Pay to speak at conferences

[tl;dr] I will never actively pay to speak at a for-profit conference. Speakers are the only reason a conference get attendees in the first place. Minimizing the cost and energy it takes for a speaker to present at a conference, and offering profit-sharing or honorariums for content like e.g. workshops or tutorials, is the least we can ask for from the larger conference organizers. It’s a matter of common decency and respect for the people who make their events possible. It’s also the socially responsible thing to do. Anything less deserves to be publicly called out and shunned. That said, there are exceptions and nuance to be found, but you’ll have to keep reading for those…

Preface

I love going to conferences. It’s my primary way of getting inspiration and tap in to experiences from other professionals in my field. Blogs are great too, but nothing beats having the opportunity to have a conversation, a discussion, a debate, and exchange ideas in real-time, face-to-face.

I also love organizing conference. I’ve organized quite a number of them during the past few years. My first conference (not counting in-house, employees only conferences) was when we launched Let’s Test back in 2012. A number of Let’s Tests, peer conferences and meetups later, I still very much enjoy creating spaces for the community to meet and share.

Most of the time when I attend a conference, I’m also a speaker at that conference. Coming from a music background, I enjoy being on stage, and the work that I put in to create the content that I’m presenting is a great learning tool for me. If I count everything from the inception of the idea to the finished presentation or workshop, I usually spend several work days getting the material ready, and it goes through many iterations before I’m happy with it. And that’s fine, because as I work on the material, I learn more about the subject matter. Much more than I knew when I drafted the abstract. But it’s definitely an investment. I don’t create content only for the fun of it.

What I mean by “pay to speak”

A few days ago, I had reason to reexamine both my criteria for bringing my own content to a conference, as well as what the policies I should use for the conferences I help organize. My thinking got triggered by my old friend Ilari Henrik Aegerter, who wrote on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/ilarihenrik/status/1055911801827790848

There are different definitions of pay to speak, but in this particular instance, the conference organizer had asked speakers who are part of a company that provides services and who might benefit from the “networking opportunity” a the conference, to pay for a sponsorship package, should their talk be accepted on the program for next year’s conference. Details can be found at Ilari’s blog.

In short, I find the idea of forced sponsorship appalling, morally bankrupt, and down right offensive and disrespectful to speakers, but also to attendees, who pay to go to a conference to hear interesting ideas, not to hear from whoever is willing to pay to get up on stage. What they deserve are good stories, told by their peers. If they go to a conference where people have payed to secure their spot, then the validity and motivation for the message they are delivering will immediately be called into question. Or at least it should be.

Trying to get speakers to pay extra for the privilege of delivering their content that they’ve already spent time and energy on creating, on a stage at a for-profit event, is just down-right wrong. It doesn’t matter how big a platform you as an organizer are providing. Such policies are an abomination, and conferences who practice it need to be called out and shunned. It’s hurting the quality of the conference scene in general, and it’s hurting the collective reputation of honest conference organizers.

Many people would also include conferences that don’t fully reimburse the costs of their speakers, i.e. travel and accommodation, the the pay to speak definition. I fully understand and respect that definition, it makes sense, but when I extend my criticism to these types of conferences, and if I’m to be able to form a somewhat coherent stance for my own policy moving forward, I need to add some more nuance.

An established conference, with corporate backing, with a clear mission to maximize profits (as corporations understandably want to do), definitely need to make sure to reimburse their speakers fully, and preferably pay an honorarium on top. Anything less will deserve criticism and hopefully the marketplace of both speakers and attendees will start to dry out for those types of conferences rapidly as a result. It’s simply bad form to try to make money off other people’s work in that way.

I wouldn’t personally be as quick to critizise first time conferences, non-profits, or conferences that otherwise don’t have a big money backer, if they said they weren’t able to fully reimburse me though. There are definitely conferences that I’ve both presented at, and organized, that would fit in that category. Putting on a conference that isn’t yet a household name, in a big venue that requires a significant pile of non-refundable money up front, and maybe with social media and word of mouth as your only “reliable” marketing channel… It’s risky. It’s hard.

At those conferences, if there is a community upside to them, I wouldn’t hesitate to “sponsor” by carrying some of my own costs, or agree to share a financial risk and have the overall success of the event be reflected in my reimbursement or pay. I’ve done that before and I would do that again. I would expect to see changes over time though, and that as the conference in question becomes established, the guaranteed reimbursements should go up to fully cover expenses.

One final exception is of course also peer conferences and meetups, where the basic premise is different. Peer conferences work on the assumption that everybody cover their own costs and share fixed costs for the event equally between themselves. Meetups’ goal is never for-profit in my experience and so I don’t have any problem supporting them as long as they are focused on learning and sharing instead of being thinly veiled marketing ploys for some sponsor (which rarely, if ever, have been the case with meetups I’ve visited).

