Professional etiquette

When chairing professional meetings there is an etiquette that is being eroded. As a privilege to be invited to a conference some professionals decide to exercise a certain amount of hubris. Don’t be one of these people and recognise this esteemed role you have been given.  In this article I look at the role of the Chair.

Primarily the chair introduces speakers and should always maintain an impartial position within his panel. He or she may well use a speaker biography to give the audience some background on the person presenting and their connection to the topic under discussion. This allows the speaker to launch straight into their talk. ‘We are lucky to have John Parson today to speak on…’ forms a basic address and is perfectly perfunctory. ‘John is well-known, but many may not realise he is a fire-eater. I am sure during the evening we will learn more about this dangerous pastime (of his) from the hot seat!’

The Chair should work to provide an engaging conference with the speakers

As a speaker you will often find that you are working with the Chair, although some meetings may not have one.  In general, a Chair is usually employed, especially at a formal venue for a professional group meeting. Chairs are selected from past speakers and might simply introduce you and thank you after your presentation. The Chair might sit on a panel table but will also make use of the stage platform rostrum and podium. As Chair, your name will appear on the programme at a conference. The Chair is responsible for the smooth running of a meeting and must make sure that each speaker sticks to the designated time, and there is an opportunity for questions, breaks and refreshments. He or she will engage in introductions ahead of the talk and will communicate general information such as where to find toilets and fire exits. The Chair’s mission is to try and achieve the best from each speaker. The Chair does not have to be a comedian but can put the audience at ease with light-hearted comments to lighten the mood. The Chair can jot down the most salient parts of each talk so these can be brought together as highlights at the end. This requires more skill than many realise.

The Chair as Timekeeper

It’s important that we keep to time so I will give you a two-minute warning, so you know when to wrap up.’  The Chair provides a useful and clear contract with the speaker.

Undershoot: If a speaker finishes early, the Chair does not need to pack in the gap but can move onto the second speaker. However, if the meeting has only one speaker, then notes and references taken during the talk should support the gap as best as possible. If the questions aren’t numerous, a little time might need to be filled, but it is much more acceptable for conferences and talks to finish slightly early rather than a little late.

Overshoot :This is a far more common problem. Poor chairmanship can add length to the meeting. The next speaker is affected, and coffee or tea could be served late. Remember that the break is the audience’s reward for sitting for long periods. They want to catch up with friends, answer calls and respond to messages. They need time to visit displays, to view products, and to take a comfort break.

Sponsorship importance

Conferences rely heavily on sponsorship to keep the price down. Meals are subsidised by contributions from these sponsors, and it is expected that delegates visit sponsorship stands.  A Chair who fails to understand the importance of supporting sponsors could jeopardise future contracts. The audience can become restless if the talk runs over, unless, of course, it is exceptionally good.   Poor timekeeping can adversely affect the whole day and mood of the meeting which is why the Chair must be firm about sticking to the timetable and that other ground rules are stuck to.  

Preventing an overrun

I cannot speak more emphatically how this rule is often ignored. Timing is everything in a busy conference programme. Before the meeting, and one to one discussion; ‘Now John thanks for coming, I will say a few words about you. We have agreed a 20-minute talk after which Jennifer follows on. It’s important we keep to time so I will give you a two-minute warning, so you know when to wrap up. Is there anything more that we need to cover or concerns you about the session?’

There is nothing worse than when the Chair suddenly realises that a speaker is now 10 minutes over his time, and panics, not wishing to be rude. However, a Chair who fails to intervene will not be doing his/her job properly and may not be invited to chair again. When the talk goes over and the speaker fails to note the offer of a two-minute warning then new tactics are required.

Taking action after an overshoot

How long do you allow? Two minutes would be my preference but listen to the speaker. You can usually tell if they are wrapping up.  ‘In conclusion…’ and ‘the last point I should make is…’ If there is no such wind down, then do stop the meeting otherwise you will not retrieve the situation. Be polite but firm.‘John, I am sorry but we will have to finish here as we are out of time. The audience I know would like you to continue but we need to vacate the room on time and so must move on to the next speaker. Perhaps people can catch up with you during the break?’ The Chair’s word is final.


Part of the Chair’s role is to encourage the audience to interact with the speaker after the talk by asking questions. Now it is possible that nothing needs to be added as in the example below: ‘Thanks John that was a real valuable talk and beautifully presented. I am sure the audience would like to show their appreciation in the usual way.’ Or there may be a need for questions. ‘We have time for some questions from the floor…’

Editing questions

If as the Chair, you calculate that three minutes is available, ask for a brief question or if time permits a longer question if it you judge it fits better. Avoid repeat questions that cover similar ground unless time allows for a different perspective. Speakers often say the Chair has the privilege of asking a question. ‘I would like to ask one question before we throw this open…’ ‘As it is the Chair’s privilege to ask a question…’ Chairs don’t have a privilege – this is made up! What they do have is a privilege to ask a question IF the audience does not immediately respond. The difference between the two is important. It is also important to close the meeting with thanks and a few words followed by the customary audience applause. ‘Okay as we have no-more questions…’ ‘As time has run out, I must bring the meeting to a close…’ ‘It is my pleasure to thank John Parson for enthralling us with his fire-eating hobby and it’s nice to know he has never needed to call out the fire-brigade!’

The Chair needs to have a stock of material to use to fill any gaps if needed, as long as these remarks do not in any way undermine the speaker. There are of course occasions where the Chair has a more prominent role, often when awards are being bestowed, but this is unusual and will be given to those commanding specific skills and involvement .

Qualities of a good Chair 

So, what makes a good Chair? Chairmanship requires discretion, respect, confidence, an ability to speak clearly and with focus and perhaps to entertain. He or she must be assertive but courteous. Meetings that have a Chair appear more professional, and as in the case of the speaker, some preparation is expected.

Briefing organisers (and Chairs)

Speakers and Chairs need to work together to achieve the best result for the audience. Below are two samples of letters and briefing notes. Sometimes the Chair has little to do with organising an event, but for smaller meetings, the organiser and the Chair might well be the same person.

Speaker information

The organiser, when inviting a speaker to attend a conference will ask for two key pieces of information. A biography and an abstract. This information will be published in a programme and is usually required at least six weeks before the event, although I had to submit information nine months in advance on one occasion. For the most part, speakers comply but I am always surprised to see some who do not bother. The speaker loses out on free promotion. They also demonstrate that they are not well organised (even if they are and give a great talk), and the audience will miss out on receiving helpful information. Perhaps more importantly, the Chair will have little information and will have to rely on making notes when the speaker arrives. 

The Chair will:

  • Run a meeting.
  • Maintain good timekeeping.
  • Offer speaker guidance and support.
  • Introduce and brief the audience.
  • Control questions.
  • Close the meeting positively.

A a speaker you should consider: (Organiser or Chair to assist speakers)

  • Your equipment requirements.
  • Submit an abstract to help the meeting
  • Pre-empt your requirements rather than wait to be asked
  • The venue’s facilities in order to plan your presentation     

This abridged article has been taken from David’s book on public speaking ‘Projecting Your Image. Conferences to village halls’ (2020) and available from Amazon books. You can read more about this book here priced @ £5.00 e-book and £10.99 paperback. The companion book PowerPoint is more than a Slide Program’ guides the speaker in making the best use of visual material.

Thanks for reading ‘Chairing Professional Meeting – etiquette’ by David R Tollafield

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Published 11th November 2021