Cheers to the Chair: top tips to be a good chair person

A good chair makes a world of difference. By ‘chair’ we don’t mean the furniture you sit on. We mean the personality that is cleverly and concisely at the helm to steer proceedings. It was Susie Emmett’s pleasure to be invited to be chair again at the FARMA Conference 2016, the annual gathering of the best farm retailers in the UK.

The vital statistics are: an audience of over 150, a full day’s programme of presentations from a dozen speakers, parallel workshops, a trade show and a cut throat (butchery!) competition.

The day was a great success and the feedback on her chairing has been fantastic. So what are Susie’s top tips to be a good chair person? She chose these top essential skills:

Reach for research

Meticulous research beforehand – through conversations with the conference organiser and online – to know what each speaker will bring to their presentation but also what it’s useful and important for the audience to get from it.

Perfect timing

It’s exasperating when presentations and events over-run. There’s no need for it. As chair you have the time – literally – to keep everything on schedule as planned. Establish, by your style, that’s what you are doing at the outset and it’s more likely to stay that way. Let it slip and before long it’s slid out of reach. When that happens the chair has not just lost control they’ve likely lost respect too.

Respond and react

The audience has a programme to read from so the chair has to give some additional details and information that provides a great springboard for the next speaker. The chair needs to show insight, knowledge and a great perspective on the issues and cleverly link the themes of the day together.

Know the audience

The audience needs to feel the chair is on their side. Know what their concerns, questions, reactions can be. It may be necessary to give the speakers some tough questions or a cross examination on the audience’s behalf.

Facilitate discussion

Not easy to get a discussion going with hundreds of people? Yes, it is. Invite a show of hands to gather views or votes. Invite questions. Ask particular audience members to contribute their perspective.

Have humour

Sending a ripple of laughter round the room injects a shot of energy into the occasion. But it only works if the audience is laughing with you, not at you. There’s a big difference. The chair needs to get ‘warmth’ into the room. Speaking of which, if to be honest the whole thing as well as the atmosphere gets stuffy then the chair has to get the pace (and if need be, the ventilation) sorted. Your role is to get everything right: the sound, the pace, the ‘feel’, the lot.

Set high standards

With your efforts beforehand and on the day then your performance and the quality of the event – small or large – is likely to reach and even exceed the standards you set.

Get feedback

In the breaks, at the end and even some time afterwards be sure to get views on how well you did and what you could have done better. Learn from each experience and from watching other chairs in action.

We asked for feedback for the FARMA 2016 conference

“Susie featured positively in all the feedback we got from the farm businesses at the conference. That includes those who saw her chair in 2015 and those who are new to FARMA and saw Susie in action for the first time in 2016. She was just what we wanted: engaging, got the best from the speakers and kept it perfectly to time the whole day.”
Millie Stokes, Chair of FARMA and owner of Farndon Fields Farm shop and Restaurant