So, you want to be a session chair?

Michael Lim is a MSc student in the Wilson Tox Lab and recently had his first experience as a conference session chair.  He shares his experiences in this post…

Why hello there! If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re likely in the same position I was in a few months ago; interested in an opening to be a session chair for a conference, but not quite sure what the job entails. Well rest assured, as I’ll share my recent experience being a chair at the 55th Canadian Society of Zoologists (CSZ) Annual Meeting based at Western University.

As a second year McMaster University Master’s student (try saying that 10 times fast!) in the Wilson Toxicology Lab, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend several conferences and meetings. In fact, I attended the 54th CSZ Meeting last year at the University of Calgary. If you’re a biologist, and especially if you’re Canadian, chances are that you’ve at least heard of the CSZ meeting, if you haven’t attended it in person. For those of you who haven’t yet heard about CSZ, their annual meeting serves as an opportunity for biologists from across the country and beyond to gather and share their research, celebrating ground-breaking studies and fantastic presentations across both platform and poster presentations. There is an incredibly wide variety of work, ranging from tiny organisms like daphnia all the way to multi-level African ecosystem dynamics.

As hundreds of members come to share their research every year, presentations end up being run in several consecutive sections throughout the day for the entire conference. Each platform presentation section is further split into different concurrent sessions which include research on a specific topic such as hypoxia, environmental contaminants, and molecular physiology. In order for each session to run smoothly and remain on schedule, CSZ members are asked to volunteer themselves as session chairs. This brings us to the heart of this post; what is a session chair, and what do they do? While I can’t speak for every session chair (there were over 20!), I can share some of my personal experiences and give some tips both on presenting and being a chair.

As I briefly mentioned before, this was my second time at a CSZ meeting, and this time around I decided I wanted to better understand how the conference was run and develop my presentation skills in a role that required more responsibility and flexible thinking. When the chance to be a session chair was offered, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity. That is not to say I had no doubts or questions. As a self-proclaimed introvert, like many scientists are, the idea of presiding over other researchers (some of whom are leaders in their fields) filled me with a sense of nervousness. What if I completely botch their name, or the name of the species they worked on? What if there are no questions and I subject the audience to intense awkward silence? What if I act like a literal “chair”, freezing up in front of the crowd? It is in moments of nervousness like these that I remember some advice I got from one of my teachers in middle school, which I’ll now pass on to you.

First, take a moment to step back and detach yourself. Becoming too focused and worrying about every tiny detail won’t help you. Prepare for things that are manageable, such as asking each presenter how they would like to be addressed and clarifying any pronunciation questions. In order to keep everything on schedule, I recommend setting up signals ahead of time with each presenter, preferably at least two signals spaced several minutes apart so that the presenter will have time to wrap up concisely. Some common signals to use include raising a piece of paper, or standing up at the side of the stage, but still in view of the presenter.

For everything else, you just need to accept that problems will always happen, and that you’ll just need to calmly address them one at a time. For example, during my session, there ended up being a scheduling conflict, which resulted in needing to move the speaking order around.

Second, being nervous is perfectly normal. Use it as a tool when preparing for your presentation, to focus on being as clear and direct as possible. During the presentation itself, turn the nervousness into energy to help your presentation stand out. This can come in many forms such as projecting your voice more strongly, using dynamic hand gestures, or even becoming spontaneously witty. This will not happen right away. It may even take tens to hundreds of presentations; but the important thing is to keep on practicing. If you don’t try to change, you never will.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, you must realize that your audience isn’t trying to tear you down. Without a doubt, you’ll come across a handful of people who enjoy making others feel awkward or uncertain, but the vast majority of your audience is genuinely interested in what you’re working on, and they want to see you develop and succeed as a researcher.

In closing, being a chair is something I definitely recommend everyone should try at least once in their graduate career. I know that it can sometimes be hard to know if your preparation and perseverance pay off, but in the words of someone who thanked me for running a good session, “As long as you keep everything moving and add your own fun flair, that’s all anyone can ask for.”