Charmaine Russell, Head of Conference Production at AMI, gives us the benefit of her experience on perfecting the art of chairing a conference.

Chairing a conference can be an intimidating prospect. Faced with a sea of expectant faces the podium can feel a very lonely place, and knowing that the smooth and timely running of the event sits squarely on your shoulders is daunting.

Chairing duties were thrust upon me just a few short months into my role at AMI and my learning curve was steep. Fast forward 4 years and I have now had the opportunity to chair over 25 of our packaging-related conferences spanning Europe, the U.S., Asia and the Middle East. Having learnt the hard way, here are my top tips to help make the experience as enjoyable as possible.

  1. Practice your opening address or at least the first paragraph to build your confidence. Delivering this well will help to settle those nerves.
  2. Know the key information. Check with the conference organisers on items such as planned fire alarms, where the coffee/lunch breaks are being held, who the sponsors are and what the WiFi password is.
  3. Familiarise yourself with the technology. Find out how the microphones, powerpoint clicker etc. work – both for your peace of mind when you are speaking, as well as being able to remind and assist speakers when the inevitable nerves kick in.
  4. Tailor to the audience. Think about the region you are presenting in and if you need to adapt your style/wording appropriately – for instance saying cell/mobile phone.
  5. Practice difficult names. Some names can be real tongue twisters or it won’t be clear how they should be pronounced. Double check with the speak if you’re unsure – in the heat of the moment you might not get it 100% right, but at least you know you gave it your best shot.
  6. Time each presentation. I use the stopwatch on my phone (make sure its set to silent!) to time each presentation to ensure each speaker gets their fair time on stage. Also keep an eye on how many slides each speaker has left so you can decide if you need to prompt them to finish.
  7. Open up the debate. At AMI we open the floor to questions at the end of each presentation. Some audiences are shy to ask questions until the chair has asked the first one, so ask to see the papers ahead of time so you can plan at least one question for each speaker. If you can’t think of a question try asking the speaker beforehand if they can suggest something for you to ask them. Encourage debate but if it starts going around in circles then it’s time to politely move the discussion on!
  8. Keep some essentials close to hand. Things I always have with me include water and throat sweets to fend off a dry throat or the dreaded tickly cough; tissues (you never know when you might need them!); headache tablets (the days can be long and tiring); a notepad & pen and a hard copy of the conference proceedings (if available).
  9. Thank your speakers. Try and do this both in person on the day and also with a follow up message. They have taken time to prepare a presentation, so a quick thank you is always appreciated.
  10. A smile can go a long way. Sometimes in spite of all you and your team’s best efforts, things don’t always go to plan. Try and stay as calm as possible (even if your mind is whirring at 100 miles an hour), distract the audience whilst the problem is resolved (filling in the feedback survey is a useful suggestion) and if all else fails…smile!
  11. Don’t let the power go to your head! Chairing can be stressful but try and enjoy the opportunity as much as possible…it’s not often you have 200-odd people in the palm of your hand!