This post has become a little longer again – sorry for that but I hope you still enjoy it! For sure there are also some complementary videos that should be interesting 😉
After I have already been writing about the general tasks of a chair and my experiences with it – here comes some more detail in case you are about to consider or even do it yourself or are just interested in a deeper explanation – and some further experiences (I just chaired another conference in Poland :))
Much of this can actually be attributed and used in any leadership position and for any change management. Check out these important principles for inducing change. Also make sure you do not fall into the dangers of collaboration.
Be Yourself and find your own Style
As a chair, you are not there to use the right tools, make everything perfect and then leave, but to inspire, share your experience and challenge people by providing a different perspective. Bring something different. Something either from you personally or your country that they have never heard or thought of before. Let them try it themselves! Maybe some German words?
Also contribute personal learnings that will have to do with something you consider a failure for yourself. When you learned something from it, that can be quite worth sharing!
You will not have the glow and fire in your eyes if it does not come from the heart and you are not convinced of it yourself. You may be energetic or may be calm, but if your words have power and catch the minds of people, they will last. Don’t be too fluffy or general – provide specific examples that delegates can actually relate to themselves!
People will not remember what you told them, but they will always remember how you made them feel.
Provide Key Messages
Have strong key messages prepared for each plenary already before the conference and do not only rely on input from the conference team – sharing is first about YOU and your Experience! Adjusting later is easier. You will be busy and should be present and available during the conference itself! Provide value for different experience levels and stakeholders that are present during a conference – established members, new ones and leaders of the organisation. Be consistent in your messages and relate them to one another – have a thread you follow. I have not really had an Executive Board position in the organisation and still built up a lot of things – leadership is about action, not position. If you have a great idea, in this organisation it might very well become reality. Also later on – believe in yourself and create impact – at least for yourself!
Also remember that you stand on the shoulders of giants – use your predecessors’ and already communicated impact and messages to build upon!
Create an open and fitting Athmosphere
A major step is to create and open and curious athmosphere so people are willing to learn more and challenge themselves and their viewpoints and strive for more. Start right at the beginning – the first impression counts most! Be open in giving and taking, share but don’t impose yourself on others, smile! You might be the big person up front – but make it about THEM and that they should interact.
Ask some intriguing questions that should guide them throughout the conference. I had several conferences where new members were quite surprised about the openness of the “everybody” (the other delegates) although they actually created that setting themselves! YOU can majorly contribute to that! Prepare the conference team beforehand for this as well!
Also include personal experiences to make it interesting for those who already follow the principles you mention (experienced members e.g.)! ((c/s)hairing is caring! I usually still get requests to share even more to provide a more personal connection and lead with example.
Also have delegates share and inspire each other – if other people reinforce your messages and provide multiple experiences it creates a tribe mo(ve)ment! Also have facilitators and more experienced members ready to share when asked a question – sharing needs the right mood & inspiration & time and somebody to get started. 🙂
This video is what we did to inspire an athmosphere of energy and “kick-ass”, fun and some randomness at the last conference: =)
Be simple to understand
This means that your message should be easy to capture – avoid language barriers (English?) and short attention spans due to e.g. delegates’ hangovers.
But more important is to give the bigger picture and context – not only “What” but especially the “Why”! (We do so many things in AIESEC that make no sense for outsiders at first sight, but they actually happen for a reason – like rollcalls¹ or a buffalo²).
Show cultural diversity & provide a new perspective on old settings & “problems” – challenge & surprise!!! In AIESEC we usually have international chairs to provide exactly that! I personally could share about different understandings of time in different countries (Togo and Brazil compared to Europe), improvisation skills (usually higher or at least quite different from countries with less time worries) and having / dealing with worries in general. Do not let stress deprive you of your fun! 🙂
Some things do not need to be explained though – use the power of questions and inspire imagination!!
Outside the Plenaries
Be available for the Delegates also at non-plenary Times
Showing presence and not only your “stage face” is essential to make your impression more human and not seem like “a god from above”! Be approachable. Be proactive! I had to talk up some people because they would not have taken the initiative themselves as I heard from them later. Some people need a little push. 🙂 But even more: you are a person of respect or even “god” for some. Don’t abuse it! In any way!
