A Guide to Hosting a Campus Speaking Engagement
Angus Johnston, September 2013, v. 1.1.
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Introduction • What I Do • Setting Up The Trip • Ground Rules • Costs • Funding • Initial Event Planning • The Contract • Travel Arrangements • Final Planning and Publicity • My Visit • After the Visit • Checklist
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I’ve been speaking on campuses as a scholar of American student activism for several years now, and these speaking engagements are some of the most satisfying work I do. They give me a way to talk to folks in an in-depth way about the work they’re doing on their campuses, to offer practical advice and theoretical grounding, and to help folks to take local movements to a new level. The talks have also shaped my understanding of contemporary student organizing while producing some important and lasting friendships. (The income they provide is also, I should say, what allows me to continue writing, blogging, tweeting, and mentoring activists — without it, I’d be looking for another line of work.)
For students who have experience in event planning or strong ties to established campus organizations, the process of setting up a talk is generally pretty straightforward. But I’ve come to realize that there are other students with an interest in hosting me for whom the logistics are a major obstacle.
That’s what — and who — this document is for.
If you’d like to explore bringing me to your campus or conference, or if you have any questions about anything here, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Email (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the best route for initial contact, but I’m also happy to text, Skype, or talk on the phone to brainstorm or hash stuff out. And if you have any suggestions for how this guide could be improved, I’d love to hear those too.
What I do
I’m a historian of American student activism. I got my PhD in 2009, I’ve written widely on the subject, and I teach history at the City University of New York. I also run the website studentactivism.net, where I discuss student organizing and related issues.
I speak on campuses and at student conferences about a half a dozen times a year, mostly on American student organizing and student culture past and present. I’m an advocate of student activism as well as a historian, and my talks reflect that — they’re intended to help student activists get past common pitfalls to win victories and build their movements.
The typical format for my speaking engagements is a 30-45 minute talk followed by a Q&A session of an hour or so. When the schedule for the visit permits, I frequently conduct a workshop or discussion group in advance of the main speech. Such sessions are generally framed so as to allow a smaller group to cover material of more specific interest in greater depth and with a more interactive format than a larger talk allows. After the main talk I’m also more happy to continue the discussion informally at a reception or over dinner.
Though a speech and Q&A is the most common setup for my talks, I’ve also frequently worked in other formats— conducting trainings, facilitating retreats, moderating ally spaces, and so on. Beyond general themes in student organizing, I often speak on the role of student government in the university, the role of state student associations in the student movement, tactics for making parliamentary procedure inclusive, and other topics. If you’re looking for something specific, let me know, and if you’d like to brainstorm, we can do that too.
Setting Up the Trip
If you’re interested in having me come out, the first, easiest step is to contact me at email@example.com. If you’ve got a specific date or a particular format in mind, let me know, but if not, that’s good too — the more flexible we both are, the easier it will be to come up with a plan.
If we decide that a visit seems like a good idea in the abstract, the first issues to work out will be my ground rules, the date, and my fee. Once we get those issues squared away we’ll come up with a plan for working out the rest of the logistics — booking travel, arranging the details of my talk, and so on.
For more on all those steps, keep reading.
There are three requests that I make of everyone who asks me to speak. First, the event should be accessible to people with disabilities. Second, if the event is a conference, you should have a robust anti-harassment policy in place. And third, if the event is a panel discussion, the makeup of the panel can’t be made up of all men or all white people.
I believe in organizing that’s inclusive, and I believe in using what influence I have to advance that project. If you’re not sure about whether what you’re inviting me to do meets one of my criteria, or you’re not sure how to make sure that it does, don’t freak out. I’m happy to work it out together. It’s not that complicated.
(If you’d like more information about any of this stuff, check out my blog. I’ve discussed most of these issues there in some detail.)
If you’re interested in booking me to speak, contact me directly and I’ll provide you with my current fee.
Because I am not represented by a speaking bureau, I have some flexibility in the fees I charge, and in fact I typically speak on a pro bono basis several times a year. Please bear in mind, though, that speaking engagements make up a big chunk of my (not close to lavish) annual income, and that nearly all the other work I do with student activists is uncompensated. Speaking fees are what makes it possible for me to do the other stuff for free.
Bear in mind also that I’m a divorced parent of two young children, and that speaking engagements take me away from them. That fact plays an important role in my decisions as to which invitations to accept.
