Guide to Organising Speaking Events
Sometimes, the most powerful way for an organisation to get its message across is to call in someone from the frontlines. Freedom of expression organisations often provide platforms to survivors of human rights violations, human rights defenders, politicians or celebrities who are committed to a cause. Speaking events not only engage people who may not already know about an organisation’s work, they also have the effect of motivating and inspiring long-time activists. Powerful oratory also tends to build the momentum behind fundraising efforts and is a great way to attract media attention.
Selecting and approaching speakers
An organisation should be sure to choose a speaker who is likely to understand and advance the goals behind the event(s). Organisations may be lured by the prospect of a celebrity, for example, but if the objective is to educate the public on a complex issue like libel, it may be better to have a prominent lawyer speak on the issue or to at least pair a celebrity and a lawyer together on a panel. As all but the most formal speaking events tend to be followed by a question and answer session, groups should make sure the speaker is educated about an issue enough to go beyond the script. Speakers will often also be required to answer media questions spontaneously before or after a speech.
An invitation to the proposed speaker should ideally be sent out at least three months in advance. The speaker needs time to secure a visa, and the organisation needs time to approach an alternative speaker if the guest declines the invitation. An invite should include the following information:
- the purpose of the speaking engagement(s)
- a programme outline, including the length of the tour or event and location of venue(s)
- details about accommodation, transportation, meals, etcetera with a clear explanation of what the organisation is paying for and the costs that the individual will be responsible for (see ‘practical considerations’ below for more information on negotiating expenses)
Once a potential speaker has accepted your invitation, a follow-up letter should be sent that thanks the individual and provides further information. The letter should include an estimated timeline of the speaking tour or event, including roughly when the events and interviews will take place. Although it may be the case that many speaking engagements are not confirmed when the information package is sent, organisations should try to delineate times when the individual may be required and when they will have free time. This second letter should also request a brief autobiography of the speaker and an electronic photograph, which will be important when seeking appointments, attracting media, preparing publicity materials and so on. Finally, the second letter should include practical information such as local weather conditions, airport pick-up arrangements and contact telephone numbers. The organisers should additionally contact the speaker over the phone to discuss the logistical details and special needs, such as dietary restrictions or allergies the planners should be aware of.
Promoting the event and attracting media coverage
A media package or press release should include biographical information on the speaker, which should include background information that explains why the person is speaking about the particular issue. In addition, facts and information on the human rights campaign behind the speech and newsworthy quotes made by the speaker should be included. (Quotes can be elicited through an internal interview with the speaker). Finally, details will need to be provided about the location(s) and time(s) of the speaking engagement(s) and a contact number and name should be included for those wishing to arrange interviews or get more information.
When approaching media outlets, be sure to approach those who may be interested in the speaker, as well as those who are interested in the issue. For example, a publication directed at the black community of an urban area may be interested in writing about a speech by black activist. It should be made clear in the press release that the speaker will only be available in the city for a limited time.
In addition to reaching out to members of the media, organisations will want to specifically target the audience they wish to reach. If the target audience is university students, the organisation’s representatives should approach student unions and student activist groups, residence halls, and campus pubs. Leaving flyers is a good idea but it’s also ideal to personally approach leaders and organisers within the target community and ask them to distribute information on the event to their listserves and/or post it to a Facebook group.
Choosing a venue
It is often difficult to predict the turnout precisely, so choose a venue that will allow for a larger or smaller audience than anticipated. Organisations should seek out venues that are willing to host progressive events for free. Be sure to discuss the lighting and sound system needs that will be provided by the venue and those that the organisation will be responsible for. If the venue has hosted speaking engagements in the past, ask questions about technical problems that may have occurred. Finally, try to pick a venue that is in a neighbourhood or location that the target audience lives, works or frequents.
Scheduling a speaking tour or event
It is a good idea to discuss potential dates with contacts who are part of the audience an organisation wishes to address. This way, an organisation can be sure the event does not conflict with other major meetings or events.
When a speaker is travelling a significant distance, it is a good idea to keep the first day of the visit free for the speaker to rest, settle in and become familiar with the issues they will be addressing. In devising a programme for any speaking tour, it should be remembered that public speaking can be exhausting. The speaker may also be worn down by their journey, the strange diet, adapting to being with strangers, or by language difficulties. Therefore, it is best to avoid combining late night interviews with early morning engagements and schedule in gaps to allow for relaxation. If the visit is scheduled to last for four days or longer, try and ensure that you build in one complete day for rest.
