Conference speaking, transparency and fairness

I love speaking at conferences. Through conference speaking I’ve been able to travel to parts of the world I would never have seen, meet and talk to people I would never have met. I’ve discovered new foods I like to eat, brought new customers to our product, learned so much more about different cultures – something that helps me when supporting our customers. I’ve even started to learn to speak German due to the number of events I have been to in German speaking countries.

Being asked to speak at conferences is a huge privilege. It is something I take seriously – whether I’m talking to 20 people at a local meet up or 1500 on the main track of a large event. I work hard to bring a good presentation, tailored to the expected audience, and to be an asset to any conference I am part of.

However, speaking at conferences is almost never a direct money-making exercise. In fact, most often when I speak at a conference it costs me and my business a not insignificant amount of money. If you are a conference attendee, know that most of the people on stage are taking a financial hit just by being there.

What do speakers get paid?

Very often, speakers at web conferences and events are unpaid. Where a fee is offered it is usually an honorarium – an amount not really tied to the amount of work that goes into creating a talk and being at the conference.

I have a simple rule, if someone is making money out of the conference then I expect to be paid too. As it happens an awful lot of conferences and events are not money-making enterprises. They are put on because the organiser just really wants to see the event happen, and are making it so. Unless the conference can be a day trip for me (so within a couple of hours of my home in Bristol, UK) then I expect that the conference will cover my hotel accommodation and travel. That should be seen as a critical expense of putting on a conference – like paying for the venue. The speakers are why people are attending your conference.

Whether I attend is usually a business decision

There are conferences I will speak at because I just like the organisers, or the city, or I want to hear the other speakers and so am happy to essentially use my own time to do the event. However the more travel I do, the less I’m able to justify doing travel just for the jolly!

It is vanishingly rare for a conference to offer me my day rate for all the time I will be there, never mind the time spent preparing and traveling. My business is contributing to your conference. Give me a reason why the business will benefit, that might be:

  • the audience is aligned to either people who might be interested in Perch or my book
  • the conference is going to be useful for me to attend, I’m learning too
  • there are others speakers there who it is beneficial for me to be on the lineup with or are people I know or might want to meet
  • you can offer a way to promote my product (outside of my talk obviously) such as by adding us to the sponsor links

A plea for transparency

Yesterday I mentioned on Twitter how nice it was to get an invite that clearly stated what the conference was offering. I can’t mention the particular conference just yet as things haven’t been announced but I received a short, to the point email that told me:

  • when and where the conference was happening
  • what the speaker package covered
  • a note on why the organiser felt their audience would be a good fit for the things I talk about – but also for the audience I want to reach as a business

I was able to check my diary and get straight back to confirm that I would love to be there. No awkward back and forth about money, and the ability to justify any out of pocket expenses I might have, and the time away from the office because I could immediately see the benefit of speaking to that audience.

Conversely, a friend of mine yesterday pulled out of a conference due to discovering that speakers were not all being treated fairly, and in the same way. This led to confusion on Twitter, and accusations of gender bias in terms of who was paid. Even if there wasn’t explicit gender bias on the part of the organisers it does raise questions as to whether male speakers are more willing to speak up and demand a fee, and therefore more likely to be paid than women.

The default expectation for appearing at a conference should be that the work, and this is work, should be paid for along with all expenses.

If the conference cannot pay, or can only offer a token fee, then this should be assessed in the same way for all speakers and should be utterly transparent when the initial request is made.

This is good for everyone. For the speaker there is no need to feel awkward in asking what is covered. Everyone saves time on back and forth emails only to discover that due to expenses or lack of fee this won’t work out. The conference saves potentially embarrassing situations where speakers pull out, or show up and realise when talking to other speakers there is disparity in what has been offered. We all talk to each other, organisers might be surprised at the number of emails I get from fellow speakers asking what my experience was when I spoke at a particular conference.

Transparency and diversity

I believe being transparent and taking a default stance that compensation should be expected will help to diversify our conferences. New speakers are the ones who most often get burned by the practice of only offering a fee if asked, or needing to negotiate a fee when they have no idea what is acceptable.

I saw a tweet from an event organiser last night saying that they don’t offer a fee unless people ask “to help keep costs down”. This is exactly the sort of behaviour that causes the problems seen yesterday and may well lead to women, if it is the case that women are less likely to ask for a fee, finding they are the ones in a line-up not being paid.

There are great speakers on almost every subject all over the world. If a conference has a limited budget then perhaps they need to look closer to home for speakers. While it is lovely to fly in a big name from the other side of the world, if that burns up the budget so the conference can’t compensate other speakers and they can’t use that name to help attract sponsorship that covers the expense, then maybe they need to reconsider that choice. Looking closer to home will also narrow the pool of “same old names” to pick from, and hopefully bring in some new speakers. What would be great to see would be conferences assigning a couple of slots to new faces, deliberately selecting local people (therefore being able to offer the same expenses package, it would just be naturally less expensive) and offering them help in preparing for their talk.

If you are a speaker or potential speaker it is reasonable to expect that you will be compensated. You can balance that against genuine business reasons to be there. Woolly statements about exposure are nonsense, assess what you will gain in real business or professional terms. If the initial request does not include expenses and payment information then your first reply should be to ask what they are offering speakers in terms of payment and expenses. You can then take negotiations from that point. Remember that where your time and actual cash outlay is not being financially compensated it is the job of the organiser to make sure there is a tangible benefit for you to take the hit of being there.

Further reading

Several other people have weighed into the debate,I’m editing this post to add resources as I spot them.

Seb Lee-Delisle posted an excellent post today on exactly how to ask to be paid.

Jenn Lukas gave some tips on how to calculate your speaking fee, see the comments for more great suggestions.

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