Unless otherwise negotiated in advance, travel costs are not included in my speaking fee. I’m typically reimbursed by my hosts for travel from New York City, local transportation, lodging, and meals.
If you’re going to be bringing me out to speak through a student government or statewide student association you probably already know how your budgeting process works — or at least know who to ask. If you’re interested in bringing me out but aren’t hooked into that kind of an organization, you have a few options:
• Campus funding. Colleges and universities often have money available to bring speakers to campus through the student affairs office, endowed speaker series, and other sources. To find out more about such possibilities on your campus contact student affairs or reach out to an in-the-know professor or administrator you have a solid relationship with.
• Student government. Student governments have set programming budgets and generally make additional funding available for special projects that arise during the year. Contact your student government president, financial officer, or programming board to find out how that system works on your campus.
• Student groups. Student organizations that receive funding from the student government often have budgets for event programming. If one group doesn’t have enough funding to cover the expenses for an event on their own, they may be able to pool resources with others.
• Other sources. State student associations, labor unions, academic departments, foundations, and other groups on or connected to the campus may be able to help out too.
Finally, campuses or groups that are near to each other sometimes arrange for me to give more than one talk on a trip. In such cases, I may be able to offer each group a lower fee in addition to the reduced travel costs. If your budget is tight and you have friends nearby, let me know and we’ll explore that option.
Initial Event Planning
Once we’ve confirmed mutual interest and had some initial conversations about funding, the next step in planning a visit will be picking a date and time.
While I’m fairly flexible on travel, my teaching schedule, prior professional commitments, and other obligations impose constraints on my time. Given all that, the quicker we can nail down a date the better.
On your end, timing will be constrained by your campus schedule. We don’t want to set up a visit on spring break, or during finals, or whatever. The best time of day will vary campus-by-campus as well — some colleges can bring together big crowds for evening and weekend events, while others empty out once afternoon classes get done.
You’ll know the major potential issues there, but be sure to talk to folks you’re hoping to bring out to the event, too — if someone’s planning a big speaker or sending a large delegation to an off-campus conference, you’ll want to schedule around that.
The other major consideration in initial event planning is securing a suitable room. You’ll probably have a better sense of the likely audience for my talk than I will — if you haven’t planned something similar in the past, talk to folks on your campus who have, and see what they recommend based on their experience with similar events. (If all else fails, we’ll talk and I’ll come up with a guess of my own.)
One last tip on this subject: A slightly too-small room filled to the rafters makes for a better, more engaging event than a mostly empty, really big one.
Most colleges and student governments I’ve worked with have a standard speaker’s contract they use. I’m happy to work with these, though I occasionally (not often) have to make minor adjustments to the language. If my hosts don’t have a standard contract, I’m happy to provide one of my own. In either case, I prefer to get contracts completed and signed as early as possible, ideally at least a month before the event.
While we’re setting up the contract, we’ll also address any other paperwork involved, as well as the logistics of processing and delivering payment. Where college or student activity fee funds are involved, in particular, it can take several weeks after starting the process for a check to be prepared, so it’s important to get those details taken care of early.
If I’m traveling any significant distance I’ll typically want to be sure of arriving an hour or two before the talk. For engagements early in the day or a long distance from New York City, that will often mean it’s most sensible for me to get in the night before. Similarly, if the talk is late in the day or my hosts have planned a dinner or something similar afterwards, scheduling my return trip for the following day may be a good idea.
Some hosts prefer to handle transportation themselves, and some prefer to leave it to me. I’m happy either way, though if you’re going to be handling bookings we’ll need to co-ordinate closely to make sure that the schedule doesn’t conflict with any of my other obligations.
Final Planning and Publicity
Once we’ve got the venue reserved, the contract signed, and my travel and lodging squared away, the heavy lifting is done. The rest of the planning is the fun part. If we haven’t settled on a topic and format of my talk yet, this is when we’ll do it. If I’m going to go out with folks for dinner or something after, this is when we’ll set that up too.
And this is also when you’ll kick into high gear on getting people out to the event.
I’ll likely mention the event on Twitter and at the website and you’ll probably get some walk-ins as a result. The primary responsibility for publicizing the event will be yours, though.
