Duncan Hallas

Hints on Chairmanship

(March 1972)

Duncan Hallas, Hints on Chairmanship, IS Internal Bulletin, March 1972.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

These hints are meant only for absolute beginners who may be asked to take the chair, either at open meetings or at branch business meetings. They take up only one or two points, Anyone who wants to become a good technical chairman, will need to read Hannington’s Mr Chairman or Citrine’s ABC of Chairmanship. For he read she where appropriate throughout.

Public or open meetings

a) Starting the meeting

Remember that the chairman is the first one to speak so the impression he creates is important. The key point is to appear confident and cheerful – even if you don’t feel that way. If you are very raw it is as well to have written out your opening remarks. They are not just a formality, they should serve to gain the attention of the audience and get everything nicely settled for the speaker.

Experienced chairmen have all sorts of opening gambits but for beginners it as well to stick to the simple and obvious approach. It might go something like this:-

‘Good evening comrades and welcome to this meeting of the Slagville branch of the International Socialists. Tonight Joe Bloggs is going to address us on (whatever it is) and in view of (reference to recent events if possible) the importance of the subject needs no emphasis from me. Joe (or comrade Bloggs) is (whatever he is) and (whatever he has done that is remotely relevant). He will speak for 30 minutes (or whatever has been fixed – and fix something, this part of your remarks is addressed to the speaker as much as to the audience) and then we will have questions and discussion until (time fixed for 15 minutes or so before agreed close of meeting). I now call on comrade Bloggs.’

By this time the audience should be ready and attentive and you can relax. Of course it should be obvious that you must have talked to the speaker beforehand, made sure that you understand the title of his talk (it’s surprising how often chairmen announce something other than the topic the speaker understood he was to develop) and made sure that he understands how long he has to speak. You will also need to know how he wishes to be described. In a perfect world all these matters would have been settled well in advance by the secretary. It is best to assume that they have not been and to check with the speaker.

You need to be ready to vary your remarks according to circumstances. Thus if you are unfortunate to be addressing a few people at the back of a hall over rows of empty chairs if it your job to coax them forward by some such patter as ‘I’m sure it would be more comfortable for everyone and it would save the speakers voice’ etc. etc. Don’t just say it and move on. Pause, coax them, and give them time to move. And appear glad to see them even if you have only 5 when you expected 50.

The opposite difficulty – people standing at the back when there are empty seats in front (people always sit at the back first) needs to be dealt with in the same sort of way, Similarly, if you are lucky enough to have a pack out and people are shuffling in while you speak do not hesitate to say ‘We will wait a moment or two so that everyone can get settled.’ Naturally a well organised branch will have one or two people told off beforehand to act as stewards but they need to be directed from the chair and often, in smallish meetings, everything is left to the chair.

A final word on manner. Stand up to speak unless the meeting is very small. Speak clearly and not too quickly. Never mumble, address the audience, not the floor. Above all remember manner is as important as matter. Somebody once remarked ‘beauty is only skin deep – but that’s deep enough for most men’. t is the same with chairmanship. Try to exude confidence and authority and no one will know what lies underneath.

b) The Speaker

The main vice of many of our speakers is not knowing when to stop. I once attended a public meeting billed as The Tory Attack on Welfare at which the speaker, who was very knowledgeable, spent 50 minutes of his 40 minute time span expounding the history of welfare legislation from Lloyd George to Nye Bevan. He did it very well. Unfortunately there was hardly any time left for the Tory attack on welfare. Now, In part, this was the chairman’s fault. He had obviously not explained in advance to the speaker what was needed. Nor had he put little notes with ‘10 minutes’, ‘5 minutes’, ‘CONCLUDE’ (in large letters please in front of the speaker at the appropriate times.

It is the chairman’s job to see that the speaker sticks more or less to the allotted time. No one else can do it. The audience is helpless unless they feel moved to get up and walk out. The chairman is there, amongst other reasons, to protect them and to see that they get a fair crack of the whip. This requires tact and firmness and some judgement. If a speaker is holding his audience enthralled, well beyond his allotted span, then it would be silly to stop him. But such speakers are pearls of great price.

