Hosting a Speaker:
A Guide for Graduate Students

Phil Agre

This is the version of 4 January 2001.


The global community of scholars operates on rituals. It has no choice, since it only functions if its members uphold values that are nowhere written into law. Perhaps the most central of these rituals is the scholarly talk, and more generally a scholar's visit to the scholars of another institution. Such visits were obviously important when travel was expensive, but not even the Internet has changed their ritual function in the modern day. When a scholar visits our department, we have several goals:

My focus here is on the last of these points. Serving as host for a visiting speaker does involve some gruntwork, but it also lets you practice skills that will become second nature as you grow into your new professional identity as a scholar. Speakers, for their part, appreciate having a specified individual they can rely on to smooth their way logistically and steer them through a potentially unfamiliar environment. My guidelines for serving as a host are mostly common sense, but at least you'll know you that aren't forgetting anything. Feel free to delegate any chores that don't fit with your schedule -- delegation is an important professional skill too.

Note that I am describing American customs, which differ somewhat from the customs of other countries. I am also describing the customs for an internal speaking event, like a colloquium series, rather than for a public conference. Customs also vary from field to field.

Invitations. The norms of scholarly life treat invitations as great honors. People do decline invitations, however, if they get too many of them, or if they are in hiding to write a book. And people's schedules are complicated. As a result, scheduling a speaker series can be a real nuisance. Get an early start. An invitation can be simple: a few sentences naming the forum, day and time, possible dates, and that sort of thing. The tone shouldn't be super-fancy, but should convey care and respect. The invitation should ideally sent by someone that the speaker knows personally. If the invitation is going to arrive out of the blue -- if the speaker doesn't know much about you or your program -- then it would help to include a few sentences explaining who the audience is and why they will be interested to hear what the speaker has to say. Wealthier institutions offer honoraria -- money, that is, typically a few hundred dollars. The primary significance of an honorarium in any case is symbolic, and if you do offer an honorarium, refer to it as "small" and try to avoid mentioning the exact amount so that it doesn't sound like a fee. Some institutions will even treat honoraria as if they are expected; they are not, although an invitee who does not work for a first-world university or a corporation could probably use some money if you have any to spare. Endowed lectureships ("The Morton J. Sigowitz Distinguished Lectureship in Jurassic Ornithology") typically come with honoraria and a higher level of ritual formality than a weekly colloquium series.

Title. Once the speaker accepts your invitation, express delight and ask for several items of information. Other things being equal it is best to ask for all the information you'll need at one time, so the speaker isn't forced to respond to dribs and drabs of messages. Early on you'll need a title, an abstract, and a bio. The title should be crafted with the audience in mind, and when you ask for a title it is a good idea to explain the core audience that you're hoping to attract. Is it a relatively narrow specialist audience or a broad multidisciplinary audience? Does it consist primarily of friends or strangers? Will people come to the talk from habit or will they need to be "sold" on this particular event? If the speaker offers a title that will not communicate to nonspecialists, you might inquire very gently if the speaker would like to attract a broader audience. (Maybe not.) Although it's usually easy to get a title, busy speakers often delay in providing you with an abstract and bio. So ask ahead of time and provide regular gentle reminders.

Abstract. The abstract is a one-paragraph summary of the content of the talk. Unless the speaker is already well-known, the abstract is the primary evidence that potential audience members have available as they decide whether to disrupt their calendars to attend the talk. If the speaker comes from a different field, you might want to mention how long an abstract you want. A good abstract will communicate the central idea of the presentation, concisely and in broadly accessible language. A bad abstract will either baffle those outside of the speaker's small speciality or (more commonly) will describe the topic of the talk -- the problem it's addressing, the question it's asking, the subject matter it's reporting, the promise it's making -- without explaining the central idea. A bad abstract sounds like a question; a good abstract sounds like an answer. It's difficult to criticize or correct a speaker's abstract, of course, given that you and the speaker are supposed to be ritually honoring one another. But it's not impossible. Say something like, "for this particular audience here, I'm thinking that it might be helpful to ...". On rare occasion an abstract will be far too long (or far too short) for your standard announcement format, in which case you can gently ask if a somewhat shorter (or longer) abstract might be available, or you can try editing it yourself and asking the speaker if your version is okay.

