Conferences: How to Chair an Effective Q&A Session

by Bradley Rettler

Q&AChairing is an odd task in philosophy, in that it’s one of the things we do that uses very few of the skills that characterize philosophers. Many people see chairing as an afterthought and think that it isn’t very important. But if you’ve ever been in a session with a really great chair, you’ve probably noticed. Chairs can have a major impact on the quality of the conference experience, for good or ill. And since being a good chair requires skills that don’t overlap with being a good philosopher, I think it’s important for philosophers to be intentional about how they’re going to chair a session. With that in mind, here are some of my thoughts on chairing, particularly on handling the Q&A. Please add your thoughts in the comments.

I believe running a Q&A involves trying to accomplish two goals: 1) getting the speaker helpful feedback, and 2) ensuring that the audience has an enjoyable and educational experience. This involves making sure there are good questions and helpful critical comments, that the speaker and commentator don’t take too much time, and that they don’t spend too much time answering each question.

Before the Q&A

Before the conference, introduce yourself via email to the presenter and commentator. Remind the commentator to send their comments, and remind both of them of the format. Read the paper and the comments ahead of time, and make sure to think of a couple questions; if nobody raises their hand, you should be ready to kick off the discussion.

When you arrive for the session, introduce yourself to the presenter and commentator. Remind them how much time they have, and tell them you’ll be giving them each a five-minute and one-minute warning. Ask if there is anything they need. Make sure the microphone is working (if there is one). Distribute handouts if there are any.

To start, be assertive, and get everyone’s attention. Announce the speaker’s name and the paper topic/title (this ensures that everyone in the audience is in the right room.) Distribute the rest of the handouts.

During the talk, close the door to the room if it’s getting loud. Keep an eye on the time, and give the aforementioned warnings. Be interested.


During the Q&A

Make sure it is you, not the speaker, who is the one to run the Q&A. Or at least presume you will run it, and only give up that duty if the speaker asks to run their own Q&A. Speakers have enough to worry about during a Q&A in answering the questions. There is no need to add more for them to have to think about.

Keep a queue (using descriptions when you don’t know names) rather than having everyone raise their hands after every response. If you don’t keep a queue, you’ll notice hands halfway up during the answers—people are so concerned about getting to ask the next question that they aren’t paying attention to the speaker. Knowing that there’s a queue, and that they’re on it, enables everyone to pay attention to the Q&A. However, make it clear that you’ll add anyone who raises their hand to the queue, and that people won’t necessarily be called on in the order they were written down. When determining an order, I strive for diversity of perspective, so that there are a variety of questions and approaches. This means mixing up senior and junior scholars, people at research institutions and people at teaching institutions, those who work in the area and those who don’t, men and women, etc. I tend to relegate people who know the speaker well to the back of the line, as they’ll feel comfortable asking their questions in other contexts. If the speaker’s work engages directly with the work of another person in the audience, make sure you know who that person is, and call on them reasonably early.

Many people start their question with, “Oh, okay, well, um, so, I was thinking, uh…” This is because they haven’t formulated their thoughts into a question in advance. The best way I’ve found to improve the situation is not just to call on a person, but also say who will be up after that person. This gives that person notice, and they are almost always ready to ask their question when called on.

The best Q&As are a collaboration between the speaker and audience. The worst are a fight. If people are talking too long, cut them off with, “Okay, let’s let [speaker] answer.” If they seem to have no intention of asking a question, or are just talking about their own work, ask, “Sorry, can we get to the question?” Keep reminding people of how many people want to ask a question and how little time there is. Encourage brevity. Offer follow-ups only to those who have asked succinct questions.

Finally, don’t be afraid to assert yourself if you think something is unclear. If the speaker looks dazed in the face of a question, jump in with, “Sorry, I didn’t quite understand that. ?Do you mean….” If you think the speaker misunderstood something, say, “I think I took the question a bit differently. I thought…” But be brief; this isn’t your session.

Good chairing takes forethought and work, but it can be the difference between a good session and a great session.

Bradley Rettler is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Baylor University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in May of 2014. You can find out more about him here.


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