Goals for the Session Chair

  • Initially engage the audience’s interest in the session topic.
  • Help presenters establish their credibility with the audience.
  • Make sure that the session runs smoothly and sticks to the published schedule.
  • Maintain the civility of the debates and dialogue.
  • Help presenters and the audience feel that the session was worth the time they invested in it.

10 Tips for Chairing a Successful Session

1. Make Contact – Contact your speakers before the conference to work out AV arrangements, to make sure they know when and where their presentation will take place, and to answer any questions they may have. Remind them to review meeting policies and accessibility guidelines.

2. Be Prepared – Familiarize yourself with annual meeting policies and the general topic of the session and read abstracts (and full papers if they are available) to familiarize yourself with the content of the individual presentations. If you think two speakers are in danger of covering the same issues contact them in advance to give them an opportunity to tailor their presentations. Consolidate AV presentations on one laptop, and bring any necessary adapters and props needed to manage the timing of presentations (eg, a timer or cue cards, etc.).

3. Face-to-Face – Arrange to meet your speakers at the conference venue to ensure they know the time and venue of their presentation, and that they bring problems or special requirements to the attention of the conference organizers.

4. Think and Plan – Plan the general format of your session and think about how best to introduce the speakers.

5. Introduce Session – Get the attention of the audience, introduce the topic of the session, and present the format of the session.

6. Introduce the Speakers – Prepare some information to introduce each of the speakers. Keep the introductions short and accurate; indicate if speakers prefer not to be recorded.

7. Timing – Remember that there are only 30 minutes available for each presentation and discussion, so encourage your speakers to leave enough time for discussion at the end of their presentations. Monitor the timing of your speakers, and be clear and forthright about keeping them to the limit.

8. Discussion – Have a few questions ready in case the audience doesn’t. If questions are too long or complicated, interrupt and suggest that the issue is discussed after the session.

9. Closing – Conclude the session with a short summary of the content of the session, acknowledge the speakers, and announce the next sessions, if any, on related topics.

10. The End – After the session ends, thank the speakers for their contributions before they leave the room.

Detailed Guidance

Before the Session

Meeting Policies

Ultimately, chairs are the first line in enforcing annual meeting policies; please review them. We recommend direct, timely intervention whenever possible, but you can also seek help from the registration desk staff or conference organizers (contact information will be provided in the program material at the meeting). If you become aware of imminent safety issues, immediately contact hotel security by dialing ‘0’ at a hotel phone, or police by dialing 911, then contact the registration desk staff or conference organizers.


As a step towards equitable access, AFS has developed guidelines for conference presenters to follow in order to make their work more accessible to all. AFS asks all presenters to read and follow these guidelines and to ask for assistance if needed.

We ask you, as chair, to reinforce these standards with your panelists as they prepare for the meeting, and in your session as it unfolds.

Social Media

Increasingly, audience members may be presumed to have the means of recording conference presentations in their pockets, whether audio or videotaping speakers or photographing slides. Such recordings may serve educational purposes, allowing listeners to be more accurate and thorough in quoting or attributing ideas to their authors. We recommend that panelists consider, in advance, how they will respond to this development if it arises.

Our policy states that audience members may not use any visual or audio recording devices to record presentations without the express approval of the presenter. We recommend that you ask your panelists before the session begins whether or not they object to being recorded; if they do, make that announcement before the session and/or when those presenters begin to speak, especially since new audience members may come in mid-session.

If you see someone recording without permission, ask them to stop. Whenever possible, approach the person in question directly and quietly without interrupting the presentation. Assume, for starters, that violations of the policy are due to ignorance.

Audiovisual Equipment

AFS will provide, in every meeting room, the following equipment ONLY: an LCD projector, a screen, and a remote control; if speakers were requested at the time of proposal, speakers and an audio jack will also be included. Mac users, in particular, should investigate and supply any adapters that may be necessary to fit this standard equipment.

AFS will also provide sound systems and podium microphones in the larger meeting rooms. Some rooms are small enough not to require microphones. AFS takes care to assign those who request speakers to appropriate rooms.

