Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chairing a conference: How did I do? Lessons for chairs from #esnbxl

"You are going to tell us how it went, aren't you?"

I didn't initially intend to blog about chairing the European Speechwriters Network autumn leadership and communication conference in Brussels. But reader Emily Culbertson is curious about chairing and moderating, and her question--sent in before the trip began--became a challenge for me along the way. Could I glean lessons anyone might use in chairing a conference? What did I notice? What did others notice? What went well, or could have gone better? Any speaker tackling a big public speaking task will learn more and do better next time if she takes the time to do this kind of assessment, and I'm happy to share it with you, in the form of my takeaway lessons:
  1. If you're going to chair something, say "yes" to an excellent organizer: Brian Jenner is the executive director of the UK Speechwriters' Guild and the European Speechwriter Network--two groups he created--and the spring conference I keynoted was one of my all-time favorites. He thinks big, builds communities, and curates speakers well, and we have a shared understanding of what makes a good conference experience. I should note that it was Brian who selected and recruited the speakers and curated the conference content; anyone who approached me about speaking was sent to him with a note that I was merely the handmaiden of the organizer.
  2. Script like mad, so you're ready to seize the great opportunities of the moment: Emily also wanted to know how much I scripted vs. worked from talking points vs. winging it. I scripted my five-minute introduction to the day, every speaker's introduction, and closing remarks that wove the speakers' themes together in yet another way while thanking each of them for their contributions. I changed one or two introductions and a couple of closing remarks as I listened to the speakers, right on the Chromebook. I took some notes to help me ask the first question for some speakers, and extemporized for others. I didn't script announcements, but knew where they would come and put those directions into the script (Coffee/tea break here, back in 15 minutes, etc.). That let me make jokes, react to speakers in real time and have some grace notes already up my sleeve. Did I work hard ahead of time to make the scripted stuff feel unscripted? You bet I did. And by the time I had to say it, it came out relatively smoothly. I referred to my notes, but did not read them aloud.
  3. Listen: Scripting most of my day did one more important thing: It let me listen to the speakers, instead of worrying about what I was going to say or do next. Without the chance to listen, I would have missed many wonderful perspectives from the speakers, like communications researcher Max Atkinson saying what a privilege it was to be able to address the audience in his first language of English, or columnist and speechwriter Mia Doornaert sharing with me privately all the languages she speaks (in addition to having studied Greek and Latin), an important piece of background I asked her to share with the audience when it came time for questions. I could catch things to use later in blog posts, as well as nuances I could put to work from the chair's desk immediately.
  4. Get thematic: Brian left the description of the conference themes up to me for my opening remarks. Several speakers were tackling different aspects of the challenges involved in preparing speeches for leaders who were delivering them in their second language, to audiences who might speak one language but be listening in their second language. To my mind, that begged the question of how speechwriters can achieve understanding of their words when those words have to go through so many filters, many of which don't aid understanding. So filtering became my opening theme, and I asked the audience to listen as the day progressed for what the speakers would say about the filters of language, public opinion, historic perspective, social media, technology, distance and more. In my closing remarks, I mixed it up differently, pairing speakers to tie their themes together as I thanked each of them. For example, "Fred Metcalf showed us that humor is infectious--he had all of us laughing--and Rune Kier showed us how to make sure our speeches go viral with social media. Thanks to both of them."
  5. Get a feel for the space: I have the preparedness gene, so I checked out photos of the room online and made sure I dropped by the venue the
    day before when the organizer would be there. Together, we looked at how much room the participants had at their seats (good leg room), how well the sound system worked, where we wanted the lectern given the available setup, what the lighting was like. The room had modern frosted glass panels over the building's old-fashioned stained glass, but we decided to slide the modern panels out of the way to let in more light. I would spend most of the day behind a fixed panel desk, and I removed two of the four chairs behind it to give me more leg room and make it easier for me to get into and out of my chair for the day. 
  6. Have redundant systems: We were in a room with a permanent setup for panels and news conferences, with a great sound system. But outlets were at a premium and many of us (myself included) were working on adapters for electrical power. I had a Chromebook, a Kindle, and my phone to back one another up. I used my Kindle for notes for my introductory remarks at the lectern--it's more portable and compact--and worked from the Chromebook while seated and chairing the rest of the day. Loaded in front of me were a timer app, Tweetdeck (so I could monitor live tweets in multiple columns), and my script, as well as Evernote, so I could take notes.
