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How to be an Effective Conference Session Moderator

Contributed by rhund on Jun 24, 2017 - 12:38 PM

By Theresa M. Culley (Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cincinnati, 614 Rieveschl Hall, Cincinnati, OH, 45221; author for correspondence: [2]

and Kathryn E. Theiss (Department of Biology, California State University, Dominguez Hills, 1000 E. Victoria St., Carson, CA 90747)

Manuscript received 9 May 2017; revision accepted 21 June 2017

This paper grew out of a conversation by the authors following the Botany 2015 meeting. Observing that there were several examples of excellent moderators as well as a few cases in which further improvement would be helpful, the authors developed these suggestions based on their own experience

If you are a new researcher embarking on your career, one of the best and quickest ways for you to develop your professional network is to act as a session moderator at a conference in your field. Not only does this associate your name with a topic or area, but you will also have the opportunity to connect with your peers and to meet top senior researchers in your field. However, this is also a very public role that you may feel hesitant at first to embrace. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Thinking About Moderating? One of the key traits of effective session moderators is that they are there to facilitate the session, not to dominate it. As a moderator, you have multiple responsibilities: director, timekeeper, and enforcer. Ultimately, your job is to make sure the expectations are clear and participants are held accountable. Some of the top experts in a field can be some of the worst session moderators, whereas junior academics (graduate students, post-docs, or assistant professors) can be the most effective moderators. So feel free to give it a try and don't be intimidated by seniority.

2. Set the Stage for Success. To make sure that your session flows well throughout its assigned time, it is important to make adequate preparations beforehand:

3. Let the Force Be With You. As the moderator, your job is to make sure that the session is successful; this means that not only do all talks remain on schedule, but ideally your actions create an environment where researchers can form valuable contacts that may lead to future advances in their field. To make sure that the session stays on track, try the following:

4. Houston, We Have a Problem. As a junior researcher, you may have avoided serving as a moderator up to this point because of a deep-seated fear of having your session spiral out of your control. What if a particularly long-winded speaker goes on relentlessly or a series of presenters run past their allotted time, and the session falls hopelessly out of sync with all other sessions? Worse yet, what if that overly verbose, superfluous speaker is none other than the top researcher in your field, perhaps someone who may review your next paper or grant proposal? What if the computer malfunctions, the fire alarm goes off, or someone has a medical emergency? How do you recover and get things back on track?

5. What NOT To Do. Never, ever, move talks from their allotted time period, even in the very rare occasion a previous talk has been canceled. This is critical as attendees may be moving between sessions and are relying on the talk being given at its published time period. If there is a cancellation that is known ahead of time, be sure to mention it at the beginning of the session and at any session breaks. Your attendees will be grateful for the information.

6. To Infinity and Beyond. Just as you have spent time carefully introducing the session and setting it up for success, you also need to bring it to its final conclusion. There is nothing more disheartening after a series of exciting talks than awkward silence or just a casual "Thanks for coming."

Overall, the most helpful way to learn how to effectively moderate a scientific conference session is to watch how others perform the task. You will need to figure out which tactics are most effective and which you would feel comfortable implementing. What have you seen that works? What would you do differently? In addition to being a much-appreciated service to your society or organization, moderating a session is an ideal opportunity to expand your network, meet new researchers, and ultimately benefit your own research program. Both of these authors have benefited immensely from the experience. Give it a try and you may just realize how exciting it can be!

[The authors thank several mentors who first encouraged them to gather the courage to become session moderators: A.K. Sakai, S.G. Weller, A.A. Snow, S. Kephart, and K. Holsinger. They also deeply appreciate past moderators who have served at meetings hosted by the Botanical Society of America over the past 20 years.] 

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