It has always been AFS policy NOT to provide computers for presentations. Presenters using AV materials will need to provide a laptop, or bring their AV materials on another device that does not require a laptop and can connect directly to the projector. In many cases, these arrangements are best worked out at the session level. We strongly encourage you to:

a. Contact your panelists about their audio-visual needs NOW.

b. Make plans to consolidate all audio-visual materials for the session that will require a laptop to one presenter’s laptop (and possibly to a backup) in order to smooth the transitions between presentations. Whenever possible, individual presenters should arrange time to test their materials on the shared laptop in advance of the session so they can arrange an alternative if some sort of incompatibility emerges.

c. Don’t rely on internet streaming for audio or video, since bandwidth may be uncertain.

d. If at all possible, have presenters using CDs or DVDs send those disks before the meeting to the presenter whose laptop will be used in the session, so that they can be tested on that laptop for compatibility issues.

e. Make certain that you have suitable adapters to connect to the standard equipment, particularly if you will be using a Mac.

Contact Your Speakers

Before the conference contact your speakers to ask them if they have any questions about their presentation. Make sure your speakers know the date, time, and place of their presentation. Confirm that they have brought any special requirements to the attention of the conference organizers. Ask them to give you a short biography with the relevant background material so that you can introduce them properly. Find out how they feel about being recorded. We also suggest that you encourage your presenters to share copies of their papers with one another before the meeting.

You can find presenter contact information when you Log In to the Annual Meeting Hub. If that fails, contact [email protected].

Be Prepared

As chair, you should be familiar with the topic of the session in general, and with the content of the presentations in particular. Plan how to provide a general introduction to the session, when necessary, and how to introduce each speaker.

Make the commitment to keep speakers to their allotted times, even if that means cutting presenters off in time to allow the next speaker to start as scheduled. Create a plan to manage the time (see below) and share it with your presenters in advance. Bring a timer or cue cards, or whatever tools you will need to enforce the schedule.

Meet Your Speakers

When possible, and especially if you do not know them, arrange to meet your speakers early in the conference. Ask speakers about their pronouns so they will be appropriately referenced during their presentation.

During the Session

Introducing the Session

Effective session chairs most often begin by making contact with the audience to get everyone’s attention and to introduce the audience to the topic(s) that will be addressed in the session. Don’t assume that everyone is familiar with the topic already. The chair’s opening remarks should not devolve into an unscheduled invited talk, but should simply introduce the framework for the following speakers. This is also a good opportunity to present the format of the session; for example, that—following current AFS practice—questions will be taken after each presentation rather than at the end of the session.

This introduction must be brief in order to stick to the published schedule.

If any of your panelists prefer not to be recorded, announce this at the beginning of the session and/or when those speakers begin their presentations.

Introducing the Speakers

Introductions help create the audience’s first impressions about a speaker and can make them more interested in hearing what they have to say. This is particularly true if the speaker is relatively unknown (someone from another field, a newcomer to the AFS meeting, a student). Be accurate and respectful in your introduction. If you know the presenter and have something nice to say about them, say it. Tell the audience something about the presenter’s expertise, interests, or accomplishments. These things will help establish speakers’ credibility with the audience, and make the session more enjoyable to both the audience and presenter alike. You can do this best if you have gathered the relevant biographical information prior to the conference.

Immediately prior to the session, confirm with each speaker the accuracy of the information you will be using to introduce them and the correct pronunciation of their names. Ask if they prefer to be introduced using their formal name or by a familiar name (e.g., Deborah or Deb, Samuel or Sam). The minimum introduction to a presentation should be a mention of the title and a few words about the speaker read from the information provided (beware of difficulties reading hand-written notes you or they may well have scribbled in a hurry). If the presentation has been co-authored, you should mention the name(s) of the absent co-author(s) as well.

Time Allocation and Control

This year, we have a mix of 90-minute and 120-minute sessions: early morning time blocks are only 90 minutes long, while late morning and afternoon blocks are 120 minutes. 90-minute sessions in the late morning and afternoon time blocks have 30 minutes of optional discussion time at the end; the extra time can be used for additional discussion as you see fit, or you can give the gift of time to your presenters and audience. Check with your panelists before the session to make sure that you understand their preferences.

For paper panels:

It is very important that you enforce the presentation times as they are printed in the program material; meeting participants count on that predictability when they plan their movements, and speakers who go past their allotted times rob subsequent presenters of the time they need to present their work.