The elusive non-monetary value

Some of the bigger conferences will often come right out and say that they instead of cost reimbursement will offer “exposure” to speakers. Sure, theoretically that exposure might hold some value for certain types of speakers (e.g. business owners, independent consultants, or people who for one reason or another get rewarded by their employer to present at conferences). But most of the time and for most people, offering “exposure” is just a load of bullshit used to justify not having to pay their content creators fairly.

I personally don’t find the pure exposure very alluring, even though I’m in that category of people I just mentioned that might benefit from it. There are, however, other intangible advantages that come from presenting at the bigger stages that I would be lying if I didn’t say I do find valuable.

So the question for me, as an independent consultant, is whether I should take a principled stand and reject speaking at conferences who only or mostly offer non-monetary value back to speakers. And I honestly don’t know the answer. There are many solidarity based reasons to actively push back against the practice, as e.g. Cassandra Leung’s very thoughtful and detailed take on the subject shows. And at the same time I rarely find that any given situation, where a speaking offer is on the table, is completely black and white one where a should or should not accept answer readily presents itself when weighing the pros and cons.

I’ve been heavily engaged in the testing community for over 10 years now, and I love to support its growth and well-being whenever I can, but I can not say that I will never again present at one of those less-than-ideal conferences, while at the same time realizing that I’m privileged to be able to say that. What I can say though, is that I will definitely take a more active role in calling out bad behavior by conference organizers, in terms of them e.g. lacking a fair financial compensation models, downplaying diversity or otherwise fail to be inclusive or fair. And I will also increasingly promote the good and fair examples of conferences who either reimburse speakers fully, or who are operating under a non-profit umbrella for the betterment of the software testing craft. Hopefully the market will shift over time if more people become more picky about what sort of events they attend.

Closing thoughts

My thoughts on this subject are evolving even as I write this post. What I’m convinced of though is that it would be preferable if conferences were maximally inclusive and open to as wide an array of viewpoints as possible. That means that unless your aim as a conference organizer is to maximize profit, you have a responsiblity to actively work for that inclusivity and give equal opportunity so that we as attendees at conferences can be sure that the ideas we see on stage are the best available, based solely on their merit, and not affected or limited by anything else.

The only way we can see which ideas are better and progress as a craft, is if the ideas are available to be heard and challenged. Yes, there are other avenues than conferences to get ideas out there, but nothing beats face-to-face conversation.

Finally, holding to principles and showing solidarity is great. But I don’t think that will change the big picture unfortunately. At best we’ll see a shift where the good speakers gravitate toward the good and fair conferences, and the big money grubbing conferences see a drop in content quality, but will still be able to lure the vast majority of people based solely on their financial muscles and reputation (and marketing) of being big and noteworthy. And that won’t move the needle for the craft. So the answer, on top of people speaking out, is to create more competition for them, in addition to the encouraging number of fair conferences that are already out there today.

If anybody wants to make the conference scene a bit more diversified by putting on a socially responsible new brand of conference, I’m more than willing to lend them my experience as a conference organizer, pro bono. Because let’s face it, that’s how real change happens. By starting something new rather than just boycotting the old.

2 Responses to Pay to speak at conferences

  1. In another life, I tried to make a living as a professional photographer, author and journalist. Sadly, it didn’t work for me. But what I saw a lot of were various profit-making enterprises asking creatives to give their work for free, especially using the “great exposure” line. The majority of them got roundly boo’ed for their trouble.

    The sad thing was that there are so many wannabes in the creative industries that there are always people out there who are willing to fall for this trick.

    I made a point of only ever working for free when it worked for me. On one occasion, I took up a gig as a favour to a friend’s daughter who was setting up an agency. The gig in question was quite close to home and gave me access to material that I wouldn’t normally get. On another occasion, I took up volunteer work as a photographer with the local fire service. Again, there was the prospect of access to really good material, and they at least paid full expenses. And it gave me a unique insight into the workings of one of the emergency services, which was invaluable. But other “work for free” gigs I was happy to turn down.

    There’s one other category of “pay to speak” conference that doesn’t quite fall into the categories you’ve discussed. This is where a corporate sponsor gets offered a speaking slot in return for their sponsorship. I suspect that most attendees would recognise a sales pitch when they see it, and probably find some worthwhile networking to do out of the conference hall during that session. I would also like think that an ethical sponsor would donate that slot to an external speaker who would not otherwise get to attend or speak; not so much “pay to speak” as “pay to hear someone else speak”.

  2. In a somewhat similar vein as Robert Day’s comment above, I was once a (woefully unsuccessful) fashion model in my younger days and was often paid “in pictures” instead of, you know, US currency. My agent often fed me the “When other brands see these in your portfolio they are going to be SO impressed,” line, as if pictures are hard to come by and that I should be thankful for them.

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