Bio. Ask the speaker for a "bio". This is obviously short for "biography". Forgetting to ask for a bio is a common mistake of beginners. A bio can be anywhere from a single phrase -- "associate professor of veterinary dentistry at the University of Melbourne" -- to a couple pages of publications, honors, and so forth. A bio is similar to a vita in that each one consists of public facts about the individual's professional life, not opinions or subjective experiences. A bio and a vita differ, however, in that a bio is a coherent narrative written in sentences, whereas a vita is more like a database record. A bio for a non-academic will generally sound quite different from an academic bio, and you will have to use your judgement about whether to edit it. The bio you want is sometimes called a "short bio" and is perhaps four or five sentences in length. If you get something longer then you'll have to edit it down, and if you get something *much* longer then you might ask for a short bio, or else ask which items you should emphasize. You need the bio for two purposes: advertising the talk and introducing the speaker. A bio is written in the third person ("Jane Bloggs received her PhD in paleontology from the University of Warsaw in 1992", not "I received my PhD in ..."). Anyone who writes their bio in the first person is new on the job and should be treated extra nicely.

A/V equipment. Find out what audio/visual equipment the speaker will need. This might include an overhead projector, slide projector, video playback stuff, or computer projection screen. You may have to reserve the equipment a few weeks in advance, so ask in plenty of time. If the room is large, you might have to reserve a microphone or a person to operate the equipment. Anything more complicated than an overhead projector should be treated as a major warning sign: whatever it is, it will inevitably break. If the speaker needs to show videotapes, for example, test the equipment several times in advance, including immediately before the appointed hour, and find out where you can get backup equipment in a hurry. Compatibility is also an issue. If the speaker specifically needs to make a PowerPoint presentation, for example, make sure you've got the right platform, and the right version of the software, and that the files open and transfer, etc.

Reimbursements. Let the speaker know in advance whether you will be reimbursing any expenses. If not, you can say something like, "I'm afraid we don't have any budget for this series, but we can promise plenty of good discussion", just so they know the score and don't fall into any disastrous assumptions. If you *are* reimbursing expenses, it is best to communicate the mechanics of the reimbursement process up front so it's not mysterious. If forms needs to be filled out, try to send them ahead of time, and make sure the speaker knows precisely where to send them. If you are reimbursing some expenses but not others, or if you have a limit, communicate that as well.

Room. Reserve a good room for the event. Room scheduling conflicts can be real nightmakes, so make good friends with whatever authority controls the room and get it pinned down far in advance. I repeat: be very nice to the person who schedules rooms. It is not an enviable job. Err on the small side: the last thing you want is an audience of 20 in a room for 150. Choose a room with, as we say in California, positive energy. Avoid dimness, drabness, noisy ventilation, and other energy sinks. Make sure that the speaker's A/V requirements are compatible with the room, for example that a screen is available if needed, or overhead video projection, or whiteboards and markers, or whatever. Some rooms may have terrible reputations for bad heating or air conditioning, and people who have scheduled many past events can tell you which these are. Your audience must travel to the event, even if down the hall, so try for geographical proximity to the audience you wish to attract. The room should also be familiar to your audience, so that going there has become a habit. (It's no good announcing a talk in Cortez Hall if your audience doesn't realize that Cortez Hall is right next door.) If the room is unfamiliar to any large part of your audience, then you will need to post signs (see below). If catering people are going to bring coffee or refreshments, make sure that they know where the room is. If you ever have to change the room, tell the caterers at least twice. And don't get any noisy food (crunchy chips, crispy vegetables, ice cubes).

