Paying Speakers is Better for Everybody | August 16, 2013

When I attend a conference I’m not there for the food or the venue, I’m there for the content (and occasionally the after parties). So it amazes me that conference organisers typically pay for everything but the thing people are there to see. That’s right, despite the often high ticket costs, very few events pay for speakers for their time. I think this is bad for conference goers, event organisers, speakers and the industry as a whole. I’ll explain.

When speakers don’t get paid for their time it’s really hard to justify putting much effort into their talks. So I’ve been to plenty of conferences where speakers will rush their preparation, and end up delivering a mediocre performance. They’ll joke that they wrote the talk the evening before, and will duck out of the speakers dinner early to finish off their slides. This shows a certain amount of contempt for the audience, many of whom have had to fight for the budget to attend, or save up out of their own pocket. However it’s really not their fault. Even first time speakers are busy people and if you’re not able to justify spending the time to write, hone and practice your talk during working hours, the quality will suffer.

Another justified criticism I hear is that conferences are full of the same old voices. Interestingly enough I believe paying all of the speakers, and not just the experienced ones, would help balance this out. This is because many first time speakers give up after their first couple of attempts because they just don’t see the value in speaking. Maybe it took them much longer to write the talk than they expected and their work or home life suffered, or maybe the fame and fortune the conference organisers promised didn’t actually materialise. If potentially great new speakers don’t see the conference circuit and a viable and sustainable ecosystem, they just won’t partake. I think this is a potentially huge loss.

From the organisers perspective, conferences are very expensive, so if they can avoid any additional costs, they will. The venue, catering and AV team most definitely won’t work for free, but it’s relatively easy to convince a speaker to do this, so many of them will. The usual arguments are that the conference organisers aren’t making any money so why should the speakers? As a conference organiser myself, this argument doesn’t hold water for the reasons already stated. In relation to the other costs involved, speaker remuneration is actually very low, and I’m sure most attendees would be happy to pay an extra 10 or 20 to ensure the speakers had enough time to write their talks and deliver good content.

The other argument is that the speakers will be getting exposure and possible work. This may be true in a few instances, but I’ve never had anybody give me work as a direct result of a conference. I’m not saying it does’t happen, but it’s not as common as conference organisers would like you to expect. In fact this argument is a bit like sleazy movie moguls doing screen tests with young models for exposure and a shot at the big time a shot that rarely ever happens.

In truth, it takes a speaker at least a week to prepare a new talk, if not longer. You’ve then got to add on the time spent out of the office traveling to, and being at, the event. So even if you pay them $500 or $1,000 it’s unlikely they’ll be making a profit. It just makes it easier to justify the loss of income. As such the arguments around exposure should’t be used as an excuse not to pay, it’s just the icing on the cake if they do.

As an organiser I think paying speakers is actually a very good idea, whether they ask for it or not. This is because it changes the relationship from a voluntary one to a business one. When you’re not paying somebody you really can’t expect them to put a lot of effort into their talks, help you promote the event or respond to your emails quickly (a constant bugbear for organisers). However by paying speakers for services, you set up a different relationship and a level of expectation that makes your life easier and the quality of your event better. We’re not talking huge piles of cash in un-marked bills btw. Sometime a few hundred dollars or a voucher from Amazon is enough to make a speaker feel valued.

Now I’m not saying that speakers should always charge to speak. Far from it. There are plenty of situations where it’s not practical or even desirable, such as small local community events or the local University. There are also plenty of speakers who are paid by companies to speak as part of their jobs, so don’t expect payment. However if an event organiser is charging for attendance and paying other suppliers, I think it’s reasonable to expect to be treated similarly.

When you don’t pay your speakers, they will often try and get value back by other means like pitching their product, service or upcoming book. This is especially common in the tech and start-up arena where many of the speakers will be promoting their companies, looking for investment opportunities or attempting to hire. So I’m sure we’ve all sat through sessions which were essentially thinly veiled product pitches. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen when you pay people to speak, but it tends to be a lot less overt. Instead, folks tend to focus more on sharing useful content than gaining additional value.

On a broader level, I think conference organisers wield a huge amount of influence in our community and this sends the wrong message about the amount of value we put in a persons time and expertise. It’s basically saying that your experience is worthless and you should only get paid to push pixels or deliver code. This is the same problem I have with speculative design work, free “design competitions” and unpaid internships. So as community leaders I think it’s important for conference organisers to help define the industry they want to be part of, rather than simply save a few pounds because they know they can get away with it.

That being said, it’s also the responsibility of every speaker to ask for a fee and turn down the event if it’s not forthcoming, just as it’s your responsibility to be paid for your design work and turn down creative pitches if they don’t want to pay. If you don’t behave this way it’s not just yourself that you’re hurting, but every other speaker (or designer) out there. Conferenced can get away with not paying their speakers because speakers allow it to happen.

When I first started speaking it was very rare for people to actually offer to pay me to speak. However when I went back to conferences with a fee, they almost always agreed. At the very least it was the start of a negotiation. So I think speakers should be a little bolder and ask for speaker fees.

Ultimately I think the default setting should be for speakers to expect to be paid and for conference organiser to expect to be asked to pay. Not exactly a radical suggestion I’m sure you’d agree. This creates a market and helps ensure quality and longevity. As things currently stand, most conference organisers expect everybody except the biggest names to speak for free, and do a good job of making people feel guilty if they ask. Consequently only a few people jump the chasm to become “big names” and end up speaking at every conference under the sun.

Want more quality and diversity in your conferences? Pay your speakers.

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