Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Chairing a conference: How I'm preparing

"That's a BIG job," said a friend of mine, when he heard that I'd agreed to chair the autumn conference of the European Speechwriters Network, coming up in Brussels in September. He's right: At the last conference in May, I was the keynote speaker, responsible for about 20 minutes of talking and another 25 minutes of answering questions. The chair, on the other hand, spent the day onstage, opening the conference, introducing each of the 9 or 10 speakers, asking the first question or two, and moderating the audience's questions. Add it all up and it's much more than 45 minutes of effort.

But this conference was, for me, among the best I've ever attended, yielding so many new ideas, colleagues and collaborators that I'm still using what I learned there in May, jump-starting a book on women and speaking, and more. When Brian Jenner, executive director of the UK Speechwriter's Guild and the European Speechwriters Network, asked me to consider chairing the autumn conference, I said "yes" right away. Recently, a reader said, "You are going to explain how you're preparing for this, right?"  Here's a peek into how I'm getting ready for this big role:

  1. Reading the speakers' writings: As the chair, I want to be able to ask intelligent questions and avoid any inadvertent faux pas in referring to the speakers or their work, which takes on additional weight when you consider that it's an international audience. While we will conduct the conference in English, I know from experience that I'll need to be precise. I've put every book by a speaker on my summer reading list of public speaking topics. Reading's been underway for some time now.
  2. Booking ahead: I speak better when I'm not jet lagged. I've seen speakers at high-level conferences get onstage after long flights, and they lose spark, energy and reaction time, vital ingredients. I'm heading to London first for a little more than a week before the conference, to give another talk, take meetings with contacts about my book, and get adjusted to the time difference.

  3. Consulting with the organizer:  I've already consulted with the organizer about his vision for the chair's role, the themes, and any questions or issues I can foresee so we can walk into that conference with the same goals for the day. This sounds basic and small, and I know from experience that it is not. If you're a chair or moderator, take the time to find out what the organizer wants.
  4. Looking for links and themes: My advance research and reading will help me find themes and grace notes, the factors that will keep me from being a name-reading, box-checking, pro forma chair. You can walk through chairing a meeting, or make it a contribution. I'm aiming for the latter.
  5. Getting social: I'm on many social media platforms and I've been sharing news about the conference as well as following fellow speakers and attendees. Speaker Rune Kier Nielsen from Denmark is giving a talk about using social media to promote your speeches, and this chair intends to set a good example.
  6. Asking the speakers for input: In this case, the organizer will put the speakers in touch with me so I can learn what they want me to include in their introductions, name pronunciations, and any other issues they wish to convey. 
  7. Scripting and working through the agenda: Much of the chair's role requires a script, so you can get names and titles and pronunciations right, remember all those juicy themes and ideas you got from your advance reading, make sure the housekeeping details are clear, and stay on time. The script will help me accomplish this task and reflect all my discussions with the organizer and the speakers.
  8. Getting coaching for me: I've had plenty of general speaker coaching, so my preference these days is to seek a coach for myself when I have a major speaking task on which to focus. I've asked a talented fellow coach to help me prep and strategize. Yes, even coaches get coached, and so should you.
  9. Planning my energy for the day: The chair's role is an on-again, off-again, energy-sapping role in some sense. I can't take a session off, and breaks will be my few scant opportunities to "relax." But I can prepare by managing jet lag, meditating, doing yoga and taking a run before the sessions start, as well as drinking plenty of water and making sure I'm rested and ready. 
  10. Participating fully in the conference and its social events: I can't do this in advance, but I can plan for it and make it part of my approach to the conference. At TED conferences, we insist on speakers who will arrive at the start, stay through the finish and engage with participants throughout. That has become my own approach when I'm invited as a speaker, chair or moderator--and organizers and attendees appreciate it more than you'll ever realize. You're part of the reason they're there. Have a presence off the podium, as well as on it.
Photos from the spring conference courtesy of the UK Speechwriters Guild

I've got two smart workshops for communicators this fall, and you get good discounts if you register this month for Be an Expert on Working with Experts on October 8, or The Keys to Confident Public Speaking on October 17. Join us and register today!