  7. Be a boss of others' time: That doesn't just mean the speakers' time, but also the audience's time. Meetings need breaks, questions, pauses. Speechwriters, of course, spend lots of time thinking about timing on behalf of the speakers for whom they write. But in the end, timekeeping is the chair's job. Every speaker heard from Brian and from me in advance about the amount of time allotted to them, and that they needed to plan that time to include time for questions. Early on, a speaker ran overtime. I let him finish, then turned to the audience and said, "One thing to know about me as a chair is that I like to run an on-time meeting. This topic is of such interest that I know there are many questions, but since I want to keep us on time, I'll take two questions now and encourage you to find the speaker during the break." Publicly announcing my intention of an on-time meeting early in the day set the tone: The audience knew what to expect from me, and the speakers did, too. As the day progressed, I used the chair's prerogative (and timer) to decide whether we had time for questions or needed to move forward. That means not just watching the clock, but reading the room. The speaker right before lunch, Fred Metcalf, had the room laughing at his rapid-fire commentary on using humor in speeches, so I borrowed a minute or two from lunch to allow questions. Speaker Jonathan Parish, senior policy planning officer and chief speechwriter to the secretary general of NATO, made up time in his remarks to get us back on track--and thus had plenty of time for questions himself. That's the kind of gift a good speaker can give the chair and the audience.
  8. Be a boss of your time and energy: I was on stage and up front the entire day, with only the breaks and breakouts as exceptions. For me, those not-on-stage times were not times to socialize, but critical moments for checking technology, stretching, making sure I had water, and taking quick breaks myself. My scripting kept me on time and focused for my introductions. I skipped things in order to stay prepped and energized, like dinner the first night after the introductory reception, and the afternoon breakout sessions. I got plenty of sleep, meditated and did yoga before arriving at the conference. I had an energy lag in the latter half of the afternoon, when I permitted myself some tea instead of just water, and used my breaks to get up and move, since sitting all day wrecks your energy. To make up for my focused behavior, I attended all the other social events, which are an important part of the mix at this conference.
  9. Even so, be firm but kind: One of the group's seasoned pros sent me an email after the conference
    to say "I loved how your chairmanship was firm but kind," a piece of feedback I cherish. Too many chairs and moderators think that they can't tell speakers to stop or have no control over on-time delivery--or worse, that they have to sternly lecture the speakers or interrupt them loudly to get them to stop. But most audiences and organizers want the chair to be competent and likeable, on time and non-anxious about it. Chairmanship is a time to embrace both the firm and kind approaches.
  10. Don't settle for pro forma chairing: Even a robot can read standard bios and introductions. I wanted to do better than that. Brian urged me to "make the day your own, put your stamp on it," and while he was the actual curator of the day, I was serving as the public voice of that curation. Speakers sent me their biographical information, some with helpful cultural notes that were especially useful in this setting, some nearly as long as their talks, some with the scantest of details. Everyone got about the same length of description from me, but no two introductions followed the same path. Where I could inject my perspective on a speaker, I did so, without making the introduction more about me than about the speaker. Thinking about myself as the public curator helped me take the introductions to a different place.
Did I mess some things up? Absolutely. I forgot an announcement that was wanted, messed up the citation for a review of one speaker's book, and more. Emily also asked, "What was your best moment, specific or general, and did prep make it possible?" I'd say my ability to handle an overtime situation and get the meeting back on track, as described above, was one good moment--after all, it's the biggest task facing the chair. But I'll also say that my ability to have fun with the day and to relax into it was another strength. As a result, I had just as much fun as I had hoped I'd have, and gave myself the chance to enjoy the speakers and my catbird seat watching the audience's reactions to them. This summer was a busy one for me, so the time I spent on prep and coaching kept this big speaking job from taking a back seat, and I'm glad I made it a priority.

I'll be blogging about the many insights I gained from the speakers about public speaking over the next several weeks, rather than compiling them all into one post. But you can get a sense of the overall program by reading these posts from speakers David Murray, Alan Barker (who posted here and here), Max Atkinson, and Rune Kier Nielsen, who put together a Storify of all our tweets from the conference. If speechwriting is part of your work, consider attending this wonderful conference. The next session will be in early 2014 in London.

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