Netcasting. The question often arises of whether to "netcast" a talk -- that is, to send out audio or audio-plus-video of the talk on the Internet. The answer, in most cases, is no. Although it sounds great in the abstract, netcasting cannot be treated casually as an add-on to a conventional colloquium event. Unless your target audience consists of corporate users who have a lot of bandwidth on their desktops, the quality of your netcast will be poor. Having an invisible audience somewhere out on the Internet can also inhibit the people in the room. That invisible audience is probably listening to your event in the background as they do other things, and you can't interact with them as usefully as you can with the people who attend in person. The necessary equipment will probably be cumbersome and unreliable. And actually rounding up an audience for a netcast requires serious publicity; it may not be worth the trouble unless you have a definite audience already in mind. The bottom line is: if netcasting is central to your conception of the event, then plan for all of the complexity. Otherwise, wait for the technology to get better.

Advertising. Inviting someone to speak is a chance to establish new connections with people in your area who might not know about you. Unfortunately, however, most events are not advertised well enough. The key is to advertise through several channels. The more formal the event is, the more widely you should advertise it. For a weekly colloquium series, you should prepare each term's schedule at least a month in advance and then send the whole schedule to your mailing list of friends-of-the-department. If you don't already have a mailing list that is specifically for announcing events (and thus not for discussion), you should certainly create one and mention it where possible in your other advertising. You should also send the calendar of speakers to whatever internal newspapers and newsletters your institution uses to announce such things. Prepare a poster with the schedule of speakers (and their titles and the room and time and so on) and send it to all remotely relevant departments, both at your own institution and every other research or teaching institution in the same geographic region. Use colored paper. If your poster is going outside your institution, include parking information. If it is going to people or publications in the non-research world, indicate that the event is free, and that everybody is invited. You might also hand out your poster in graduate and advanced undergraduate classes. Then, week by week, prepare a poster for each individual speaker, including the speaker's abstract and bio, the date, room, time, and maybe the speaker's URL, and send it to a broad audience, if perhaps not quite as broad. Maintaining a Web page for your speaker series is good. Mention the URL in your other advertising. Note, however, that a Web page absolutely does not substitute for other forms of advertising. If you are feeling energetic, you can augment the Web page with links to the speakers' home pages. Finally, if you are organizing a formal talk with a prominent speaker, ask your institution's publicity people to write a press release and calendar notice and send them to all of the local media.

Bibliography. Gather a bibliography of the speaker's works and make it available to others in your department. Even better, fire up the photocopier and distribute fifty pages of the speaker's most relevant work to everyone who is scheduled to meet with the speaker, and to every graduate student whose own work is at all related.

Schedule -- in advance. Even though the formal presentation is the ritual center of the visit, you and your colleagues will probably also wish to meet with the speaker either individually or in small groups. Mention this to the speaker ahead of time, and find out how much time is available for such meetings. Be aware of jet lag: speakers from time zones to your east should be scheduled for breakfast but not for dinner, and any speaker who has traveled a long way will have a diminished capacity for work. You might ask about the speaker's precise availability for meetings; some speakers will want to visit with family etc in your town. As a general rule, people who already know the speaker should be scheduled to meet with him or her before the talk, and people who do not already know the speaker should be scheduled after the talk. The host should set up this schedule in advance, making sure to give everyone (including people from other departments) an opportunity to book time. Speakers are often under-used, and you should give real thought to making the best use of the speaker's limited time. Advanced graduate students whose work is at all related to the speaker's, for example, should meet individually with the speaker to explain their projects and ask advice about the job market. Students are often shy about such meetings, but they should schedule them anyway and meet with their advisors beforehand for detailed instructions. Many departments schedule an official time after the talk for the speaker to meet with the students as a group. Ideally the students have read some of the speaker's work and are ready to initiate discussion. You might also schedule some time for the speaker to be provided with an Internet connection for reading e-mail. Finally, ask the precise hour when the speaker needs to leave. Then schedule a little slack toward the end so you can be certain of getting them out on time.

