Subject line: We don’t pay speakers…

Yesterday I received a newsletter from a conference where the subject was how they don’t pay their speakers, or get paid by them. Some of you will have received it too.

The whole feeling behind the subject line was one of pride and the short email in itself reinforced it. The second part of the subject line I can nod along to. It isn’t too fun to listen to a talk that’s a blatant PR spiel, nor does pay to speak slots equal great content, or speakers for that matter. The first part, however, about not paying speakers I wasn’t nodding along to, but it made me open the email.

It went on to say how it’s their editorial integrity and a principle they’ll never change that they don’t let speakers pay to speak (all in agreement there), but it also covered not paying speakers and included a few bits that I personally, as a speaker, find a bit insulting. My problem I guess, but considering how the email starts by saying that the conference puts content first, there’s another side to the not paying speakers bit that is worth highlighting.

There are plenty of conferences that don’t pay their speakers, and some who don’t even cover accommodation and travel for that matter, but there’s only a handful where you as a speaker choose to take part nevertheless because of the value of the conference. This was one of the reasons that the email I received yesterday gave for not paying their speakers. The other was “…we don’t cut our speakers checks for showing up.” I genuinely wouldn’t either, so still in agreement there.

The thing is, though, hardly any speakers just “show up”. There is a great (great, great) deal of work and time that goes into giving a talk. Showing up on stage is the easy bit (except for the nerves right before) and sure, that in itself doesn’t take that much time. But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s all the research and preparation before the “showing up” bit that makes up for the bulk of the work and time. And it’s usually a big bulk and the reason why I and so many other speakers at times have to decline unpaid speaking opportunities, no matter how much we’d love to be there.

What it costs to give a talk

In terms of how long it takes to put together a talk, personally, I find that whether the talk is 20, 30 or 40 mins long doesn’t make a big difference. Shorter talks can be harder to master with less time to get your key points across. What makes a difference to the amount of work that’s involved is for me based on if it’s…

a brand new talk on a new subject (most time)
a brand new talk on a subject I usually talk about, or
an already existing talk that I’m updating (least time)

In general, this is how much time it costs me, as a minimum, to just “show up” and give a talk:

For a brand new talk on a subject I usually talk about…

3 days – researching, preparing and putting together the talk, including presentation design
1 day – the day of the talk, usually goes to further prep, giving the talk and being at the conference.

If I’m giving a talk I’ve given before…

1.5 days – for going back over the content, updating the talk (always needed) and adapting it for the conference in question, plus general prep.
1 day – the day of the talk, same as above with regards to further prep, giving the talk and being at the conference.

If the conference is in a different city…

+ 2 days – for travel there and back, attending the conference as well as various miscellaneous around networking (no matter how lovely it is, it’s still time out of the calendar), getting organised etc.

In total, it means that it costs me the following, minimum, in terms of time to “show up” and give a talk:

4 days – New talk in my city on a subject I usually talk about
6 days – New talk in a foreign city on a subject I usually talk about
2.5 days – Existing talk in my city
4.5 days – Existing talk in foreign city

Even if I didn’t make any updates or do any prep and literally just showed up and gave a talk (hasn’t happened so far), the day of the talk itself is usually a write-off when it comes to doing any other work, so as a bare minimum it costs me 1 day in time. If I’m giving a new talk on a new subject it takes even more than the 4 respectively 6 days stated above.

Whether it’s 1 day or 6 days+, all that time has to be taken from somewhere. Since I work for myself I don’t get paid on the days where I’m away at a conference, or for any time that I spend on putting together a talk. I don’t have an employer who can pay for my flights, accommodation or any expenses I have related to food etc. whilst I’m away. It all comes out of my own pocket. The loss of income for the days where I attend the conference and the days I spend on putting together the talk is a key thing that I need to factor in. It’s easy to calculate just how much that amounts to by looking at freelance day rates, no matter what end of the spectrum one might be on.

All of this one might of course argue, is my problem, and sure, to some extent it is. I’ve chosen to work for myself. But, what a principle around not paying speakers may lead to is that you only get speakers who work for (large) companies in whose interest it is that their employees appear on a speakers list, goes up on stage and attends the conference with a badge with their company name on it. That’s all fine by the way. I value that too as an independent small business owner. But even more so, I value conferences that acknowledge just how much work speakers actually put into their talks. Plus, after all, since conference attendees usually pay to attend, why shouldn’t conference organisers pass on a small part of that to the speakers who spend a considerable amount of time to prepare great talks? Without those talks, there won’t be a conference.

In some instances, paying a fee doesn’t add up and I can appreciate that. Usually, travel and accommodation and, in some instances, expenses whilst you’re there are covered. Some conferences have it as a policy not to pay a fee, or travel and accommodation and that’s what you sign up for if you accept to speak there. It’s a shame in my opinion, but all good and well to some extent if you’re clear about that. Just don’t make it out that all a speaker does is “show up”. It’s far more than that.

What conference and event organisers can do

As for the email yesterday, though it was addressed to me as a prospective attendee rather than as a speaker, I value that they were direct in terms of whether they pay speakers or not. It’s always slightly uncomfortable to get invited to speak but without any information in the email on whether the conference or event pays a fee, or covers travel and accommodation. Considering the amount of time it takes to put together a talk, you’re likely to get a response back where the speaker in question asks or states their fee for giving a talk. From seeking advice from other speakers on this matter, most have said that if in doubt, they get in touch with other speakers who will be speaking at the conference and ask if they are being paid a fee, and if so roughly how much.

Being invited or getting a proposal accepted to speak at a conference is without a doubt a privilege and an honour. But, as a conference organiser, it’s also a privilege to get great speakers to speak. Considering the total time it takes, few make a profit from giving a talk but most do in fact make a loss, at least if they are independent consultants or freelancers. And there’s a great deal of us out there. If you truly pride yourself on great content for your conference, keep in mind where that great content actually comes from and just how much time that goes into putting it together. Perhaps it’s actually worth paying a small fee for, after all.

Image: Preparing for my talk at Amuse 2015

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