Most speaking events, aside from the most formal ones, allot at least 10 minutes for a Q&A session following a speech. This encourages audience participation and is often a good way for individual audience members to find out about how they can get involved in a campaign. In a speaking tour with multiple engagements, it is advisable to schedule an hour or two after the first and/or second speaking event to discuss with the speaker any problems that may have arisen, answer any questions and recommend any changes to length or structure. Finally, be sure to allot more time than is necessary between speaking engagements, meetings, etcetera in order to allow for transportation delays, events going over time and other contingencies.
Getting the message across
An added benefit to speaking events is that an organisation can attract an audience and media coverage based on the speaker alone. The challenge, however, is to make sure the take-home message doesn’t get lost amid the hype over the celebrity or the compelling details of the speaker’s story. Ideally, a representative of the organisation should also speak about the organisation’s activities and advocacy before or after the main speaker. It’s a good idea to also have the speaker talk specifically about the hosting organisation, how others can get involved and why he or she supports the work of the organisation. An organisation should be sure to display its name prominently on flyers, invitations and other promotional material so that those who are inspired by the issue can contact the group. To ensure the speaker provides an accurate and appropriate portrayal of the organisation in media interviews, he or she should be trained on the group’s overall mission and activities, as well as the specific issue or campaign the organisation is trying to advance.
Usually, speakers should not only discuss attacks on human rights but also what individuals in the audience can do to fight these violations. Organisations may want to provide speakers with website URLs, names of political figures to lobby, and upcoming meetings or dates for demonstrations so that they can share this information with the audience. In addition, groups should hand out clear, written information providing resources and advice for others hoping to get involved in the struggle. If the speaker is appealing to a small group of business leaders or government representatives, the speaker should be provided with information about the individuals so he or she can better target a lobbying message to the audience.
To ensure a speaking event has a clear, take-home message, it is important for organisations to ask themselves, ‘If you can only get one central message across, what is it in one sentence?’ The answer to this question should be clearly communicated with the speaker. It may be helpful to sit down with the speaker and structure his or her address to ensure that the key points are hit. For example, an organisation could suggest 15 minutes for the presentation of biographical information and personal story, 5 minutes to explain the broader picture of human rights violations (who is usually targeted, number of violations, countries in which they are taking place, etc), 5 minutes to discuss local and global responses to the rights violations and 10 minutes to discuss the role of the organisation within this movement.
Supporting the speaker
At the beginning of a tour or before a speaking engagement, it is often useful to organise some media training for your speaker so that the major themes and key points can be conveyed in “media-friendly” terms. Time can also be spent discussing and preparing for difficult questions that may arise. You should check whether the speaker has any experience in dealing with the media so that you can take this into account in the training. Ideally this training would involve a sympathetic professional journalist, but it can also be done through a simple role-playing exercise.
Once the speaker has written his or her address, it is recommended that the organisers have the speaker practice the address to ensure that it fulfils its intended purpose and does not go overtime. When providing feedback about a speech, remember that public speaking can be daunting and be sure to give compliments before suggesting areas that can be changed.
Finally, consider the benefits of the speaking engagement(s) from the point of view of the speaker. If appropriate, an organisation may also want to see to it that promotional material, such as a speaker’s books or a flyer about an upcoming event the speaker wishes to support are displayed on a welcoming table. An organisation’s representatives may also want to sit down with a speaker to discuss his or her goals and the challenges he or she is facing to see if they can introduce him or her to contacts or agencies that may be of help. Try to also schedule some free time for the speaker so that he or she may check out the sights or tourist destinations.
Safety and security of the speaker
If the speaker is someone who has received threats for their advocacy, be sure to discuss the security they require, the potential risks they may encounter on the trip and strategies to mitigate danger. (See IFEX’s guide on risk assessment and management, here
.) The precautions the individual should take and their role in ensuring their own security should be clearly communicated. Likewise, the organisation should detail the prevention and security measures that the organisation’s representatives will undertake. This discussion should take place well before a speaking tour or event commences.
Be sure to consider the legal and security implications for a speaker in terms of discussing a particular human rights violation. A speaker, especially someone who is young or inexperienced, may provide details to an audience or journalists that could threaten legal proceedings or put them in further danger. In certain cases, an organisation may need to sit down with the individual as well as a lawyer in order to demarcate the information about a particular incident that can be included in a speech and the details that should be left out.
Practical considerations: Visas, accommodation, expenses etc.
Once a speaker has agreed to the terms of the speaking event or tour, it is important to begin the visa application process right away. The organisation should prepare a letter of invitation for embassy or consulate officials. This letter should explain the purpose of the visit, accommodation details, and the flight and other costs being provided by the organisation, among other information. Here is a rundown of what the Canadian government requires in a letter of invitation: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/visit/letter.asp.
