Why conference speakers should not be paid

A few months back, the twittershphere rumbled on how wrong it is that conference speakers are not paid. In tweets and blogs, people have called out for conferences to pay speakers travel expenses and even pay them a fee for their work in preparing and delivering the talks. As an example, this article on medium.com.

Initially, I was taken by the arguments: If someone is travelling from afar to speak, their costs should be reimburse. If one is devoting her time to create good talks, she should be paid for her work. Conferences cannot happen without the speakers. The substantial expenses involved with speaking reduce the size of speakers pool.

But after thinking about this for some time, I had a change of heart - at least where community conferences are concerned. I now think that speakers should not be paid and that their expenses should not be covered. Let me clarify that I’m only referring to community conferences, commercial and vendor conferences should definitely pay up.

The speaker’s circle

Since June, I’ve spoken at 8 conferences (not counting meetups and such) and I’m not a professional speaker. Professional speakers such as evangelists whose job include delivering conference talks may speak at over 30 conferences a year.

At this point, I know many of them. We meet around the world in conferences we speak at, exchange greetings at speaker’s dinner parties and closed mingling events. This group is called “the speaker’s circle” and it’s a nice club to be in, it feels… prestigious. The “speakers circle” members rarely have to pay their expenses, over time you learn which conference has a hefty travel fund and which don’t and many of them work for companies with deep pockets too. Even if your travel budget is up and a conference refuses to reimburse you, heck, there’s always another conference. You learn you can bargain with some conferences, depending on your reputation and the talk in question. And of course, this information is passed in the circle over drinks at receptions. Don’t get me wrong, The “speaker’s circle” members have all worked hard to get there and they are all talented and awesome. Yet when people speak to me about “opportunities”, “inclusion” and “diversity” I’m reminded of the familiar faces in the this circle.

But when you’re attending 30 conferences a year, you can’t truly participate in each one of them. It’s not uncommon to see speakers arrive to a conference an hour before their talk and leave shortly after. Often it’s simply the necessities of travel, as they immediately proceed to attend yet another conference. In other cases it’s exhaustion (how many times can you sit through conference talks, some of which you’ve already heard at previous conferences). But in many cases it’s a plain lack of interest and the speaker would not have attended the conference had he or she not been selected to speak. As a conference organizer I see this a lot, when a large percentile of the people that submitted talk proposals do not show up to the conference after their proposal was declined.

People deliver talks for a variety of reasons: desire to share their experience, building a personal brand, promoting a company or product, etc. All of these reasons are valid, but ask yourself: which of these reasons correlate with the speaker being an external participant and which promotes active community membership?

But doesn’t funding speakers promote unprivileged speakers?

Unfortunately my experience is to the contrary. The reason is simple; for a community conference, the 1000-2000$ required to reimburse a foreign speaker is a lot of money and a conference can only fund a small number (often 1) of speakers. The decision quickly becomes hinged on the ROI a conference will get from the speaker, in terms of publicity and boosting ticket sales. This gives the well known speakers (or speakers from known companies) an obvious advantage.

As a member of several community conferences committees, I’ve not seen even one occurrence where the recipient of travel expenses was a lesser known speaker, nor were they independent and financially tight. In most cases the recipient was not able to bankroll her/his travel simply because she or he exhausted her/his travel budget after speaking at too many conferences that year.

Bi-Modal communities

The end result of this are bi-modal communities. We have a large yet relatively passive audience - conference attendees - and the small yet highly active group consisting of the “speaker’s circle”. Many speakers are not a true part of the community, showing up to speak and vanishing shortly after. Some speakers are “superstars”, attracting a crowd but intimidating potential “mortal” speakers.

For conference organizers, this is a constant dilemma. If we don’t bring “superstars”, can we fill the venue? But if we bring the “superstars” we intimidate potential speakers amongst community members and give away precious speaking slots. On the other hand, if we select new and unknown speakers we’re gambling on the quality of the talks, failing to deliver value to conference goers. Aren’t we obligated to get the best talks and speakers we can?

Investing in the community

I believe that the primary objective of community conferences should be to build communities. A good program is only a means to an end. We should be promoting activism and collaboration amongst the members of the community.

With this goal in mind, we should consider the negative effects of funding speakers:

  • We are taking money away from other uses, such as a better venue and A/V equipment
  • We are attracting “superstars” and hurting other proposal submitters - and when people are not accepted to their local community conference, it’s so much harder for them to enter the coveted “speaker’s circle” of the large international conferences
  • We are bringing in bad conference attendees - bad in the sense that they do not participate in the conference itself short of delivering a talk

Speakers should be conference participants first and speakers second

I have a golden rule for community conference speakers: speak only at events you would attend even if you didn’t speak

That is the kind of speaker vibes I would like to see at community conferences. Speakers who are avid community members, who care about the cause and the event.

If you accept this golden rule, the obvious conclusion is that speakers should have no priority over other conference attendees when it comes to finances. Personally I think if a conference has a travel fund, it should use it to help members based on any criteria other than being a speaker - e.g. perhaps bankrolling college students is a better use for this money.

Does that mean we have to give up on premium content in community conferences? perhaps. Personally I think it’s worth it.