Image: EA Norway
Compiled from materials from EA Cambridge, LEAN and Ben Kuhn.
Speaker events involve a guest speaker giving a presentation, workshop, Q&A, or panel discussion. Usually these are in-person presentations, but many speakers are willing to Skype in for a talk. Some groups have also hosted mini conference-style events, where they host several speakers over the course of one or two days.
It may be useful to consider the following costs and benefits and decide if your group is well suited to a speaker event.
Benefits of a speaker event
Spread awareness of EA
Spread knowledge and educate attendees on an EA-relevant topic
Build your group’s reputation and network by hosting speakers
Provides an opportunity to collaborate and co-host with other groups, and reach out to members of other established communities
Costs of a speaker event
If you are inviting a high-profile speaker and hoping to get a large audience, the preparation can take a lot of time.
Groups hosting speakers report that the conversion of speaker event attendees to regular members is often low.
Needs to be planned well in advance to accommodate speakers’ schedules and venue bookings.
Speakers may require transportation and accommodation expenses if they are coming from out of town. You can apply for financial support.
Finding a speaker
To begin, work out the rough areas of interest, then brainstorm speakers who would be good in those areas. For speakers connected to the EA community, we recommend you try CEA’s speaker list. This list has people that have spoken at EA Global or EAGx conferences in the past, and you can often find the videos of their past talks on CEA’s YouTube Channel. Check whether they’ve checked “Yes” in the column “Speak for Local Group?”.
The EA Hub also allows you to filter profiles to list EAs who have offered to give talks.
Consider searching online to find potential speakers, and see if you can find a video of them speaking to help decide if they would be good for your event. Ask your group members for recommendations, contact nearby people in the EA community, and check the websites of nearby universities to see if there are people working on projects that may be of interest. If the names your group are coming up with are dominated by a particular gender or ethnic group, make an effort to search for more diverse speakers.
Research speakers thoroughly, as some may have controversial backgrounds that are important to be aware of so that you can weigh the pros and cons of inviting them, or preempt any issues.
The invitation process looks roughly as follows:
- Reach out
Send an invitation, as well as a couple of follow-up emails to your speaker. Some tips for doing this:
Leverage personal relationships
If someone has a personal relationship with the person you wish to speak, ask them to reach out on behalf of the group.
Write a polite and well-informed email
Personalise the email as much as possible. For instance, has one of the societies put on a similar event in the past? Have you been to one of the speaker’s talks in the past? Has one of their TED talks changed your life? Try and work out how to offer something that would make the speaker want to come and talk.
If they are EA-aligned, they’ll want to know how much impact their talk will have. Share your goals with them.
Other people might be motivated by your excitement about their specific research area, that you have hosted prestigious speakers in the past, or they might want to help out a motivated group of young people.
An email template (based on EA Cambridge’s template) is available.
Finding the speaker’s email address
For many famous people you may not be able to find a public and personal email address, but there will be an enquiries@theirwebsite or something like that. Obviously a personal address is best, but it’s not a huge issue if you can’t find it.
hunter.io can scan the internet for typical email address formats from people at the same company
If they self-identify as an EA, then you can try sending an email through their EA Hub profile.
Send follow up emails if you don’t get a response
Some groups report that many of their most influential speakers only replied after three or four follow-up emails had gone out.
Simply reply to the email you sent and include ‘Hi X, I was wondering if you had a chance to read over our email about [One sentence explanation of what you said].. If you have any questions I would be happy to answer them. Best Wishes…’.
You can schedule reminders to send nudge emails (with Gmail, Boomerang is a useful tool to set unanswered emails to return to your inbox in a set number of days).
- Book and Confirm
Once a speaker has accepted, decide on a date for the talk - keep in mind that you often won’t have much choice, especially with busy speakers.
Confirm what topic the speaker is going to talk on, and the length of the talk. If some areas of the speaker’s interests are more relevant to EA than others, try and steer the topic in this direction.
It’s good to get as much information as possible about the speakers’ topic to help promote the event.
Let them know what kind of audience they will expect, so they can tailor their speech accordingly.
Check if the speaker is happy with your talk description and the short bio and photograph you will use for advertising.
If you need to reimburse the speaker, remind them to save their receipts.
If you are considering recording the talk, ask permission from the speaker.
At least a week before the talk confirm the following with the speaker:
Travel, parking, accommodation, meet & greet time and location
Whether they would be interested in having dinner with the committee before or after the talk.
If necessary, that they will send you slides at least a day before if possible to give you time to check AV.
Give the speaker your phone number in case there are any issues on the day.
Professors at your University
Dinners and talks with academics often make for good events for group members
Connections with faculty can lead to research opportunities for group members, recommendation letters, and other benefits
EA has a negative reputation among some academics, including some moral philosophers. In some cases, this is because they have an overly simplistic model of EA, and in other cases, they have more fundamental disagreements about the ethics and actions of the people in the EA community. Negative interactions (e.g. a misunderstanding in conversation, not conveying the true level of academic rigour, lack of preparation) may give academics a bad first impression of yourself, the group, and effective altruism as a whole.
Who should you reach out to?
Stay up to date on what professors who might plausibly be interested in various EA topics are working on, and what classes they're teaching, e.g. AI/law professors for AI safety/governance, philosophy professors interested in utilitarianism, etc.
In general, reach out to professors who you think you’d be able to draw a large audience for (this applies mostly for talks, but also make sure you can get enough attendees to make a dinner successful). You don’t want to waste professors’ time and/or give them a bad impression of the group with a small audience.
