At Harvard, I co-led the organization of Harvard China Forum, the largest student-run China conference in North America that attracts 1,200 attendees and features over 100 speakers each year. The speaker list is a who’s who of prominent figures in the US-China cross-border world. It was not easy to run a large event as students with limited resources. It forced us to bootstrap and put in extra effort to make the event successful.

From four years of Harvard China Forum and other events I have put together in the past, I have learned the following best practices that I think could benefit anyone trying to organize large, public events.

1.On inviting speakers

  • Cast an extremely wide net for speakers. If you are inviting world-class speakers, you can only realistically expect around 10-20% of the people you invite to able to actually make it. Most of the time, it’s not that the speakers don’t want to come – they just happen to need to be somewhere else at that time.
  • Invite them as early as possible (some public figures need to be booked at least a year in advance), and check in periodically on changes in their schedule. Cultivate good relationships with their assistants.
  • Even though all speakers are extremely busy people, if they really want to be at your event, they would drop everything else and attend. “I’m busy” is just another way of saying “I don’t consider your event compelling enough for me to make time for it.” How do you make your event as compelling to the speakers as possible?
  • Speakers care about two things: What’s in there for them, and who else is on stage.
    • What’s in there for them: Think in the shoes of speakers. What are their top priorities? What audience do they want to reach? Perhaps they are trying to launch into a new market, or trying to recruit local talent. Perhaps they are trying to source deals among local startups. Think about whom the speakers want to engage with, and get those people in the room.
    • Who else is on stage: Everyone wants to speak alongside people of comparable prestige/status. For many people, it’s an honor to speak with people they respect. It’s fun to be on the same panel with friends/business partners that you have known for a long time. Who doesn’t want to see their friends? If you really want a certain speaker to come but can’t get a definite “yes”, try inviting their friends. On the flip side, do not put competitors/people who don’t get along on the same panel. Do your homework on the speakers.
  • Expect last minute changes. Prepare for the worst. Your most heavyweight guests are also the most likely to drop out, because they have more demand on their schedule. The only way to compensate for speaker attrition is by inviting a large group of prominent speakers, so there will be exciting people to see even if a few drop out.
  • Try to get warm intros. The warmer the intro, the more likely that the speaker will accept the invitation and actually show up. No one gets Jack Ma to speak at an event by cold emailing him.
  • Take advantage of geography. For events, location matters. A lot. Think of the industries that your city is known for. It would be much easier to do a panel for VCs and startup founders in San Francisco than in D.C., just because most of these people happen to be there. One trick is to have your conference close to the date of another large industry event at the same location. Then you can probably co-opt at least a few speakers from that event to your own event.
  • Just because somebody is famous, it doesn’t mean they are a good speaker. There are plenty of prominent people who are terrible speakers. They ramble on and on about topics that no one cares about, or they just promote their company/organization. The best speakers think about the topics the audience is interested in, and address those topics in a spontaneous, personal manner. Before inviting speakers, try to watch videos of them speaking or attend their other events to confirm that they are good speakers.

2. On getting a full house

  • The single most important job of the event organizer is to ensure a full house, preferably with people standing at the back. Speakers are more energized if they are talking to a full audience. Empty chairs should be the bane of your existence. If I have an event venue with a capacity of 100 people, I usually make sure to get at least 200 RSVPs. My experience with past events is that usually 50%-60% of the people who register will actually show up, and many of them will come late/leave early. This percentage decreases if the event is on a weekend morning/if the weather is bad/if there happens to be some other more interesting events going on at the same time.
  • You can never do too much publicity. The earlier you start, the better, since it allows people to block out time for your event on their calendars early on. Try your best to spread the word, and then try harder.
  • Leverage the speakers’ own networks to publicize the event. For Harvard China Forum, we made personalized posters for some of the speakers designed for social media sharing, featuring their portrait, the Chinese words “Waiting for you at Harvard”, and a QR code linking to the ticketing page. This is something that the speaker is almost always happy to share on their social media.
HCF poster
My drawing of the prototype vs. the actual poster

