Chairing a conference is much like running a meeting, only on a larger scale. A conference may run upwards of a day (maybe more) and involve multiple topics and speakers.
I was chairman of an organization for five years. In that time we held four in-person conferences. (The fifth was a teleconference.) I learned a lot chairing those meetings, which I’d like to share with you. This is not a comprehensive list by any means; just my observations from those conferences. Incidentally, many of the suggestions apply to regular meetings. Conferences can enhance and test your managerial skills, as you will see.
Rein in the crowd: It’s really easy for a discussion to go astray. One person offers a comment, and soon everyone has an opinion on the matter or anything else that comes to mind. Within minutes the conversation is way off base, and you’re losing control of the meeting. Tactfully interrupt the free-for-all, and get the meeting back on track. “Excuse me, but we really need to get back to the topic at hand.” Be forceful: It’s expected of the conference chair. The other attendees will appreciate it as they have been forced to sit through several minutes of useless babble.
Watch the clock: Another consequence of uncontrolled discussion is that it wastes valuable time. Your agenda, by design, sets aside blocks of time for each topic. That’s so you can cover all the subjects adequately. Any discussion that runs long infringes on time for later topics. Regularly glance at your watch or the clock to make certain the group remains on time. If need be, chime in with something like, “Hey, folks, we need to step it up a bit” to prod them along. Many times participants are merely echoing comments made earlier. No need for six versions of the same opinion. Cut off discussion, and take the group to the next step (a vote, for example).
Engage everyone: Dialogue sometimes gets commandeered by one or two more vocal (and veteran) participants, causing others to remain silent. Those silent members may agree with the views being expressed, or they may be too shy to speak up. If certain attendees aren’t participating fully, call on them. They may not have much to say, and may feel awkward being put on the spot, but they’ll appreciate it nonetheless. To avoid catching them off-guard, announce before discussion begins that you will seek input from everyone, and will call on those who don’t offer suggestions on their own. Remind the audience that the conference is for the benefit of all.
Follow parliamentary procedures: Remember Robert’s Rules of Order? If not, grab a copy from the bookstore. The complete guide has more than 600 pages, which can be intimidating. If that’s the case with you, consider the condensed version. At about 160 pages it covers some of the more common topics, such as handling motions, points of order, and others.
Proper planning includes notices to hotel, attendees, and vendors
Planning for a conference may begin a year or more in advance. Set an agenda for contacting the various parties involved to avoid forgetting a step.
Make your hotel reservations as soon as possible. Inquire at the conclusion of this year’s conference about room availability for next year. One year out may seem like a long time, but it’s not for the hospitaility industry. Verify that the meeting and sleeping rooms are available, and make the appropriate reservations.
Your initial notices to attendees should be sent approximately six months ahead, with reminder notices every two or three weeks after that. You’ll be surprised at how many people write or call asking about the date and location of the conference, despite the messages you already sent. Some people apparently don’t take the time to read their mail, and will contact you for more information. Contact any vendors (caterer and A/V firm, for example) at least six months out to confirm they have your order.
Post notices on your Web site and Facebook page. Consider an occasional tweet, as well. It’s hard to over-notify about something like this.
Lastly, remember to provide the hotel your final headcount by deadline.
If you found this column helpful, I’d appreciate it if you shared it with others. What has been your experiences with conferences, as either an attendee or chairperson? Feel free to post your thoughts below.