I've been public speaking for ten years!!
Conferences, who gets to speak at them, and compensation are recurring themes. The more they come up, the more I've noticed that they bother me! Probably because of their implications for diversity, equity and inclusion. So conference organisers, please take a peek at my ideas and let me know what you think.
Let's get into it!
Point #0: Organising events is HARD!
Commercial events, not-for-profit or local meet-up makes no difference. It's HARD!!!!
It's important to acknowledge this. Organisers have to:
Space in the calendar
Set ticket prices
Create Codes of Conduct
Enforce Codes of Conduct
Avoid ordering too much food
Avoid ordering too little food
Manage an outbreak of the plague
And I've almost certainly missed something too! I appreciate the hard work that goes into organising these things, and I, for one, appreciate it 🙏🏾
That said, dear organisers, here are some perspectives I'd like you to consider the next time this comes up!
Point #1: Creating content requires time, energy and money.
Talks and workshops don't create themselves!!!
Turning ideas into something coherent takes effort. We're creating, testing, practising and refining right from the word go. Once invited/accepted, it doesn't stop until we're actually on stage delivering the talk or about to start the workshop!
All of those struggles need to be recognised, rewarded and compensated.
Point #2: The speaker and their content make the event better.
Otherwise, you wouldn't have invited us in the first place!
Many speakers have a reputation that organisers leverage to move more tickets. The content they deliver is often top-notch and builds anticipation for the next event. So what's the problem?
It's how things are packaged and presented as a "deal" for the presenter!
Talking about "free entry to the event" that you're already contributing to feels illogical. At best! Does it imply you were thinking of charging me $1500 entry before delivering my content?!?! That's bonkers! As my friend @thepiratetester would say: "You know what's worth $1500? $1500!!!" And please, please, please don't talk about "exposure". Oh dear 😞
It's not unreasonable for creators to share in the (financial) success of the event.
Point #3: Diversity is... Diverse.
How hard are you looking for diverse voices?
In my line of work, bugs are important. Who would be better if two people used the same piece of software and neither found any bugs? The one who looked most diligently & creatively! It's similar to speaker line-ups. When everyone looks the same, I tend to ask myself, "how hard did the organisers look for diverse voices and do they even care about that?".
Here's the thing, though: They don't have to care!*
However, a varied set of speakers means we get more ideas. More ideas mean better solutions. A broader group of people on stage can have an enriching effect on parts of your audience you probably don't know exist right now.
Visibility matters (in many ways).
Point #4: Being at the conference has consequences.
The pressure could be on for folks picking up the slack while you're away!
That could mean personal (school runs, chores), professional (picking up critical deliverables, making sure folks are ready for your absence) or both! That often means lining up childcare to cover the time away, bringing family along for the ride, working late to finish tasks (on top of the conference prep) or a whole host of other things.
That's all hidden work for the speaker to deal with.
Point #5: Be professional.
Becoming indignant, guilt-tripping and avoiding the topic are all terrible looks.
I've seen all the above reactions, and it's not on. What we're doing is discussing a professional working arrangement. If you're a smaller local meet-up in Liverpool, paying for someone to fly over from Tokyo might not be practical!
That makes sense.
However, becoming angry, defensive and brushing people off isn't reasonable. It will only create resentment with the person trying to help you put on an incredible event! They will share their experience of dealing with you.
What kind of experience would you like them to be sharing?
So now what?
All well and good, Vern, but what does 'good' look like?
I have a few ideas for conference organisers:
Pay for travel & accommodation at least. The worst-case scenario should leave the speaker net zero for creating and delivering material at your event. Remember that fixed travel costs limits who can apply to speak at your event too.
Compensate folks for their time, money and energy. Figure out a way for people to share your event's financial success.
Don't wait for the prospective speaker to broach the subject. Make it easy for folks to understand your policies before applying, and make yourself available to answer any questions people may have.
Use software to enable folks to book their travel through you. They don't have to foot the bill or wait for reimbursement. You get to control what they spend. Win-Win!!!
Allow folks to claim expenses as they occur. Having to wait until after the event can seriously affect people's finances.
Partner with organisations working to improve DE&I. Tell them you have an upcoming event and are committed to having more people experience being on stage.
I'd love to know what people think about this and if they have any other ideas. Remember, folks running conferences aren't evil! I believe we can improve how we work together on these topics.
It's also worth remembering that this advice can be taken on board by large commercial money-making operations, not-for-profit events and smaller local meet-ups**.
*I don't have to support those that don't.
** These events are often funded out of the personal pockets of the organisers, which is worth remembering.