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Ten Tips for Presiding Officers (per Robert's Rules)

Whether you’re presiding over a meeting of 2,500 members or a small board or committee meeting, your job is the same when it comes to the goal of successfully managing a meeting. And to ensure that you manage successfully, consider these tips to help you establish yourself as a knowledgeable, well-organized, and helpful leader.

Know your rules

One of the best ways to establish your credibility as a leader is to know your rules. If you don’t know your rules, your members will know it, and you’ll come to a sudden understanding of how it probably feels to be a deer staring into oncoming headlights.

To avoid being caught unprepared, make sure you’re well read on your group’s charter, bylaws, special rules of order, and parliamentary authority. No one other than a person who has held your office before you (and your parliamentarian) should know as much about these rules as you do.

Plan your meetings

Nothing benefits you and your group as much as being prepared for your meetings. Planning your meeting in as much detail as possible gives you the best chance of completing the agenda within the time available (or at least knowing whether you’ll need to hold an adjourned meeting to finish your business).

The process of planning your meeting so that you can cover everything you need to cover is much easier if you follow the tips outlined here:

  • Make it everybody’s responsibility to know the agenda.

  • Call on your officers and committee chairmen to submit their reports early.

  • Call on members to advise the presiding officer of motions they know they intend to introduce.

Start your meetings on time

People have busy schedules. Your time is valuable, but it’s no more valuable than that of the members who have arrived on time and are ready to start at the appointed hour.

Nothing you do commands the respect you must have as the chair as much as starting your meeting on time. Your members know you mean business, and that’s fine, because that’s what you’re all there for.

Use unanimous consent

Unanimous consent is when the chair declares a motion to have passed without taking a vote and instead asks simply if there’s objection. Unanimous consent is a remarkable tool for handling any motion for which it’s clear and obvious that the assembly’s will is to pass the motion.

The most recognizable situations in which unanimous consent is used are in approving minutes and adjourning a meeting. But unanimous consent is just as useful even if the question is on a bylaw amendment, as long as no opposition is apparent. Members rarely object to unanimous consent when they know that opposition is so minimal that it won’t affect the outcome.

If you ask for unanimous consent and a member objects, you simply take the vote. Otherwise, it’s a great timesaver, and members really do respect presiding officers who know how to save them time.

Use committees

Encourage new proposals to be brought through your organization’s committees. Members often have good ideas, but those ideas sometimes need some work before they’re ready for a vote.

Teaching your members how to take their ideas to committees can have great benefits for you and your organization. But members need to have confidence in their committees’ willingness to help them with their ideas.

If your committees are set up well, everybody who’s really interested tackles the discussion in the committee meetings, and the rest of the members know that the committee’s recommendations are based on sound reason. But good committees go to waste without a strong leader to make efficient use of them — that’s you.

Preside with impartiality

Nobody expects you to actually be impartial. You were probably elected or appointed because you have an overall agenda and a program you hope to advance. But when you’re presiding during your meeting, you must put aside your personal agenda and help the assembly make the decisions.

You can’t lose if you do this, because ultimately, the decision belongs to the majority anyway. You’re far better off being known as a leader who ensures that the minority has a full opportunity to present its case than as one who uses the power of the chair to thwart the minority’s efforts to be heard.

To preside with impartiality, follow these tips:

  • Don’t enter into debate.

  • Don’t gavel through motions.

  • Don’t vote (except by ballot) unless your vote will affect the result.

  • Don’t refuse to recognize someone just because you don’t want a certain member to be heard.

The surest road to your success as a presiding officer is to take the position that the members control the decision, and you’re there to help them do just that.

Never give up the chair

No matter how strongly you feel about an issue, your job is to preside. True enough, Robert’s Rules provides that if you can’t preside impartially because you feel too strongly about an issue, you must step down and let someone else preside until the vote is taken. But consider that the person who takes the chair may not gracefully return the position to you! That can get mighty uncomfortable.

Don’t share your lectern

Put simply, never share your lectern with other speakers. Instead, provide a separate and distinct station for other officers and committee chairmen to use when giving their reports.

During a business meeting, your duty requires that you stay in control of the floor, and you can’t be in control of the floor if you can’t use your station to address the assembly without moving somebody else out of the way.

Keep your cool

Sometimes presiding over a meeting just isn’t easy. When disorder erupts, no amount of hammering a wooden mallet on a sounding block is going to do anything but aggravate an already bad situation.

Use a parliamentarian

In the world of Robert’s Rules, you don’t have to go it alone. Regardless of the size of your organization, when you have problems or questions, you can seek out the services of a professional parliamentarian. Resources are available online to answer questions, and local units of parliamentarians exist all over the country.

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