The Conference Team
Your responsibility is to monitor and shape the overall mood of the conference – and that also includes the conference team! Only together with them you can create a holistic athmosphere. For this you need to be aware of the goals of the different tracks and the goals as a whole (holistic view). Also make sure the entire conference team is on the same level as you for this.
Give energy and comfort to the conference team as a basis to thrive. For this it is important to stay in close contact with conference manager & main organizer to get an emotional overview over what is happening behind the scenes and influences the mood of differrent individuals. My main method are massages (not only for the girls), random acts of kindness (e.g. hugs or even a free-hugs-ninja-team) and team-internal quick sharing sessions.
Keep the duck principle – paddle hard under the surface but be calm in public – no matter what happens! Be prepared and smoothen out mishappenings and improvise, especially in plenary! 🙂
Give conference team meetings structure & meaning & keep them efficient but also meaningful.
This means they should also get something out of the conference and have time to reflect. Ideally their messages (and yours) are also aligned with the strategy and vision of the entity and ideally support it directly. This will make people remember your messages longer as well after the conference. When the conference is over there should still be time to settle down together as a team – but be aware that this might become quite emotional.
Offer yourself for more personal sessions outside the plenary to the facilitators. Often you can fulfill specific requests by track managers and facilitators / trainers and create another impact there!
In general adjust to delegates and facilitators’ needs – you will get more empathic over time. I learned a different aspect about myself and human interactions at each different chairing experience!
Overall – provide a memorable experience!
And finally … yourself
Manage your energy! To keep a good overview, be available as much as possible making sure you get something out of it for yourself as well can be quite challenging, if you still have to run at full capacity the next morning and some random things that take up your attention and energy pop up unexpectedly! One of my mottos is: “If you do not have something – you make it! Go and CREATE!”
My key learnings this time
1. You cannot fake over exhaustion. Don’t fake energy! People will notice that something is just not right and attribute it potentially to different things. It has happened to me this time! I am a very energetic person and can keep running for quite long when I am fully into something. This time I apparently came with a lack of sleep though and this affected me more than I thought – people thought I had a culture shock (which I did not have) or in general something was wrong. Ironically only sleeping 2 hours the next night and not 4 somehow solved the problem for the day! Anybody able to explain this? You can create moods and settings by focusing on them and getting into the right mindset – just this single aspect proved different for me.
2. Convey Messages on several Levels
This was the first time that the English level sometimes actually posed a barrier for my communication and messages. As a consequence – speak in words and also images and even actions. If you want other people to dare to be different, dare yourself to do something unconventional on stage that might shock, but at least surprises people. Let other people share that have the same English level (and overcome their hesitation and thus lead by example). Dive into their culture to better understand what makes them tick and then relate your message to that thing afterwards.
Do you have any thoughts or questions? Do you have things to add or similar personal experience? Post them in the comments! I would love to hear from you! Sharing is caring! =)
What do I bring as my personal style?
Energy – Passion – Empathy – Being a leader without a Position – Randomness – Breaking Limits of Thought (& sometimes Etiquette) – Questions –
and a quite International Experience
Sources: all pictures provided by author
¹ = A rollcall refers usually to the check of attendance by calling names. During an international AIESEC Congress in the 60ies or 70ies one African delegation started doing some little dance and singing action. This inspired the other delegations to also spice up their representation of attendance of their country and so today people are coming with different actions, mostly dances. It also has the nice side effect to energize everybody – and if you potentially already made a fool out of yourself same as everybody it becomes way easier to get to know each other. Only benefits here, am I wrong? 😉
² = A buffalo means that you shall drink cold alcoholic beverages with your left hand instead of your right one. Why? If you meet an important business man at a convention and have wet hands from the cold drink, the impression is not necessarily the best. Why the name? A story: Buffalo Bill met Billy the Kid in town. Upon entering the saloon: “This town is too small for the two of us – draw stranger!” Since Buffalo Bill was still drinking with his right hand, he first had to drop his drink and thus drew slower than Billy the Kid. He had to learn this the hard way and we care about learning, you have to empty your cup in one gulp as well if we catch you in this situation. But as described above – there is a deeper intention behind this and not just getting drunk! Just learning the hard way! 🙂