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.
Does TfL deliberately profit from user error? | April 15, 2013
Today I got a £20 penalty fine from TfL (Transport for London) because it turned out that I didn’t have enough credit on my Oyster card. I typically use the underground so when this happens you’re stopped at the barriers, giving you clear feedback and preventing you from making a costly error.
However I rarely use the DLR/Overground which is barrier free and have never had a situation where my credits had expired. It turns out when this happens the machine beeps twice rather than once. Unfortunately (for me) I wasn’t aware if this so I simply heard a beep and assume everything was OK and got on my train.
I presume there was also a message on the machine, and if I was to complain would be told that it was my duty to read the display. Of course we all know that the context if use (busy platform, unfamiliar surroundings, contact less payment and rushing for a train) makes glancing at a tiny display unlikely.
Sure this was user error, but a user error that could easily be avoided if the system was designed correctly. For a start it would be very easy to change the tone if the error message from a friendly and encouraging beep to a low toned culturally understandable buzz.
Secondly it would be easy to put the card into debit and allow users to top up on their next trip. This is what many other transit systems around the world do and what I thought the underground did as well.
Sadly TFL make user errors extremely easy and as they profit from this error I suspect there is little incentive to change.
I’ve experienced similar issues when booking rail tickets at train station kiosks. They always seem to present the most expensive ticket first (one way peak fare to London) rather than the most popular fare, presumably in the hope that a percentage of people will succumb to human error in their rush to buy a ticket and end up spending more money.
In most customer facing jobs, when user error happens you only need to look towards a friendly customer service representative to get the issue resolved. Sadly with TFL it seems there is an immediate assumption of fare evasion so rather than assistance you get slapped with a fine.
Even this would be OK if the treatment you received was friendly and apologetic. But in my experience its usually the opposite - cold, rude and unsympathetic. So what started as a small and easy to dismiss error ends up leaving you angry at an institution you spend hundreds if not thousands of pounds with, while casting a shadow over the rest of your day.
Privatisation (the legacy of Margaret Thatcher) was supposed to give us consumers better customer service and more choice, it instead it feels like we’ve inherited the worst of capitalism (profiteering) and the worst of state control (poor customer service) instead.
Why The Same Old Faces? | March 27, 2013
In an eailier post I discussed one reason why some people may perceive a lack of new faces on the speaker circuit — namely that by the time you reach the point in your career where you’re being asked to speak at conferences, you will most likely have had so much exposure already that you’ll no longer feel like a new voice.
This being said, there is a small but growing number of people who are continually asked to write articles, comment on news stories or speak at conferences. Is this due to lazy editors and event curators, or due to the existence of an “old boys network” that aims to exclude outsiders in favour of it’s own?
While it’s easy to assume that the road is blocked by others, sadly the truth is usually more mundane. Being an awesome designer or developer doesn’t necessarily make you a great writer or speaker. I’ve met some truly outstanding practitioners who show almost no interest or ability in sharing their knowledge on the public stage. Conversely I’ve met plenty of—often only slightly above average—designers and developers who have an amazing ability to tell stories and communicate ideas.
It turns out that the ability to inspire, inform and entertain is pretty rare, so is it any wonder why these people are approached time and again? In fact, wouldn’t it be a little strange if conference organisers and publishers routinely ignored people with a track record in favour of less experienced people?
It also turns out that being knowledgeable in a particular topic doesn’t make you automatically attractive to conferences and magazines. Especially if there are dozens of other people talking about the same thing. Being a recognised authority in a subject is attractive to commercial organisations as it helps increase sales and minimise risk. So it’s important to build a strong following, whether that’s because you were the first, the best or simply the most prolific. Self promotion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just as long as it has some substance to back it up.
One reason for seeing the same old faces is because they are the ones offering to write content or speak at events. There seems to be an unhealthy belief that it’s solely the responsibility of publishers and conference organisers to discover talent. However that’s not true. It’s also down to the individuals to promote themselves, and some of the most recognisable faces happen to be the ones that put themselves out there time and again.
Reliability is another big factor here. One of the reasons I get asked to comment a lot in magazines is because I respond quickly and have something relevant to say. This feels like such a small thing, but if you’re working to a deadline and you know somebody is slow to respond and variable in quality, you’ll simply stop asking. We’ve had similar issues with speakers. You’ll set deadlines for speakers to send in bio information, provide talk descriptions and confirm flights. People are really busy these days so you have to make allowances, but if folks are continually late sending you information, you eventually stop asking, no matter how good they are.