How should you reach out?
Read up on the professor's research before reaching out. It's flattering to them if they think you're interested in their work specifically. Plus they're more likely to say yes to any request if it's clear that they're uniquely well-suited to doing so. And, if you're putting on a speaker event, it also allows you to get an idea of what they'll be comfortable talking about.
Also do a quick google beforehand to check that 1) they haven't had any particularly bad press, and 2) they haven't criticised aspects of EA before on spurious grounds.
If possible, have a group member in the same field approach the academic for you, and host the event and Q+A.
Before and during the event avoid sounding like you are trying to “sell” EA to the academic. If they are enthusiastic about learning more then you could give them a book or flyer.
Below is an e-mail template to reach out for a speaker event:
We also have an e-mail template to reach out for a dinner event:
Note: If you encounter a professor who is:
Excited about learning more about effective altruism
Or is interested in answering research questions that you see frequently discussed with effective altruism
Please email Catherine Low from CEA’s groups team (firstname.lastname@example.org), sharing a brief description of the professor, their background, their level of familiarity / interest in effective altruism. This could be a particularly valuable connection if the professor is at the top of their academic field. The CEA groups team will share the information with community members specializing in building the Global Priorities Research Field who may reach out to this professor.
For virtual presentations, Zoom is usually sufficient. For large talks you may want to purchase a webinar license to hide attendees' videos and disable the chat. CEA can help fund these.
For in-person events, make sure the room type and size is appropriate for the event and the speaker. If possible, use attendance numbers from previous years or other groups and the time of the year to estimate attendance. Avoid booking a large room if you are only expecting a small audience. For more information on finding the right venue, please see the venue section of our Guide to Running an In-Person Event.
If the speaker is planning to stay overnight, recommend suitable accommodation near the event venue. If you are hosting an EA-aligned speaker, they are often happy to be hosted by other EAs.
If the speaker agrees to dinner, book a restaurant close to the location of the talk. Make sure the restaurant has at least one decent vegan option.
Aim to find at least 3-4 people in addition to yourself to attend. If it is a high-profile speaker, ensure that you put a cap on the number of people who can attend the dinner, to maximize speaker-member interactions as much as possible. It’s usually very interesting and great fun.
Choosing a host
Consider the gender and ethnic diversity on the stage when selecting a person to act as the host and introduce the speaker, and how you would see an event/publicity if you were from a different background or had different views.
Introduction to EA
Depending on your event and audience, especially if you have several newcomers, it might be useful for the host to include a clear 3-5 minute explanation about what Effective Altruism is, the breadth of cause areas, and the different ways people can effectively contribute (career, donations, and volunteering). Check out these approaches to explaining effective altruism.
Prepare the introduction in advance, highlighting information attendees are most likely to find relevant, including why this speaker is worth listening to, and why the topic might be relevant to the audience. Use the short bio you have confirmed with the speaker as the basis for your introduction, but avoid listing off awards or positions. Keep the introduction brief, about one minute long, as people are here to listen to the speaker, not the person making the introduction.
When you do list affiliations, make sure to get the names and dates correct.
Make sure you can pronounce the name of the speaker correctly.
Add to your introduction whether the speaker is willing to have questions at any point throughout the talk, or whether they would like people to wait until the end.
Prepare feedback forms or sign-up sheets (if you wish to use them)
Here is a sample feedback form. If you are expecting newcomers, ensure you have an opportunity for attendees to sign up to your mailing list.
On the Day
Aim to have the speaker arrive about 15-20 minutes before the start time.
Before people start arriving, ask the speaker to confirm:
The length of their talk
Whether they are willing to have questions at any point throughout the talk, or whether they would like people to wait until the end
How they would like the Q&A to proceed - whether they’d like a member of the committee to select questioners and help moderate the discussion, or whether they are happy to moderate the Q&A themselves, and how long they are happy for the Q&A to run.
After the talk
The host thanks the speaker for their presentation.
Open the floor for questions and have the host moderate the discussion if requested. After the Q&A, the host should thank the speaker again and encourage everyone interested to stay around to chat. Make sure you have enough committee members around for people interested in talking, or for those who have questions about EA.)
If the speaker is comfortable with it, let audience members know they can ask the speaker questions after the Q&A.
If you are asking attendees to give feedback remind everyone to fill out the feedback forms (for physical forms either leave these on people’s seats, hand them out at the end, or project the link if digital).
It is often a good idea to serve refreshments. More information about this in our Guide to Running an In-Person Event.
After the event
Ensure that the speaker is settled into their accommodation.
Send a follow up email thanking them and updating them on the success of the event.
If you have to reimburse the speaker for any costs, remember to ask the speaker for receipts.
Additional steps for running a video presentation:
Make sure the wifi in the venue is excellent before booking.
Ask your speaker to situate themselves somewhere with excellent wifi too.
Ensure both you and the speaker have two different video call options (e.g. Skype, Hangouts, Zoom) available and prepared so you can change options early.
If your speaker wishes to use slides, ensure the speaker is ready and able to share screens with you. Ideally have the start and finish of the talk involve people seeing the speaker rather than the slides.
Ideally have the webcam pointing at the host and the audience so the speaker can see who they are talking to.
Connect to the speaker early, and check that both groups can hear each other clearly, and check that screen sharing works if required.
During question and answer time, or when there are questions throughout the presentation, have the host repeat the question so that the speaker can hear the questions.
Ben Kuhn on his experience getting speakers to come to Harvard EA.
Cambridge EA’s guide for running speaker events.