How to moderate a session at a meeting

To effectively moderate sessions at a meeting or a graduate program retreat, it’s crucial to manage time efficiently to ensure that the event runs smoothly and on schedule. This involves clear communication with presenters about the session rules, managing Q&A sessions judiciously, and being prepared to enforce time limits with a firm but fair approach. The goal is to create an environment where each speaker has their allotted time respected, the audience remains engaged, and the overall program adheres to its intended timeline. Here’s a guide I wrote for the recent QBC retreat for student moderators.

  1. Days-hours before the session send the presenters an email to instruct them about the “rules” for the session.
  2. Prior to gathering speakers figure out how questions will work. Will people just shout from their seats, will there be a microphone runner passing the microphone to people in their seats, or a few microphone stands for people to queue up at.
  3. Gather your speakers in the break before the session starts and ensure their laptops plug into the AV system. Tell each of them the following rules:
    • When you will give them a warning wave that they have X minutes remaining (usually 1 for a 5-10 min talk, 2 for a 10-20 min talk, 5 for a 40 min talk)
    • That you will stand up when they are at time (I often also threaten with a beach ball or some object at full time)
    • That their laptop will be unplugged if they exceed the time of the talk + questions
    • To plug in the laptop of the next speaker while the preceding speaker is answering questions
    • Note that powerpoint sometimes has issues when the presentation is already in full screen when you plug into the projector. Better to start out of presentation mode and start it AFTER plugging into the projector.
  4. There isn’t a need to do a long introduction for a session with multiple speakers (I reserve long intros for keynotes or single seminars). Simply state - our next speaker is X. Most speakers will start with their title anyways - so no need for you to read it. Keep it moving!
  5. At the end of the talk, you will stand up and moderate the q/a portion. They only get questions if they finish their talk with enough time remaining. If they went over time, NO QUESTIONS! If they encroach into the question time, then limit questions to 1 or 2.
    • if there are no questions after an awkward beat… YOU MUST ASK A QUESTION. It can be as simple as:
      1. I didn’t understand X, can you explain it again
      2. What would you do next?
      3. What is the type of data that can’t currently be collected, but you dream would answer this question
    • Chose audience members to ask questions:
      1. favour learners (postdocs/students), especially for the first question.
      2. keep in mind diversity of who gets to ask questions
      3. cut off questions at the full time with the line “It is wonderful to see such enthusiasm. Speaker X will be around later to answer questions. Our next speaker is Y.”

Here is an example email I sent for the Protein Society this summer, where I moderated a session:

Looking forward to meeting at the upcoming Protein Society meeting. As the session moderator for “RNA-Protein Machines: Ancient Synergies”, I am passing along some of the instructions here: 1. Session Preparation: Please make sure to be present in the session room at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start time. This will allow us to coordinate and ensure that there are no A/V hiccups. 2. Time Management: To maintain the session’s schedule, it is essential that each speaker starts and ends their presentation on time. I am an “activist moderator” and will cut you off if you go over time (maybe with some kind of beach ball or water gun)! 3. The following time limits have been set for the respective presentation types:

  • Senior Talks: 25 minutes for the presentation + 5 minutes for discussion
  • Young Investigator Talks: 12 minutes for the presentation + 3 minutes for discussion
  • Flash Talks: 2 minutes each for introducing your research/poster (with no Q&A session) Let me know if you have any questions and I look forward to a great session!