3. On leaving the audience satisfied

  • Know your audience. If they are professionals, provide networking opportunities. If they are job-seekers, make sure the event includes a recruiting element. If they are VCs, make sure there are high-quality startups at the event. If they are students, prepare free food.
  • Give speakers some guidance on what they should talk about. Do research on their background and come up with good questions that the audience would want to hear the answers to. Do not just give them generic topics, like “Talk about climate change.” If their company/organization just made headlines recently, talk about that news.
  • Dialogues tend to work better than individual speeches. It allows speakers to be more spontaneous. The less the speakers prepare, the better. The worst sessions I’ve been to were those where the speakers read from a pre-written script full of official, correct language written by their PR team.
  • Get good moderators, preferably journalists. The effect of moderators on the quality of the panel is tremendous. The moderator should be very familiar with the speakers’ sector and backgrounds, preferably their friend. If the moderator has never met the speakers, make sure that they have a chat before the panel to warm up to one another.
  • Consider preparing drinks that are not water for speakers. Yes, I’m talking about wine. Once we had a panel at 10 pm on a Saturday, and prepared wine for the speakers. It was one of the best panels we’ve ever had. Both the speakers and the audience utterly enjoyed themselves. The speakers were more relaxed and authentic (and slightly tipsy), shared more interesting stories, and the audience was more engaged and entertained.
  • Always have a built-in segment of the program for attendees to get to know one another. People attend events to meet other people.

4. On Q&A

  • If you have an audience larger than 100 people, do not allow free-flowing questions (where anyone in the audience can just stand up and ask a question). These almost always result in obnoxious people pitching about their startups or trying to grab attention. I’m sure you have been to an event where an audience member stood up and asked a 5-minute long question that did not end in a question mark, and you are thinking to yourself: What a waste of time. For large panels, we use a great online solution called Pigeonhole Live, which allows audience members to go to a website on their phone, key in their question, and vote on other people’s questions. The questions that get the most votes will end up being displayed on the screen and answered by the speakers. This is a great way to filter for the question that most people are dying to hear the answer for.
  • If you don’t have the budget for Pigeonhole Live, I recommend just not having a Q&A session at all. You can always invite audience members to stay behind to network with speakers.

5. On logistics

  • Always go see the venue for yourself beforehand, as early as possible. Just seeing photos of the venue is not enough.
  • Always have a timer who can show signs like “5 minutes left” and “Time up” for the speakers. One of the most challenging aspects of organizing an event is making sure that it runs on schedule (something that almost never happens). You should expect things to start late and end late, but also try your best to make sure panels end reasonably on time by having a timer.
  • Sequence the speakers’ sessions strategically. Try to have one heavyweight speaker in the very beginning (to force people to come early), and another heavyweight speaker at the very end (to force people to stay till the end).
  • Always have a dedicated photographer (preferably hire a professional one). They should take close-ups of each speaker, as well as pictures of the audience when they look focused/engaged/entertained. There is no use taking pictures of a roomful of people playing with their phones. The audience photos should be taken from an angle that makes the event look full (do not take audience photos with empty seats immediately in front of the camera. This makes the venue look empty even when the back is full of people). Close-up photos of speakers should be sent to them within hours of the event so that they can post on social media and help magnify the impact of the event.
  • There should be a note-taker (preferably with journalism background) who transcribes during the event. This person should make good judgments on what is an interesting quote vs. what is not, and highlight those interesting quotes in the notes to be compiled into an article that can be published by the organizer afterward.

One last word

Remember that the results are always proportional to the amount of time and effort you put in. This applies to everything in life, but especially to event organizing. Maybe the room could have been fuller if you tried harder to publicize the event. Maybe the speaker lineup could have been stronger if you spent a few more hours each week following up with the heavyweights. If you think hard enough and care enough, most problems can be predicted and prevented. Yes, a lot of what happens during the event will not be within your control. But most things are.

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