These are just some of the many reasons why you see the same people cropping up time and again. It’s not that they are necessarily the best designers and developers out there, or that they have the most cutting edge things to say. It’s usually because they put themselves out there, can spin a good yarn, respond to their emails in a timely manner, consistently deliver the goods and a host of other pedestrian reasons.
Should Programming be Taught at Schools? | March 25, 2013
There’s a lot of buzz around technology education at the moment.
The old ICT courses which taught children to be passive consumers are being overturned as schools in the UK are encouraged to set up their own curricula with programming at it’s core. At the same time after-schools clubs are growing in popularity with projects like Code Club operating in nearly a thousand British schools. This boom has been thanks, in part, to services like Code Academy and Scratch which have revolutionised the way people learn to programme, and to projects like the Raspberry Pi which hark back to the golden age of the BBC Micro.
While I don’t necessarily buy into the Rushkoffian rhetoric of “programme or be programmed”, I see huge benefits in leaning to code. For instance it’s a practical and engaging way of teaching other skills like maths and physics, while the problem-solving techniques you pick up are highly transferable. I also think it can provide young people with a sense of agency and purpose which is often lacking in their lives (computer games often fill this role). So as somebody in the technology industry I see this trend as a very positive move. However I also wonder if this could just be a case of selective bias?
Classicists argue that Latin is is one of the most important subjects to be taught at school as it’s the basis for all modern languages. Similarly business leaders argue that finance, law and entrepreneurship should take a central place in school curriculum. We even have sports people and celebrity chefs calling for health and nutrition to feature more prominently in schools. I bet if we asked most vocations, from engineers and architects to TV presenters and ballet dancers they’d be able to provide a string of tangible benefits their profession can teach. As such I struggle to tell how valuable learning programming at school really is or how we balance this against other subjects.
I also worry about the expectations we’re setting by teaching programming as a core subject. Are we creating a generation of children raised on the dream of becoming the next Internet entrepreneur only to end up creating an underclass of poorly paid Microserfts? What’s more, do we really want our education policy dictated by the Facebook’s and Google’s of this world, just to ensure they have a plentiful supply of engineers?
It’s a tough question and one that has me sitting on the fence. The benefits to me are immediate and obvious. However I still can’t shake the concern that the downside will only become apparent 5 or 10 years down the line when it’s Java (pun intended) programmers serving our coffee in Starbucks rather than geography graduates.
The Post-digital Renaissance | March 24, 2013
We first saw it with food. People getting back to nature and growing their own veggies, or hitting the kitchen to bake their own sour dough. We then saw it with the the rise of the craft movement, inspiring a generation of knitters, potters and jewellery makers take back the skills their great grandparents once owned but were lost in the rush to convenience.
Next up were the artisanal bakers, cup-cake makers and independent coffee shops. Baking their own breads, frosting their own buns and roasting their own blends, all delivered on a fixed gear bike or (for added kudos) a Penny Farthing.
This trend was also seen in the world of fashion, with hipsters in New York, London and San Francisco donning tweed jackets and growing improbable facial hair as part of a new found chap manifesto. Second hand clothes were no longer the preserve of students and the term “vintage” came to mean something with history and craftsmanship.
At the same time, burlesque shows, tea dances and secret speakeasy’s have been on the rise, encouraging people to partake in the illicite joys of days gone by. I wonder when opium dens will come back in vogue.
The post digital age has seen a mass of disaffected hipsters, born into a world of Orwellian connectivity, embrace a simpler age when craft was king. They are throwing off the shackles of mass produced, industrialised garbage, keen to the lies of the marketing executives. Neighbourhoods like Brick Lane, Williamsburg and The Mission are seeing a kind of reverse gentrification, with local bakers, milliners and hardware stores taking over from big chains.
Fuelled by Etsy and Kickstarter, the new digital fronteer is no longer virtual. Instead we’re seeing a new generation of tinkers who want to see the network manifest in physical products. So the big tech conferences are awash with boxes the print, light-up or chime to the flow of the network.
It’s a curious trend and not the first time society has looked to the past for clues about the good life, or reapplied old wisdom through a new societal lens. So is this renewed interest in craftsmanship, tinkering and personal scientific discovery some kind of post-digital renaissance or are we simply going through the typical soul searching that occurs once a century once the initial party has finally wound down?
More importantly does it really matter? I think things are about to get very interesting (commercial space flight, personal drones, 3d printers in every home) and I’m really looking forward to seeing where it all goes.