For the most part the timetable should be adhered to. If the man simply ignores your notes and drools on and on you will have to interrupt him. Do it as nicely as possible – ‘I am sorry to have to interrupt at this point, it is unfortunate that we have such a limited time but I’m sure that everyone would wish time for questions and discussion and so I am going to ask comrade Bloggs to draw his remarks to a conclusion.’ Don’t worry too much about offending Bloggs. You have a responsibility to your audience.

A less frequent difficulty is interruptions. Usually audiences are incredibly patient but now and then you will get a little heckling. Now any speaker who knows his stuff ought to be able to deal with this – indeed turn it to advantage. The intervention of the chair is not called for unless things look like getting out of hand. If it becomes clear that 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 (‘just a moment’) and in a good humoured fashion appeal to the heckler and the audience ‘We are allotting plenty of time for questions and comments after the speaker has finished. It would be helpful if people would allow the speaker to develop his points and then make their own contributions afterwards. Everyone who wants it will got his turn so let’s have things run in an orderly fashion.’

Normally, if this is pat over in a pleasant, confident manner, it will do the trick. If it doesn’t you will have to repeat it and, in the last resort, warn the heckler that if he persists he will have to leave. But this is a very rare situation. Tact and good humour will usually carry the day.

c) Questions and discussion

It is as well to start by asking for questions rather than contributions. Always have one or two questions ‘planted’ so as to start the ball rolling. If you must ask a question yourself, then wait till others have had their chance.

A common problem is the questioner who doesn’t understand the difference between a question and a speech. He must be tactfully but firmly brought to the point, Occasionally a smart alec questioner will ask about the class nature of China or whatever at a meeting on the Tory offensive. You should remark that this is indeed an interesting point but it can hardly be pursued at this meeting which is devoted to ... Care must be taken to avoid being too restrictive. Make sure that everyone has a fair chance to put a question and do not allow some voluble character to carry on a dialogue with the speaker to the exclusion of less pushing, but perhaps more useful questioners.

When it seems reasonable to, move to discussion set a time limit (5 minutes is ample) for contributions, set it in advance and apply it impartially to all comers. Don’t let the speaker keep chipping in. He has had his time.

Give the speaker 5 minutes to sum up, Then make your announcements with care and cheerfulness. Call for the collection. Don’t rush it – you should have left yourself plenty of time. Don’t forget Socialist Worker and the other interesting literature available at the back of the hall. Then thank the speaker, thank the audience for their attendance and formally close the meeting. Once you have done so do not allow members or others to try on further announcements. They should have given them to you in advance. A sloppy finish to a meeting is almost as bad as a sloppy start.


Business meetings

Here the role of the chairman is absolutely vital. He can make the difference between a brisk and pleasant meeting from which people leave feeling that they have done something and a chaotic, tedious and quite unnecessarily lengthy session. To achieve this desirable end the chairman needs the same qualities as for a public meeting but he also needs a knowledge of the rudiments of procedure.

a) The Agenda

An agenda is simply a list giving the items of business and the order in which they are to be taken. Every business meeting, however small, needs an agenda, It is the secretary’s job to draft an agenda and the chairman’s job to put it to the resting for approval or amendment. Ideally the draft agenda should have been seen by the members before the meeting and it must be seen beforehand by you, the chairman.

It is important that the agenda is realistic – there is no point in trying to get through fifty items at one session – and it is your job to see that the meeting does not struggle with an absurd agenda. Consider what is likely to be feasible and suggest to the meeting accordingly. Remember that you are in charge, not the secretary. Of course the meeting will decide.

Often members will propose additions. Remember that an item is not added simply because Jones so proposes. Perhaps the majority don’t want it. The proposal to add (or delete) must be put to the vote. In general, the less discussion there is about the agenda the better. If the secretary and chairman have done their jobs properly beforehand its acceptance will take twenty seconds and the time of the meeting conserved for matters of substance. Once an agenda is adopted it is your job to see that it is adhered to – and that members do not pursue hares all over the field.

b) Procedure

Man was not made for the sabbath neither was the membership made for the rule book. At the same time a century and a half’s experience has taught the working class movement that a certain degree of formality, order and system is essential, not only for the expeditious conduct of business, but also for the democratic principle of majority rule to be possible at all.

It seems to be the case that we have something of a ‘culture gap’ in IS between those who have some serious trade union or other organisational experience and those who do not. We need to bridge that gap and branch chairmen are vital here.