Dinner. Find out whether your department has traditions about taking speakers to dinner. Most such traditions are good, especially when they involve graduate students, in which case you should ensure that the restaurant is not too expensive. Find out whether you have a budget for such things, and whether it pays only for the speaker, or for the speaker and host, or what. If you are thinking of taking the speaker to a pub, you might want to check whether the speaker drinks alcohol. Some people wouldn't want to be taken to any kind of bar. It might also be useful to define with the speaker ahead of time the hour at which his or her day should end. You may be happy to drink all night, but your speaker might have a plane to catch in the morning, or may simply be an early-to-bed kind of person. If everyone is welcome to dinner, then announce that fact right before you introduce the speaker. It's not good enough to organize the dinner spontaneously after the talk is over; feelings can be hurt among those who don't happen to hear about it.

Warnings. Tell the speaker something about the audience: how many, their background, whether they've read the speaker's work (perhaps as a requirement for a course), recent controversies that may affect the audience's perception of the speaker's message, how many questions they ask, and whether they typically ask questions during the talk or else hold them until the end. Say something about the local culture, like whether the audience is typically shy, combative, polite, so polite that they can't get a real discussion going, or whatever. Tell the speaker whether his or her presentation is part of a series and, if so, who some of the other speakers in the series will be. Explain in advance the precise format (e.g., 45 minutes of talk followed by 30 minutes of questions followed by coffee). Speaking events should be scheduled for at least 90 minutes and preferably two hours with a break in the middle; speakers often run long, and you want to leave time for discussion. Mention whether the local customs tend to be markedly formal or informal. And when inviting speakers from another discipline, be aware that customs can differ tremendously; tell the speaker whether the audience normally expects speakers to read from a text, or to use overheads, or to improvise from an outline, or what. If the event is going to be videotaped, broadcast, or recorded, then most speakers will definitely want to know in advance, and you should find out whether some kind of written release is required.

Logistics. Speakers coming from other institutions may require logistical support. This can include picking them up at the airport, reserving hotel rooms, putting them up at your house, etc etc. This is not as hard as it sounds, and it helps to cement personal relationships. Ask in advance. To prepare for logistical emergencies, send the speaker your most complete contact information (work phone, home phone, fax number, e-mail address, home page, postal address, phone numbers for the university and department, contact information for the hotel including cross street, and so on). If you do make a hotel reservation for the speaker, put the reservation in the speaker's own name (and not, say, in yours); that way the speaker can deal the hotel directly about any details. Offer to send maps and directions, and if you send a map then annotate it with a highlighter pen. Find out whether the speaker is familiar with the layout of your city and institution. First-time visitors in particular should receive lavish logistical support, including tourist-type information and most especially someone to meet them at the airport baggage claim with one of those clipboards with the visitor's name magic-markered on it. This is ritual at its finest. You should certainly be on time -- nobody likes to feel lost in a strange airport. Speakers arriving at the airport are usually exhausted and dehydrated, so ask if they want to go to their hotel first, whether they want to make phone calls or stop by a store, or whatever.

Logistics -- driving. If the speaker is driving to your institution then you should provide especially detailed and clear directions. Parking is invariably a nightmare for a visitor, even when it seems easy to you, so arrange a reserved parking space or buy a parking permit in advance and mail it.

Signs. If strangers will be attending the talk, you can make them feel welcome by putting up signs to guide them. If you have put up posters for the talk, you can simply put additional copies of the poster with prominent magic-markered arrows at the front of the building (very important for people who have never been to your building before), next to the elevator, and at major decision-points along the route to the room. Even if everybody knows where the room is, it still helps to put a copy of the poster on the door with words such as "HERE" magic-markered on it. The room may have several doors, one of which opens directly onto the front of the room where the speaker will be speaking. In that case, you might consider posting a sign such as "please use the other door" (with an arrow) on that particular door, thereby saving everyone a lot of disruption and embarrassment as latecomers enter. If the door hinges squeek excessively, oil them.