When people hear publicity they often think “posters,” but while there’s nothing wrong with postering for an event — it can certainly boost turnout, particularly if there’s already campus interest in the topic — it shouldn’t be the core of your strategy. Folks are far more likely to respond to individual outreach than they are to attend an event just because they happened to spot a poster.
If you want to get people out, go out and grab them. Make announcements at student government and student organization meetings, preferably several weeks in a row. Put up a Facebook event page, and invite everyone you can think of. Tweet, and get everyone you know to tweet. But mostly talk to people, individually and in groups, and encourage the people you talk with to do the same. Think of the event itself as an organizing project — as an opportunity to bring new people into your group or campaign, and to build excitement among the people you already have on board.
That last advice extends to postering, too. Putting up five hundred posters yourself won’t get as many people out as recruiting ten people to put up fifty posters each will. The more invested folks are, the more committed they’ll be — to the event, and to the projects that follow.
Before I leave New York, we’ll share contact info. You’ll designate one or two people to be my liaisons, and we’ll exchange phone numbers if we haven’t already.
If I’m going to be met at the airport or my hotel, we’ll make arrangements for that. If I’m going to find my way to the venue myself, we’ll make sure I know how to get there. Either way, I’ll check in while I’m en route.
I’ll plan on arriving at the venue at least a half hour early to check out the room and get myself situated. We’ll have discussed logistics for the talk in advance, but in general I’ll want to have water, a podium, and a microphone. (I usually won’t use the microphone, but there should be one on hand in case I need it, along with someone who can troubleshoot it if there are any difficulties.) Unless we’ve made other arrangements, this is also when you’ll give me the check.
If the venue and crowd are large, it’ll be useful to have microphones in place for the Q&A session, either on stands in the aisles or wireless ones that can be handed around the crowd. If it’s the latter, you’ll want to designate a couple of people to be in charge of bringing them around.
Generally I don’t use graphics or other audiovisual aids in my presentations, but if I’m planning to I’ll give you plenty of notice. Where possible, I like to have my talks videotaped, and again, that’s something I’ll raise before the trip.
If you pass around a contact list to help you keep in touch with attendees afterwards — and you probably should — let me know before I start and I’ll encourage people to sign it.
At the time of the talk, there should be someone on hand to decide when to begin (typically a few minutes after the stated start time) and to introduce me. I’ll keep time and manage the Q&A unless we’ve arranged otherwise. About five or ten minutes before it’s time to wrap up, you’ll give me a heads-up and I’ll bring things to a close.
More often than not there will be folks around who want to chat after the formal event is over, so if there’s a limit on how long we have the space, or a deadline when we have to be somewhere else, let me know before I speak so I can manage expectations as we go.
If you’ve arranged a dinner or other off-site get-together with a smaller group, you’ll let me know whether there’s a limit on how many can attend and whether I can invite interested attendees to tag along.
After the Visit
Once we’re done with the event I’ll go back to my hotel or hit the road. Unless someone is driving me to the airport or train station I’ll be on my own from there on out.
If someone made a video of the talk, I’ll be in touch about getting a copy. If I need to get reimbursed for any of my expenses we’ll take care of that. Letters of reference are always welcome, so if you’d like to send one along it’d be appreciated.
Other than that, once we’re done we’re done. I’m always happy to lend a hand or an ear, though, so if you ever need a sounding board or a microphone, just let me know. I’m happy to discuss any issue you’re having on campus, or tweet about your action, or whatever it is — whether I’ve spoken on your campus or not.
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That’s pretty much it. There’s a fair amount of planning involved, but most of it is pretty straightforward and I’m available to help if anything goes off the rails. Students who have brought me to speak have generally been very happy with how it worked out, and many have said the event gave their organizing on campus a boost. And not to belabor the point, but bringing me out is really a big deal for me in terms of being able to continue to do what I do.
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Event Planning Checklist
- Reach out for initial discussion of possible visit.
- Discuss accessibility ground rules.
- Arrange a tentative date for talk.
- Settle on financial arrangements.
- Confirm date and time of visit and book necessary rooms.
- Sign contract.
- Complete any other necessary paperwork.
- Book travel and lodging.
- Plan and execute publicity for visit.
- Assign liaisons for speaker.
- Arrange for room setup on day of event.
- Delegate event logistics tasks.
- Assign responsibility for any post-event followup needed.