Be sure to do research (via a phone call to an embassy official or a search on an embassy’s website) to ensure that an invitation letter meets the requirements of the country he or she will be travelling to.
Given the complications with securing visas, it is best organisers have a phone conversation with embassy officials before the guest makes contact. Ensure that the guest has a valid passport that will be valid until at least six months after the trip has ended. It is a good idea to ask the speaker if he or she has ever been refused a visa to the destination country so that the organisation can gauge the level of intervention and support that is necessary. If the organisation is high profile enough to warrant the attention of embassy officials in the speaker’s country, it is also advised to seek the guidance of these officials. Finally, flights should be booked well in advance and mailed to the speaker as confirmed tickets for return or onward journey are often required for visa applications.
Usually, the speaker will be provided with a hotel room and the name of the hotel and its website will be provided, either in the initial invitation or follow-up information package that is provided to the speaker. However, if the speaker is someone who is comfortable with the language and culture of the country or place they are visiting, is known to the organisation’s members and is likely to have experienced similar accommodation circumstances in the past, an organisation may consider having a representative host the person. Ideally, the representative should be able to host the individual for the duration of their stay in the city so that they do not have to readjust to a new location. Be sure that the individual hosting the guest has the schedule for the speaking tour, information about meal requirements of the guest and when and where they will be expected to meet the guest on a daily basis. The person billeting the guest should be available on hand as a host whenever the guest will be in the house.
Usually, an organisation covers all of the costs of a trip, including visa costs, flight costs, meals, accommodation and travel to and from events. However, the organisation may decide not to pay for certain costs if, for example, a guest is already visiting the country for another reason or is being sponsored by a partner organisation or grant.
While many speakers will be willing to donate their time to an organisation if they are passionate about the cause, some speakers require an honorarium. Usually, someone who is engaging in self promotion, perhaps for a film or book, will not expect an honorarium. If the organisation has a relationship with the individual they wish to invite to speak, it may be wise to informally discuss what the individual requires in terms of expenses and stipend. For example, the director of a partner organisation who is being invited to speak may have a relative he or she wishes to stay with in the host city. Alternatively, it is helpful to speak to NGOs that have hosted speaking events in your city to find out what kind of per diem and expenses coverage is usually provided.
In case of a medical or other emergency, ask that the speaker provide emergency contact information. In addition, it is important to ask the person if he or she has any special health requirements that the organisation can help to accommodate. It is useful to designate someone as the speaker’s assistant who will be responsible for picking up the guest at their hotel, escorting him or her to events, meals and back to the hotel and addressing any practical questions or concerns he or she has. As the speaker should have some free time, be sure to provide maps, transit information, recommended shopping areas, restaurants and sights as well as conveniences such as laundry.
Lobbying and fundraising during the speaking tour
Arranging for an important visitor to meet your key supporters in government or other influential spheres can be an important way of attracting and consolidating support for your organisation. It is important to work out the lobbying objectives of any speaking tour well in advance. Consider who the speaker should meet from a strategic standpoint, including the key messages and/or requests that should be conveyed in the meeting. Remember to follow up with the contacts in the days and/or weeks after the meeting to ensure the momentum created by the speaker’s visit is not lost.
Speaking events also tend to offer income-generating possibilities. If appropriate, the speaker may be encouraged to directly appeal to the audience for donations to an organisation. Usually, this appeal will be made after a powerful speech that will make the reason for charity resoundingly clear. A fundraising dinner should be pursued if an organisation can be sure it will make enough money after costs to be worthwhile. Usually, fundraising dinners are appropriate when the speaker is someone who is renowned. For basic speaking events, entrance fees can be charged if they are not likely to discourage guests from attending. Encouraging “pay what you can” donations at the door helps to bring in money while also ensuring those who are struggling financially are not excluded.
If it is appropriate, consider asking the visitor to put their name to an appeal for donations that will be sent out to potential supporters. The speaker may be willing to provide quotes that explain the importance of the organisation’s work by drawing on personal experience.
There are various ways in which you can try to maintain the momentum the visit has given to your campaign:
- Take photographs, make videos, get quotes that can be used in subsequent communications. Keep a record of who helped with the visit and make sure they are thanked.
- Keep a record of who attended the different functions and events and invite them to join your organisation if they are not already members.
- Encourage guests to sign their name and email so that the organisation can include them on its listserv to notify them of future events, campaigns, etcetera.
- Make sure that commitments made in meetings for follow-up action are fulfilled.
- Keep in regular contact with the speaker afterwards so that he or she can continue to support the organisation’s work, and vice versa.
Amnesty International: How to host a speaker
(See related guides in the links on the left side of this page, including ‘how to hold a forum’)