Schedule -- on the appointed day. Upon arrival, give the speaker a schedule of the day's events. (The speaker will appreciate if you annotate the schedule with a phrase describing each person with whom the speaker will be meeting individually.) If you can give the speaker a floorplan of your building then that would be extra nice; it's unpleasant to be disoriented in a strange building. Also keep a copy of the schedule for yourself and give a copy to everybody whose name appears on it (this will encourage them to finish their meetings on time), as well as everyone who answers the department's phone. Make clear to the speaker that you know what time they need to leave for the day, and that you are watching the clock. That way they can relax and focus on their interactions with you and your colleagues.

Conversation topics. As you are shepherding the speaker through the airport, the corridor of your building, and so on, you will presumably want to make conversation. Many graduate students, being new to the professional world, find this kind of conversation hard to calibrate. Here are some boundaries. Treat the speaker as an equal, neither above or below you on the hierarchy. Don't discuss personal matters like family. Don't try to make a good impression by showing how smart you are. Don't try to discuss complex intellectual topics when walking down a corridor unless such topics have flowed naturally from something else. A good source of topics is the speaker's home institution, for example who else works there and who the speaker collaborates with. Keep the conversation simple if the speaker is tired or cranky from traveling. When first picking the speaker up at the airport or whatever, smalltalk about their trip is best. If the speaker has written any books, you must read at least one of them. Do not, however, use the words "I read your book" as a conversation-opener. People often lie about this, and (believe it or not) you are likely to be challenged with a response such as "which one?". Instead, conduct a normal conversation and simply wait for an opportunity to refer to some specific point from the book when it's relevant. The point is not to flatter anyone but simply to make clear that you are taking the speaker's visit seriously and wish to establish a professional relationship. Keep in mind that academics are not homogeneous: some are nice, some are not so nice, some are overwhelmed, some are curious, some are nervous or insecure, and some are just having a bad day. Bring your regular common-sense social skills, and don't overgeneralize.

Before the talk. Speakers often like to case the room before the talk, even if meetings have been scheduled all day. Make a little time for this, or just include the room in a morning tour of the building. Point at the A/V equipment, or at least promise that it'll be there. If the equipment is complicated, suggest testing it with the speaker's tape or slides or whatever. Many speakers also want a half-hour of solitude before the talk to gather their wits and sort their slides. This half-hour should not be spent in the room where the talk will be held, lest the speaker feel obliged to socialize with the gathering audience. So schedule a half-hour in a quiet place, and promise that some familiar person will come get the speaker when the time is nigh. Meanwhile, equip the speaker's lectern with something to drink, like room-temperature water. Ice-cold drinks cause some people's vocal cords to contract. Very hot drinks are obviously bad as well. Many speakers, especially nervous ones, use drinks as a mechanism for pacing their talks, and you should provide them with enough liquid that they can pace themselves to their hearts' content. You should also clear out extra chairs and other clutter from the front of the room, make sure any wires are taped to the floor, pick up trash, erase the chalkboard, make sure there's enough chalk, and generally make the place presentable. If you think the speaker might need an assistant to turn slides, by all means volunteer.

Introducing the speaker -- preliminaries. The most important ritual moment comes when you introduce the speaker. It's a few minutes after the appointed hour; the audience is assembled; perhaps they're drinking their ritual coffee; and it is now your job to display the values of collegiality. If you have announcements, start with those: "Before introducing our speaker today, just a few announcements." You might brandish a copy of the schedule of upcoming talks and point to the pile of schedules that visitors can pick up at the door. For really elaborate rituals, a lower-ranking person will do these announcements and then introduce the higher-ranking official introducer, who will introduce the speaker. Such hierarchical stuff would seem weird at a weekly colloquium, but not in a widely advertised one-time or annual event in an auditorium.