Some panels have papers of different lengths; the program material has been carefully edited to reflect these differences. If you suspect an error in your panel schedule, contact AFS staff as soon as possible.

It is also very important to check the online Program Addendum before your session to see if there are any last-minute changes to your schedule. Every year, AFS receives notice of withdrawals after the program book is printed, sometimes in the days and hours before the meeting. AFS staff will also attempt to contact you directly in the case of withdrawals. Typically, all subsequent papers move forward to fill gaps. The online Program Addendum is the single most reliable source of information about changes for all attendees; it can be found on the Annual Meeting hub.

Most individual presentations are allotted 15 or 30 minutes, as noted in the meeting program: 15-minute slots are for 10-minute papers or diamond presentations, while 30-minute slots are for 20-minute papers; all include time for discussion immediately after the paper. Keeping speakers to this limit is the most difficult task, since all of us tend to forget about time as soon as we have the floor. There are numerous techniques for time control, including cue cards with 10-, 5-, 2- and minute countdowns and a session timer, but never rely on the speaker to have eye contact with you on a regular basis to determine how much speaking time is left: most speakers will either look at the audience or focus on their notes.

Be prepared to speak up and remind speakers when they are running out of time. If there is no sign of the speaker drawing her presentation to a close, you should interrupt five minutes before their allocated speaking time is over in order to give them a chance to wind up their presentation.

As just mentioned, the schedule allots 15 or 30 minutes for each paper presentation, including time for discussion immediately after each presentation. After each presenter has concluded their paper, announce that the floor is now open for discussion of the paper for X minutes (X is the difference between the assigned time block and the time it took for the presenter to give her paper).

Whenever possible, panels with short papers are allocated additional time at the end for discussion of the panel as a whole.

For Diamond sessions (sessions comprising seven-minute Diamond presentations):

Diamond presentations are constrained by the necessity of keeping pace with the 21 slides that automatically advance every 20 seconds. Be aware that the presenters will be highly conscious of pacing themselves accordingly, but that they may need assistance with the transition from one presenter to the next. The schedule typically gives diamond presentations 15 minutes for each seven-minute presentation in order to allow immediate discussion and some time for each presenter to get situated.

Pre-organized Diamond panels may allocate time among presentations and discussion as the chair requested in the session proposal, allowing at least 10 minutes for each presentation. Panels that include individual Diamond presentations should follow the printed schedule.

At the discretion of the session chair, discussion time may be used for response by a formal discussant (if proposed in advance), open “full room” questions and answers, break-out time in which presenters can confer with interested audience members, or a combination of these discussion formats.

For forums (sessions comprising only informal oral presentations and discussion):

Forums are intended to be run much more flexibly than panels, which are broken into definite periods. If you are chairing a forum, you are free to structure your allotted time in whatever way you think is best for your participants, your audiences, and the subjects of your session. (It is, however, usually a good idea for you to make clear at the beginning of the session what that structure will be.) The program book lists forum participants in alphabetical order; you may order their oral presentations in any way you like.

Coordinating Discussion

Please ask members of the audience asking a question to give their names and affiliations, and to use the audience microphone when one is provided. If there are no questions (which often is the case), you may help the speakers and the audience save face by having one or two questions to ask, but in general, questions from the audience should have preference. If there are too many questions or the questions are too difficult to understand or answer, you may step in and remind the audience of the time limit, and that such specific issues can be discussed after the session. If time remains at the very end of the session, you may decide to return to these questions.

Closing the Session

It is good practice for the session chair to sum up the session after the last presentation. You may wish, for instance, to speak a few sentences summarizing the content of the session, acknowledging all the speakers and the audience (for their participation), and announcing the next session, if any, on the same or a similar topic. You’ll most likely need to be very brief here.

After the Session

There is not much for the session chair to do after the session, but it is a good practice to thank each of the speakers before they leave the room.

Take notes about your estimate of the number of people who attended the session, arrangements that worked well or didn’t work well, and any other information that would help the organizers plan future meetings, since you will be asked for feedback after the meeting.

If any presenters did not show up as scheduled, please email [email protected].



This summary was adapted with permission from the HEAnet National Networking Conference 2003 Guidelines for Session Chairs, which in turn was based on the Trans-European Research and Education Networking Association’s document Guideline for JENC8 Session Chairs, produced by Hannes Lubich.