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How to chair a public meeting

Starting the meeting

Remember that the chairperson is the first to speak. The impression you create is important. The key point is to appear confident and welcoming (after all, we should make it clear that we are pleased to see all attendees).

If you are not very confident, it is better to write out your opening remarks. These remarks are not just a formality they should get the attention of the audience and prepare the way for the speaker.

You should have a conversation with the speaker beforehand and make sure that you are on the same page about the title of the talk (it's surprising how often chairpersons announce something other than the topic that the speaker prepared for). Also make sure that the speaker understands how much time is allotted for the talk. Finally, ask the speaker how he or she wishes to be introduced when you make your opening remarks to the audience.

Experienced chairpersons have all sorts of opening gambits, but beginners should feel free to use a simple and obvious approach. It might go something like this:

Good evening and welcome to this meeting of the [your city here] branch of the International Socialist Organization. Tonight, [name of speaker, along with relevant details about speaker] is going to speak on [topic of meeting].

She will speak for 30 minutes [or whatever time has been fixed], and then we will have plenty of time for questions and discussion. Without further ado, I will turn it over to [speaker's name].

You should be ready to vary your remarks when warranted by circumstances. If a few people are standing at the back even though there are empty seats in front (people always sit at the back first), you should coax them forward. You can say something like, "There are a few seats toward the front. It would probably be more comfortable for everyone and save the speaker's voice if everyone could move forward." Then you should pause, coax them more if necessary, and give them time to move.

Also, make sure everyone knows that you are glad to see them, even if you have only five people when you expected fifty.

Similarly, if you have a packed room and people are shuffling in while you speak, don't hesitate to say, "We'll wait a minute or two so everyone can get settled." A final word on manner: Stand up to speak when possible, unless the meeting is very small. Speak clearly and not too quickly. Never mumble. Address the audience, not the floor.

During the talk

Not all speakers are aware of the amount of time they have been speaking. Before the meeting begins, discuss the time expectations and ask if its ok to remind the speaker during the talk with notes that indicate the time remaining.

"10 minutes left," "5 minutes left," (or in whatever increments the speaker prefers), "WRAP UP" or "STOP" (in large letters) should be put in front of the speaker at the 14 appropriate times during the course of their talk. This can help the speaker edit the talk on the fly and keep it from going on too long.

It is the chairperson's job to see that the speaker sticks more or less to the allotted time, to allow ample time for discussion. No one else can do it. However, if a speaker has the audience enthralled well beyond the allotted time, or if it would be politically difficult to call a stop, the chairperson should not do so. These decisions require on-the-spot judgments, and the chairperson should make them politically.

Interruptions pose a less frequent difficulty. Audiences usually are incredibly patient, but now and then you could get a little heckling. Experienced speakers who know their stuff ought to be able to deal with this - indeed, they can probably turn it to their advantage. The intervention of the chair is not called for unless things look like they are getting out of hand.

If the interruptions are developing into a real nuisance, then, of course, it is your job to stop it. The thing to remember is this: You have to carry the audience with you.

Stand up, stop the speaker and say, Just a second, and in a patient but firm fashion, appeal to the heckler and the audience: "We are allotting plenty of time for questions and comments after the speaker is finished. It would be helpful if people would allow [speakers name] to finish and save their own contributions for the discussion period. Everyone who wants to will get a turn to speak, so let's have things run in an orderly fashion. And please respect the chair." Normally, if this is put across in a pleasant, confident manner it will do the trick. If it doesn't, you will have to repeat your request. As a last resort, warn hecklers that if they persist, they will be asked to leave. This is a very rare situation. Tact and good humor will usually carry the day.

Questions and discussion

Once the talk is finished, you can give the audience a chance to formulate questions by passing around the ISO mailing list and making one or two short announcements. Set a time limit (3 minutes is ample) for contributions. Inform the audience of this limit and apply it impartially to all. Leave room for questions to be taken up from the floor before returning it to the speaker, but do allow the speaker to respond to questions as needed. If there are a number of questions on the floor that haven't been addressed by the audience, it makes sense for the speaker to get a chance to respond.

It is generally a good idea at the very beginning to ask people to raise questions if they have them. This can encourage people to get their disagreements out early rather than at the very end of the discussion period, which provides for a fuller conversation.

One common problem is a questioner who doesn't understand the difference between asking a question and making a speech. This person must be tactfully but firmly be kept to a three-minute time limit. Make sure that everyone has a fair chance to ask a question or formulate a disagreement, but don't allow anyone to carry on a dialog with the speaker to the exclusion of less pushy, but perhaps more useful, questioners.

When time or the discussion has run out, call it to an end. If there are activities planned that relate to the topic of the meeting, the comrade coordinating the activity should make a brief announcement, calling on others to get involved. Then make any brief announcements from the chair with care and cheerfulness. Be sure to advertise other literature and ISO pamphlets available on the book table, calling attention to anything that might be particularly relevant to the subject of the meeting.

Make sure to announce the restaurant or coffeehouse where you will be gathering for more informal discussion after the meeting, and don't forget to thank people for coming.