Introducing the speaker -- basic method. In the actual introduction of the speaker, the main thing is to recite facts from the bio. The plain-vanilla introduction begins with "It's my great pleasure to introduce our speaker for today, Jane Bloggs" and then proceeds through the bio verbatim. Most introducers do a poor job of this, clutching the bio six inches from their faces and stumbling through it in a monotone as if they'd never heard any of it before. You can do much better. At a minimum, you should read the bio to yourself a few times before the appointed hour of the colloquium, preferably out loud, so that you sound rehearsed when you read it for the audience. You will often find yourself wanting to edit the bio, either rewriting it for clarity or removing excessive stuff, and you will be glad that you did your editing beforehand. You might also retrieve your dog-eared copy of the speaker's best-known book and display it to the audience as you read its title. But don't say "Jane Blogg's book is entitled ...", which presumes that she has written only one, but rather "Among Jane Blogg's books is ...". Make sure ahead of time, by the way, that you know how to pronounce the speaker's name.

Introducing the speaker -- advanced method. Even a well-rehearsed recitation of the speaker's bio, however, makes a lame introduction. It is much better if you can write your own introduction, maybe just an outline if you're comfortable on stage, drawing on facts from the bio but then adding some words of your own. If you know the speaker personally then you can tell how you met, or the history of your relationship, or how the speaker's work has influenced your own, or particular qualities you admire. If you're brave then you can tell an anecdote. It sounds silly, but this stuff matters. It shows everyone that this is a place where collegial relationships among scholars really matter.

Contingencies. You probably won't have any duties during the talk other than modeling rapt attention. If the speaker talks much longer than the scheduled time then you can't do anything about it, so just look interested and let them talk. Sometimes, however, the audience will sidetrack the proceedings with excessive questions during the talk. In that case, you should consider intervening: stand up in a visible place, clear your throat, demonstratively look at your watch, and suggest in a cheery way that further questions be postponed until the end. During the talk you might also be alert for shortages of drinking water, wires that the speaker might trip over, or distracting noises inside or outside of the room. If somebody starts heckling the speaker, either through hostility or cluelessness, discreetly pass that person a note asking them to stop.

Question period. When the speaker finishes, stand up and announce delightedly that it is time for questions. Look at the clock and remind everyone of the precise hour at which the event will end. You might even consider announcing a short break before the questions -- this is for the sake of people who want to leave, but don't say that. (If you do actually want the break to be short, use words such as "very short" and "then come right back".) In the old days it was common for the host to call on the questioners, but these days the speaker will usually do it, except perhaps in the largest formal settings. Have a couple questions of your own prepared, just in case nobody else has the courage to ask the first question, or in case the discussion begins to drag. About five minutes before the official ending hour, stand up. Wait for the ongoing question-and-answer to finish, and announce that "we have time for one more question". Then keep standing. That way it will be less obtrusive when you announce that it's time to thank the speaker for attending, thereby soliciting applause and permitting the crowd to stand up and chat. Some members of the audience will probably come up to the speaker to exchange business cards etc, and you should allow time for this in the schedule. You should also offer the parched speaker a cup of coffee or something.

End of the visit. Don't just let the speaker's schedule fade out at the end of the day. Know who will say a simple ritual goodbye, and how the speaker will get to the airport. If you volunteer to take somebody to the airport, make a special point of arriving early to avoid worry. For example, if you say "I'll pick you up at 8:15 at your hotel", show up at 8:10.

Thank-you notes. A thank-you note a few days after the event will create a sense of closure for the ritual. Simple is best.

Post mortem. Right after the speaker leaves, take a moment to learn lessons. What went wrong? What could have been better? What advice can you pass along? What issues came up that weren't covered by this article? Some of your conclusions will be specific to your institution. Others, however, will be generally useful, and I hope you'll send those to me at for use in subsequent versions. Thanks a lot.

Copyright 1998-2000 by Phil Agre.