Student group notes #3: getting good speakers

August 2014

This is the third post in a series on lessons I learned while starting a student group almost from scratch.

If there’s one thing that I’m proud of about my tenure running HEA, it’s our programming. Last year we had over 10 speakers come to give talks to HEA, including Peter Singer, Jaan Tallinn, and many other extremely popular and busy people. We also raised thousands of dollars to cover honoraria from these speakers. How?

The trick is to be well-connected like me and John so that you know a diverse pool of famous people and deep-pocketed university organizations to lean on for favors. If you don’t have such a pool already, get out there and network!

…just kidding. I didn’t actually know most of our speakers before I invited them to speak. I just sent them a cold email asking if they wanted to give a talk for HEA (sometimes with an introduction from a friend or our excellent faculty adviser, Nir). We got a lot of silence–my archives are littered with the corpses of unanswered invitations–but we also got a lot of responses, and our awesome lineup of speakers was definitely worth the additional messages cast into the void.

I also have an important sub-tip here. For emailing potential speakers–and also for life in general–I found Boomerang1 to be totally indispensable. I set any sent emails to return to my inbox in a week if the recipient didn’t respond, and often if I sent them a second follow-up email I’d get a response after that. In fact, Boomerang is practically a requirement to communicate with some professors, who I suspect just have a policy of never responding to email the first time it’s sent… Again–if you rely on email to make important things happen and you don’t have Boomerang, start using Boomerang NOW.

Psychologically, I often found it demoralizing to send cold emails, since each one individually had a fairly low chance of turning into a talk further down the road–it often felt like most of my work was wasted (although our response rate was a lot higher than I thought it would be). I tried to fight this by valuing effort instead of results–I would phrase my goals in terms of “high-quality emails sent” instead of “responses received” or “talks scheduled.”

Overall, something like 20% of people we cold-emailed ended up giving a talk at HEA. I can’t promise that this will translate to student groups at other schools–we certainly benefited from the Harvard brand–but even if we had gotten a much lower response rate, we could have sent more emails or started asking less-busy people. The credibility and attention that we got from having such a great lineup was a huge boost when we were recruiting new members, so I’m really glad we did it.

Cold-email awesome people! It works!

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Jess Riedel

Folks who don’t want to use Boomerang (because they don’t want to give access to their Gmail account, don’t want to worry about not having it available at computer they don’t control, and/or don’t have Gmail) may be interested in non-installed services like FollowUpThen. This gives you the most important functionality (reminders to follow-up), although it doesn’t allowed scheduled emails.

Also, I know you mentioned it, but I would have emphasized more the importance of the Harvard brand. Folks who don’t have that brand should probably concentrate a bit more on using other status signals to attract potential speakers (i.e. rely more on professor introductions, etc.).

Good post.



Great post Ben! How did you raise the honoraria for your speakers? Cold emails or another method?


Oliver Habryka

“This is the second post in a series on lessons I learned while starting a student group almost from scratch.”

I think you want to say “This is the third post”



@Jess: thanks for the FollowUpThen reference (forgot to mention), and for the extra data on brand name! (I haven’t tried to recruit speakers without the Harvard brand-name, so I don’t have much perspective.) In addition to getting more introductions from professors, I’ve also seen other groups have success from getting to know the speaker through other means, giving them some kind of award (this may be hard to pull off), trying to line up other nice things for the speaker to do, etc. There are a lot of options.

@Jon: our biggest chunk came from splitting Peter Singer’s honorarium with a campus organization that had an actual budget–he gave one talk for us and one for them, which was fortunately OK with him. Some undergraduate academic departments also offered money based on cold emails, and we applied for some campus grants.

@Oliver: thanks, fixed.


Markus Anderljung

A really low-level question: how do you go about sending that second nudge-email without seeming annoying? I know you likely have nothing to lose, but what would be an example of how such an email would go?



Sorry for the delayed reply, Markus! I usually just repeat my previous question, but more tersely (because they already got one email explaining the context). E.g.:

Dear Prof. Smith

Just checking in–would you be interested in giving a talk for Harvard Effective Altruism this semester? We’d love to host and can reimburse you for travel!





A private commenter asks:

What range of audience sizes did you see for speaker events? (Say, Jann Talinn vs. someone whose name isn’t well-known)

We saw basically three tiers of attendance:

At the events themselves, did HEA do additional work to recruit/distribute information? With a table outside or something similar?

We gave a brief pitch for HEA and the philanthropy fellowship at each talk, put an email list signup at the door, and distributed feedback forms when we were really on top of things. I don’t make any claims that this is optimal, though. We probably could have done better at converting talk attendees into HEA members.


Markus Anderljung

Thanks for the reply Ben! I’ve started using Boomerang and e-mailing people reminders after about two weeks. It works incredibly well: so far I’ve always got nice and useful replies.