This is the second 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 Boomerang to be totally indispensable.1 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!

  1. Note: this is a referral link that gives both of us a month of free “premium” (unlimited Boomerangs). I wrote this section before I realized that Boomerang had a referral program, so I don’t think I’m just a Boomerang shill, but I can’t promise that I haven’t been subconsciously incentivized to say nice things about software in general by other referral programs in the past or something like that. You can use a non-referral link if you’re worried about such incentives influencing me.