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Helpful Hints for Session Chairs

AJS 46th Annual Conference
December 14-16, 2014 • Baltimore, Maryland
Hilton Baltimore

Goals for the Session Chair:

·         Initially engage the audience's interest in the session topic.

·         Ease the presenters' job of establishing their credibility with the audience.

·         Make sure that the session runs smoothly.

·         Maintain the civility of the debates and dialogue.

·         Help presenters and audience feel that the session was worth the time they invested in it.

Aim of Document: This document is intended to assist session chairs at the Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies . Obviously chairing a session is something which partially depends on the "personal touch" of the chairperson. These suggestions should help ensure a successful session that leaves both presenters and audiences feeling pleased.


Contact Your Speakers
Before the conference contact your speakers to ask them if they have any questions about their presentation. Make sure your speakers know the date and time of their presentation. Confirm that they have brought any special requirements, for example AV requirements to the attention of the conference organizers. Ask them to give you a short biography with the relevant curriculum vitae material so that you can introduce them properly.

Be Prepared
It is assumed that the session chairperson is familiar with the topic of the session in general, and with the content of the presentations in particular.

Meet Your Speakers
Arrange to meet your speakers early in the conference.

Session Format
Although the overall time allocation and order of the speakers have already been defined in the Conference Program, it can be very helpful to spend some time preparing the format of the session. For example, try to think about a general introduction to the session and/or each speaker, to decide whether questions will be taken after each presentation, or after all presentations have been made, etc.


Introduction to the Session
There should be an initial phase of making contact with the audience to get everyone's attention and to introduce the audience to the topic(s) that will be addressed in the session. Don't assume that everyone is familiar with the topic already. The initial opening of the session by the chairperson should not evolve into an unscheduled invited talk, but should introduce the framework for the following speakers. This is also a good opportunity to present the format of the session, for example whether questions will be taken at the end or after each presentation.

Introducing the Speakers
Introductions help create the audience's first impressions about a speaker and can make them more interested in hearing what s/he has to say. This is particularly true if the speaker is relatively unknown (young scholars, newcomers to AJS, students). Be accurate and respectful in your introduction. If you know the presenter and have something nice to say about him or her, say it. Tell the audience something about the presenter's expertise, accomplishments or interests. These things will help establish their credibility with the audience, and make the session more enjoyable to both the audience and presenter alike. You can do this best if you have gathered the relevant biographical information prior to the conference. Immediately prior to session, confirm with each speaker  the accuracy of the information you will be using to introduce them and the correct pronunciation of all names. Ask if they prefer to be introduced using their formal name or by a familiar name (e.g., Samuel/ Sam, Deborah/Debby). The minimum introduction to a presentation should be a mention of the title and a few words about the speaker read from the information provided (beware of difficulties reading hand-written notes scribbled in a hurry), however, this can be tailored to requirements, for example if the speakers prefer to introduce themselves. If the presentation has been co-authored it may be advisable to mention the names of the co-authors as well. In general, make the introduction short and accurate, so that the speaker doesn't have to correct you during his or her presentation.

Time Allocation and Control
This is the most difficult task, since speakers tend to forget about time as soon as they have the floor. There are numerous techniques for time control, for example cue cards with 10-, 5-, 2- and minute countdown or a session timer, but never rely on the speaker to have eye contact with you on a regular basis to determine how much speaking time is left as he or she will either look at the audience or stare into their notes. As a last resort you may have to speak up and remind the speaker that he or she is running out of time. If there is no sign of the speaker drawing their presentation to a close you should interrupt at least 2-3 minutes before their allocated speaking time is over in order to give them a chance to wind up their presentation. (To effectively interrupt, listen to the speaker's breathing pattern and be ready to jump in when they take a breath). Keep in mind that each time slot usually includes a few minutes for discussion. This time is the session chair's buffer space. For example, if a speaker has 20 minutes presentation time and 10 minutes planned for questions and answers, it may be OK to let the speaker continue talking for 22 or 23 minutes, as soon as you realize that he or she will finish within that limit. However, if a speaker crosses the 25-minute mark, he or she should be notified.

Coordinating Discussion
After the presentations, announce that the floor is now open for discussion and explain the structure (one question-one answer, collected questions and then a period of extended answers, etc.). It is also a good idea to ask members of the audience asking a question to give their name and affiliation. If there are no questions, which often happens for a variety of reasons, you may help the speakers and the audience save face by having one or two questions to ask, but in general questions from the audience should have preference. If there are just a few questions, don't artificially extend the session. If there are too many questions or the questions are too difficult to understand or answer you may step in and remind the audience that such specific issues can be discussed after the session. Sometimes, even questions from the audience can turn into small presentations. It is your responsibility to keep this under control, and to interrupt the questioner if necessary.

Closing the Session

It is good practice for the session chair to sum up the session after the last presentation, instead of letting the speakers and the audience discover that the session is over because the session chair is leaving the stage. A few sentences summarizing the content of the session, a final acknowledgement of all the speakers and the audience (for their participation), and probably an announcement of the next sessions are a good way to conclude a session.


There is really not much for the session chair to do after the session, but it's good practice to contact each of the speakers before they leave the room to thank them for their efforts.


1. Make Contact - contact your speakers before the conference to answer any questions they may have and to make sure they know when and where their presentation will take place.

2. Be Prepared - familiarize yourself with the general topic of the session and read abstracts (and full papers if they are available) to familiarize yourself with the content of the individual presentations. If you think two speakers are in danger of covering the same issues contact them in advance to give them an opportunity to tailor their presentations.

3. Face-to-Face - arrange to meet your speakers at the conference venue to ensure they know the time and venue of their presentation, and that they bring any problems or special requirements to the attention of the conference organizers.

4. Think and Plan - plan the general format of your session, think about how to introduce the speakers and whether questions will be taken at the end of the session or after each presentation.

5. Introduce Session - get the attention of the audience, introduce the topic of the session and present the format of the session.

6. Introduce the Speakers - prepare some information to introduce each of the speakers. Keep the introductions short and accurate.

7. Timing - monitor the timing of each speaker closely, speak up and remind them they have only 2-3 minutes of speaking-time left if they show no sign of concluding their presentation. Remember to leave enough time for questions.

8. Discussion - have a few questions ready in case the audience doesn't. If questions are too long, or complicated interrupt and suggest that the issue is discussed after the session.

9. Closing - conclude the session with a short summary of the content of the session, acknowledge the speakers and announce the next sessions.

10. The End - before they leave the room, thank each of the speakers for their contribution.


This document was adapted with permission from the “HEAnet National Networking Conference 2003 Guidelines for Session Chairs,” which was based on the Trans-European Research and Education Networking Association's document, "Guideline for JENC8 Session Chairs," produced by Hannes Lubich.