Monday, 2 February 2015


I had the privilege of Chairing two sessions on the afternoon of the first day of this year's Learning Technologies Conference at Olympia in London last week. I chaired a single LT conference session last year, but this year's felt like a bigger challenge with more responsibility.

I was first approached by Don Taylor, Chairman of the Learning & Performance Institute and the Learning & Skills Group, back in September last year, with an email simply asking if I would be prepared to take on the challenge of Chairing two sessions. He pointed out that he wanted to mix things up a bit at this year's conference and that there would of necessity be a larger commitment of time and effort required.  Always up for a new learning opportunity, I agreed.  Now, with the conference behind us, I have been reflecting on the experience.

There are now 128 emails in my 'LT15uk' folder since that initial request some four months ago. These represent the history of the to and fro exchanges between myself and Don and his team, as well as with the speakers in both of the sessions I was to Chair - five terrific professionals from different sectors, sharing their case studies and experiences in two discussions streams being run in two different conference rooms back-to-back on the same afternoon!  We're all busy people, with busy day jobs and full-time responsibilities, so we all had to balance our time and commitments accordingly.
If you want a masterclass on how to Chair conference sessions, I recommend you volunteer to Don to do so if and when he extends the invitation in the future. His requirements were clear; his timeline and gateways explicit, but the how and when to do these things he left up to me.  After advising the session speakers that I was their Chair, Don left us to get on with it.  Which we did.

I shan't bore you with the details of the several conference calls and email exchanges we had between then and Wednesday last week when we assembled at the agreed hour/s, got set up and ran our sessions. Suffice to say that juggling our time and effort had not been wasted and they went well.

Having spoken at several conferences before now, I have recognised the importance of a good Chair - someone who soothes speaker nerves (we all have them, no matter how experienced), keeps things in order and to time, sets the audience expectations and 'session norms' (not 'rules', you'll note), makes the necessary introductions - and then gets the h*ll out of the way until any Q&A discussion at the end, then makes sure as many people as possible get to makes their point or ask their question. I tried to live up to those standards last week and hope that that's what my speakers and attendees experienced. My
only 'innovation' if you can call it that, was to tweet several times before Wednesday, and on the day itself, inviting people to tweet me any questions they might have for my speakers in advance, so I could pose them for them 'in the room'. No-one did beforehand, but two people in the audience did tweet me their question during one of the sessions and I was able to pass it on to the panel during the Q&As (thanks to @happyhenry and @danroddy for those!)

So everything went well and I was congratulating myself on not having dropped the ball, when  Sukhvinder Pabial, another first-time Chair (and valued member of my #PLN - Personal Learning Network), tweeted the following...  
Sukh's tweets, together with an overheard comment from someone at the conference drinks later, that the conference sessions still seemed to be 'audiences sitting in a theatre being talked at by 'experts'', got me thinking; what could I have done differently to have made the sessions I chaired more interactive and even more engaging? 

I realised I had quite happily gone along with - indeed, set - the agenda and format of my two sessions in a traditional 'Intro / Speaker / Q&A / Sum Up' way and I had not, in fact, encouraged my speakers to think differently, to encourage audience involvement, challenge, conversation or debate during their presentations. I did throw a couple of unplanned questions at them during the Q&As, but that was about it. That said, all my speakers delivered interesting, insightful case studies in their presentations and the Q&A sessions were lively, added even more information and content and, as a result, were fully attended to the end.

So, if I am ever asked to Chair any future conference sessions, my challenge will be to think - and to get my speakers to think - outside of the traditional conference presentation format box and to see what innovations we can bring to the learning exchange that we are all there to benefit from.

What would you like to see done differently? Have you ever been to or participated in an Un-Conference? Would that format work within the context of a larger, multi-stream, multi-day, multi-venue event? What about running 'Ignite' presentations (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide, auto-timed)? I'd love to hear your thoughts or ideas.

I just want to finish by thanking my speakers for their cooperation and trust in the run-up to, and their contributions during, our sessions on Wednesday 28th January at the Learning Technologies Conference 2015 - Velda Barnes (@velbarnes) from Addaction, Jason Simeon from Selex ES, Jane Daly from Marks & Spencer, Edward Gallier (@EdwardGallier) from Jurys Inn and Kandy Woodfield (@jess1ecat) from NatCen Social research. Thanks also to Don Taylor (@DonaldHTaylor) for the giving me the opportunity to Chair these two sessions, and to Sukh Pabial (@sukhpabial) for making me reflect - always learning!


  1. Hi Niall, great reflections, I also wondered belatedly if we could have thought outside of the box more, it felt like we had a brief to be met & 15 mins didn't really give scope to provide a case study & real audience interaction. Ignites also for this reason are not hugely interactive. Maybe we should have spent more of the final section of the session less in Q&A format & done something more participative to capture & share the audience experience of building communities. It's incumbent on us all to make the change not just the chair so next time I'll be box hopping with you!

  2. Thanks Kandy. I think our timing issues on the day support that contention. More speaker/audience interaction during the individual presentations, I think, is a good approach worth exploring.