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English Communication for Scientists 
Unit 5: Interacting During Conference Sessions
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5.2  Chairing Sessions


Chairing a session at a conference involves more than reading biographical sketches out loud or interrupting speakers when their time is up. An effective chairperson creates a sense of coherence throughout the (sometimes diverse) presentations. He or she brings the speakers closer to the audience by introducing them warmly, ensures that everything runs smoothly, and wraps up the session in a way that leaves everyone feeling good about it.
Accordingly, chairing a session is not something you improvise. Rather, it is something you prepare for carefully — as carefully as a presentation. How can you introduce speakers in a sincere and interesting way if you have never met them? How can you pronounce their names correctly if you have not asked for their preferred pronunciation? By being prepared, welcoming, and enthusiastic, you make a session more engaging.
Chairing a session is not about looking smart: It is about making everyone else look smart — both the speakers and the attendees. Be firm when you need to, but always be constructive, respectful, and professional. When speaking, be visible, but discreetly so. Place yourself on one side rather than center stage. If the speaker is standing on one side, place yourself on the opposite side. Establish eye contact with whoever you are talking to (primarily the audience). When not speaking, be invisible if you can: Sit down or stand at the back of the room while speakers are presenting. If you are standing to manage questions and answers, move out of the way when speakers are answering questions. Most importantly, look at whoever is speaking, whether that person is an attendee asking a question or a speaker answering one.

Introducing the session

As a chairperson, you must introduce the session before you introduce the first speaker. Let the audience know what the session is about, how it relates to or differs from other sessions at the conference, and how it is going to take place. By introducing the session, you are providing the audience with a global view that will help them assimilate the details. By making the audience feel welcome, you also incline them favorably toward the speakers.
Normally, the various speakers at a session have been grouped for a reason — namely that the topics they address fit within the same theme. This theme may be reflected in the title of the session (although not all sessions have a title), and it may or may not be clear to the audience. As a chairperson, start by letting the audience know about the session's theme. Ideally, preview the session's presentations; in other words, announce all of them upfront, in the right sequence. At this point, however, it is not necessary to mention the speakers' names or the exact titles of the presentations. Instead, show the internal logic of the session by announcing the topics. Here is an example:
This session on the rheology of polymer extrusion will bring together presentations on both measurements and numerical simulations. The first two presentations will report on extrusion experiments with novel screw designs: the first for simple extrusion and the second for coextrusion. Then, the remaining three presentations will show advanced finite-element simulations of the flow of material around the extrusion screw: the first of these three will . . .
Before or after announcing the theme and previewing the presentations, show how the session fits into the overall conference by relating it to other sessions. That is, show how the session continues, or departs from, themes already covered in previous sessions so the audience can form a global view of both the session and the conference as a whole. You might say something like this:
This morning, we heard about polymer rheology in general and about . . . In this first afternoon session, we are focusing on the rheology of one specific type of polymer processing, namely extrusion.
At some point in your introduction, let the audience know how the session is going to take place. Typically, the audience wants to know how long the session will be; whether there will be a break and, if so, at what time; how many speakers there will be; how you plan to take questions (that is, after each presentation or at the end of the session); etc. You may also remind attendees to turn off their mobile phones, fill out evaluation forms for each speaker, and so on. Reassuring the audience about such practical details will help them give their undivided attention to the speakers.
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