These are advisable guidelines for panel chairs, adapted from The Guardian.
Contact your speakers in advance, either at the conference or via email, to check if they’re happy for you to use their biography and title from the conference programme (people quite often change the focus of their paper by the time they come to present).
Do not give one speaker more prominence than the others, whoever they might be; highlight each person’s key publications and achievements equally.
Be prepared for a stony silence when you open up the floor – prepare your own question for each speaker. But if there is a flurry of hands, don’t hog the time. Prevent questioners from dominating, bullying, or patronising speakers by courteously reminding them to come to the point. Scan the audience to ensure that early career researchers and more reticent colleagues have an opportunity to address the panel. Try to make sure that all speakers get at least one comment or question.
Keep anecdotes about your own research to coffee time and let the speakers take the spotlight. If you find links with your own work, or think of references that might help to inform speakers’ research, talk to them or email them later.
Encourage early career researchers and new speakers, and boost their confidence by thanking them for their presentation and showing an interest in their work.
You are the chair, in full view of the room, so listen attentively and take notes on relevant points that could be used for questions later. Don’t fidget, or yawn.
When it’s time for questions, stand to the side of the podium and scan the audience, leaving centre stage for your speakers. If multiple audience members raise their hands, make eye contact with each and nod discreetly so they know you have seen them.
Always begin promptly and make sure you time each speaker’s individual slot, so that each has their fair share of the session. However awkward it is, you must keep people to time. Be prepared to tackle a speaker even if they are higher up the academic ranks, self-important, or simply stubborn enough to ignore you.
Agree in advance with your speakers about what sign you will use to alert them that they need to begin drawing their talk to a close, such as a finger gesture (not that one). If necessary, know when to stop believing the speaker’s promises that they are about to conclude and inform them firmly that you will have to stop them there in order to introduce the next presenter.
When you get to question time, it is your responsibility to lead the discussion by encouraging a dialogue between the audience and speakers. This can be the most rewarding part of the session; otherwise the experts may as well have stayed at home and read their paper to the cat.
Ensure that everyone who wants to speak has the opportunity to do so, and try to read faces and feel the silences. This way you know when the questions have dried up and it’s time to thank the speakers and the audience, and say how great the session has been. When the time for the panel to end arrives, tie things up (even if there are more questions), allowing everyone to happily head for coffee, tea, and biscuits – where they won’t talk about you, because you did your job so well.