It may be useful to consider an extremely formal procedure, for example, that of Trade Union bodies, to see its virtues and defects. At a typical district meeting the agenda will be determined in advance (often by rule). There will be a set of rules called standing orders that determine the conduct of the meeting. It will not normally be possible to move any proposition unless notice has been given in writing x days in advance (there will be a procedure for emergencies) and members will not usually be able to speak at all except by way of question to a minute, on a report or on a specific motion. Considerable ingenuity will often have to be exercised in order to make a point whilst remaining technically in order.

This formality has developed because of the need to get through a great deal of business in a very limited time. It has the advantage of protecting members from undue garrulousness and irrelevance. It has the disadvantage of rigidity.

Now it would be absurd for any IS branch, which has a quite different work load and purpose, to adopt and such highly formal procedure. At the same time we can gain by a sensible adaption of the normal rules of procedure to our purposes. What follows is a very simplified account of such of those rules as are likely to be relevant.

c) Motions

Much of the discussion at branch business meetings will be on reports and provided that the branch is not too large, this is best done without much formality. However at some stage someone will suggest some course of action. This is a motion. It is usual to require someone to second it on the grounds that, unless at least two people support it, there is little point in spending time on it.

Once a motion has been put the chairman has to ensure two things. First that the precise intention is clear to members. You should state what you take the notion to be to the meeting, giving the mover the opportunity to correct you. What happens next depends very much on the size of the meeting. If there are more than around a dozen it will be quicker and more satisfactory to proceed formally. Ask the mover to explain his proposal and then take other speakers unless it is clear that there is general agreement. If it seems that nothing new is emerging ask the meeting if it is ready to vote. If in doubt ask for a show of hands. It is usual to offer the mover the opportunity to reply (which closes the discussion) immediately before the final vote, Hopefully not all movers will wish to exercise this right. It is also normal to restrict members to one contribution on a given motion (except for the mover). Whether this is necessary or not really depends again on the size of the meeting. In general it is a good thing and will be found to concentrate the minds of speakers remarkably. If you judge it desirable ask the meeting to agree. They have to decide.

It will frequently happen that someone will wish to add to or alter the motion. This is an amendment (technically it too is a motion to which whatever rules you have apply). The following points are relevant:-

  1. The amendment must be concerned with the matter raised in the motion. For instance if you have a motion to affiliate to the anti-internment league, an amendment to add ‘and to donate £2 to the Rebel fighting fund’ is out of order as it raises an entirely different matter.
  2. The amendment must not simply say ‘no’ to the motion – to achieve that you vote against it. It must propose something different.
  3. An amendment is moved in the same way as a motion but there is no right of reply.
  4. Only one amendment can be considered at a time. Notice can be given of further amendments but they cannot be discussed until the first amendment is disposed of. Departure from this rule is a sure road to confusion.
  5. The amendment is put to the vote before the original motion. If it is carried the proposition before the meeting is the amended motion which can then be put to the vote (a substantive motion) unless there are further amendments. If there are they are dealt with in turn.

All this may sound complicated but is in fact very simple in practise. Only two other points are likely to arise in small meetings, One is that once put to a meeting no proposition can be withdrawn unless the meeting agrees. The other is that there are things called. procedural motions that take precedence, Of these the only one that should arise is ‘Question be put’ i.e. that the discussion stop and the vote be taken. The chairman has to be careful here. You are not obliged to accept this if, in your view, the matter has not been adequately aired. If you do accept it and it is carried on a vote remember the mover still has a right of reply even though no one else can speak.

These few rules should see most meetings through, If they do not then your branch is big enough or talkative enough to require a set of standing orders and a chairman who knows his Citrine.

d) Watch the Time

A good chairman coaxes a meeting along by conciliation and the good sense of the members. One vital job is to keep things moving and try to prevent time wasting. If discussion meanders, it is as well to draw the attention of members to the remaining items on the agenda, The trick here, as in other matters is to carry the majority with you. It may be that every member has a god-given right to speak at length on every topic but it does not follow that the rest of us have a god-given duty to listen. Many business meetings take an unconscionable time to arrive at the same decision they would have reached in ten minutes with better chairing;, Standing orders normally specify a time at which meetings must close. Without going as for as this, it is a poor chairman who can’t get through the business so as to allow half an hour’s drinking time.


Last updated on 7.12.2004