Guest speakers on campus: Here’s what students want

Students want relatable guest speakers that can talk—in person—about mental health, personal finances, and career readiness, according to a new survey.

It can be frustrating when schools book a sought-after public speaker and only a few audience members show up. For students, it’s a missed opportunity for nutritious insight from experienced thought-leaders; for schools, it can feel like they just lit upwards of $100,000 on fire.

Schools can better strategize for successful guest speaker events using this survey that asked 500 undergraduate students their preferences about college-hosted events.

Mental health, career preparation, and finance/money management topped the list of presentation topics students would be the most interested in attending. Finance/money management was the most sought-after topic when students were only allowed to choose one.

The majority of students who preferred topics related to mental health and personal finances echoed the responses of 1,200 students from a separate report that ranked mental health as their top stressor, followed by personal finance.

As telling as this correlation might seem, mental health college speaker Jessi Beyer is not at all surprised.

“After the presentations I have given, I always have at least one conversation where a student opens up and says something along the lines of ‘I’ve never heard anyone talk about this before. I’m so glad I came. I now feel like I can do x,y, and z, whether that means go get help or tell my mom I’m struggling with this.’ I know there’s this need,” Beyer said.

With a vital topic in mind, the survey suggests that what’s most important to a guest speaker’s success is finding the correct streams to market it; scheduling it at the beginning of the week; and hosting it in person.

More from UB: The A-list speakers at 2022 spring college commencements

Approximately one in five students reported never seeing a guest speaker on campus, which says more about the school’s marketing than anything else, observes Beyer.

The survey found that 75% prefer communication of the event via email, which nearly doubled student preferences for physical flyers on campus at 43%. Marketing via social media and student websites trailed with underwhelming responses.

Events on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday attracted the strongest polling for days students are most willing to attend. Half of all students surveyed preferred Wednesday.

If you’re thinking about scheduling it virtually to save cost, it might backfire. Only 32% of students preferred a virtual meeting. As pandemic protocols continue to soften, students are more interested in being in the physical room with the speaker with 64% preferring an in-person guest speaker.

Once you’ve piqued student interest in your event and they’re willing to attend, their retention depends on how well their guest speaker can hold students’ attention. Among the free-written answers, the most common suggestions for making that happen were finding a speaker with refreshing ideas as well as someone who can speak about students’ future professions.

Schools should not begin scurrying to book the next Gen Z adult to retain their students’ attention, either. Beyer believes it boils down to the person.

“You can have incredibly dry 25-year-olds that come and speak on campus, and you can have very engaging and relatable 65-year-olds that have a ton of life experience and ton of professional speaking experience,” she said. “Look for someone with college-speaking experience. You’re putting this person in front of 18- to 25-year-olds, not 50-year-old business professionals.”

Another important way to drive student retention is keeping the length of the speaker’s presentation down. A majority of students preferred 30-minute presentations coupled with a strong Q&A session at the end. While this may discourage veteran speakers who are used to 60-minute presentations, Beyer suggests that they keep their longer-form sets while also creating an abridged version to meet school and student needs.

“Administrators can use this as a starting point for future guest speakers. It’s a brand-new calendar year, administrators may be looking ahead a few months to their programming plans,” Beyer said. “This survey can give them some insight on how to make those upcoming events as successful as possible.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

Most Popular