, speaker’s presentations, laser pointers, etc) was ready to go. It was easy for me to have a relaxed chat with the presenters before their talk, get an idea of their mindset, and introduce them personally.

If you’re to chair a conference and you don’t have a Tina, you’ll be walking on a tightrope.

2: You need to identify and curate the flow from the moment the conference starts.
However strong the conference theme, the flow of presentations, discussions and Q&As tends to develop its own momentum, and you can’t wait till the very end of the conference to crystallise it. It’s not easy, but sessions that go off on tangents need to be aligned with the overall flow somehow.

If you think you can catch up on your email during sessions, think again: if people afterwards thought the conference didn’t hang together, that’s down to you.

3: Seed the Q&A.
Many conferences these days use Twitter as a discussion platform, but NISC had its own app where attendees could comment/add value during the talks, and keeping an eye on this will give you some hints as to what’s on peoples’ minds, so on the odd occasion you ask for questions and look out over a sea of blank faces, you’re prepared. And also the Q&A is the perfect time for you as chair to ask the aligning question, that links back to the main conference themes.

If you don’t prepare a few questions during each talk, you’ll regret it during the Q&A. Like a really bad dream. In public. For real.

And here are a couple of hints…

  • Before you go, look through your own archive of presentations. During conferences, there are always 10 minute dead spots (eg the start of days), where a scene-setting snippet can put things into context and get people in the right mood. Having a few 5-10 minute presentation topics relevant to the industry is a great safety net.

  • Put a note in front of you to avoid slipping into cheesy TV presenter-style language. However hard you try not to, you’ll end up wanting to say Thank You all the time and then drivelling on: “Well, BillyBob, thank you very much for that interesting explanation of….”. Much better to say: “John, that was excellent…now, any questions ?” Four words on your To Avoid list also should be Don’t Make Tenuous Links. It always amuses me to see radio and TV presenters crowbarring between topics: “well, thank you Amy for that interesting piece on breast cancer, a subject I know many men, including footballers, are concerned about….so, Wayne, do you think 4-3-3 was the ideal line-up for last night’s game ?”).

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