Organizing a conference

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

1 Introduction

1.3 Speakers and chairs

Once you have decided on a date and place for your conference, you can start selecting the speakers. The most common way to do this is either by a

  • call for papers (we have prepared a another subsection within this tutorial on what to consider when putting together a call for papers)
  • or by personal invitation.

A call for papers will allow the participation of students and researchers that you do not know but who could offer a significant contribution to your event. Personal invitations will ensure that established scholars will be informed about your conference. It also acts as publicity; some people who will receive your call (or invitation) may decide to attend your conference, even without giving a presentation.

When planning the programme of your conference, a chair should be assigned to each of the sessions. A chair should have at least the same status as the speakers she or he will present. Entrusting a PhD student with the task of introducing a renowned scholar may be inappropriate. Each chair must be personally invited to act in this role, and informed of her/his duties well in advance, even if she or he will take part in the conference as a speaker, too. Bear in mind the nature of the session when assigning chairs: some people are firmer than others. For instance, to allow one speaker in a session to overrun so badly that the others will have to trim their papers is offensive to those speakers and makes all participants uncomfortable. Where speakers are known to overrun, or where debate might be heated, or when a session is tightly timetabled, pick a chair who you can rely on to cope. A chair aslo has to organize the question and answer session, and may need to get things going with a question of their own. If possible it is good to select someone who knows something about the topic of the session, and who will therefore add substantially to the debate.

Contingency plan if speakers cancel
Do not finally forget to have some 'second choices' as standby, in case a speaker withdraws at the last moment. In this case you can

  • read her/his paper yourself (provided that s/he prepared it)
  • replace her/him with another speaker (someone who was, for example, in two minds about participating)
  • extend the time reserved for questions
  • bring forward all the papers and present an 'unplanned' event (such as the screening of a video linked to the subject of the conference)
  • if the person who withdraws is a chair you can ask another chair to preside at a second session, or
  • ask a speaker to chair that session.