Many events want speakers to show up without any compensation and give freely of your time, effort, knowledge, and expertise. Is it right? Is it wrong?
I am going to break it down from my viewpoint as someone who has been out there for many years speaking, teaching, and sharing what’s in my head to thousands of people all over the world, both in person and online.
One fundamental tenet: never pay an event to speak. In the music world, we call that “pay to play.” I am not talking about travel or associated costs; this is paying them to give you a speaking slot.
Should Speakers Get Paid?
With rare exceptions, the answer is yes.
Do I occasionally speak for free? Yes – at user groups or true community events such as a Data or SQL Saturday. These events are run by local organizations that often struggle to get sponsors for pizza for in person meetings. Demanding a speaker fee generally does not fit the business model. However, if you have funds … call me.
Time and Effort
Prep time is the cost of doing business as a speaker. Whether it is a single presentation or a full day workshop, a great deal of effort is required to make that session excellent. Demos, the deck, labs – it’s all time consuming. Factoring in “hourly rates,” most speakers never recoup prep time. Is it possible? Sure, but it’s rare.
What Should Compensation Look Like?
Compensation isn’t swag. I don’t need tchotchkes or clothing, nor would I use a Starbucks gift card. Skip the speaker dinner. I would rather see events put that money towards some form of actual monetary compensation. That or give any surplus made from attendee/sponsor fees to a local charity/cause.
For actual speaker compensation, below is what I would love to see.
Smaller, Local Events
This would be a user group meeting or a SQL or Data Saturday type of event. These types of events are usually free to attendees and funded through vendors/sponsors and at most, charge attendees for lunch to cover costs. Paying someone to come in from afar is usually a pipe dream. If you speak at one of these events, chances are it’s at no cost to the organizer. If you cannot accept that, do not speak there.
That said, always pay precon speakers for events like SQL or Data Saturdays. The lion’s share of earnings from that paid session should go to that person. If you as an organizer are going to take costs off the top, tell the speaker up front because it affects their bottom line. Not disclosing that is shady.
These would be the SQLBits, PASS Summits, and VMware Explores of the world. Most of these events are not community-run or -based events. They are often run by larg(er) for profit corporations.
All sessions, regular or full day pre/postcons should be paid especially if you are not an employee of the vendor running the show … even if they try to disguise it as a community event, it’s not. Conference entrance fees should also be a given, not a benefit.
While things are improving at some events, the needle has not moved much. I’m going to break this down into three categories: hotel, and travel costs, and speaker fees.
Events should cover at least one night of hotel per session – especially if doing a pre/postcon. Add one additional night on the front or back end. Unless the event is local to me, I must fly in and get settled. I will always get in the day before, so there is one night, the precon is the next day. Finishing at 5 PM means I probably cannot get home that night so that is two days.
Now, if I am traversing time zones and need time to adjust for a day or two before, it’d be nice for an event to cover that part as well. That has never happened unless it was built into a massive flat fee for everything. Chances are I eat that cost 9/10 times.
There are times when a hotel was offered to me. I chose to stay elsewhere. I did not expect equivalent cash compensation since I turned down their benefit. Similarly, if I accept a hotel benefit and want a room upgrade, I should have to pay for that.
Some sort of travel stipend would be welcome. PASS Summit used to do this for precon speakers. It was not a large amount, but it helped. Even if a stipend was generous, if you have fancy tastes in restaurants, that’s on you. If you have special needs (health or otherwise) that require a higher class of airfare, that’s a tall order for an event to shell out in many cases due to cost. If they are paying for airfare, the speaker paying the difference between a normal ticket and the more expensive one seems like a reasonable compromise.
Outside of a handful of events, an event has never paid my airfare (or train). That would be lovely if it happened. Traveling a long distance is a commitment. I know conferences like Bits love people traveling there to speak and appreciate us, but they’d never be able to hold a conference if they paid us all to show up (unless they charged attendees ridiculous amounts of money).
Many speaker contracts talk about the conference owning your materials and/or distributing a recorded version of the session which they can monetize in perpetuity. Sometimes they have clauses which prevent you from giving the same talk elsewhere for a period of time. Are you OK with either of those? Read speaker contracts before signing them. Request changes if necessary and whatever you do, don’t sign them if you don’t agree to the terms.
Here is how I see things breaking down: regular sessions and then the full day workshops/sessions that take place before or after the main event.
These are the shorter sessions (20, 45, 60, 90 minutes). These garner more of an honorarium/token fee. Some conferences are now doing this which is progress. If you find a conference paying big money for a short session, let me know. If you are flying halfway around the world for $200 and a 90 minute session, is it worth it? Maybe, maybe not.
Preconference and Postconference Sessions
This is where the money is … potentially. There are three essential models:
- Flat fee
- Base + incentives
- Per attendee
Flat fees are easy. You like the number, or you don’t; there are no surprises. The number has a hard ceiling but often these types of conferences in my experience pay decently. Expenses may or may not be included as part of the flat fee.
Base + Incentives
Having a base amount means all speakers get X. That levels the playing field. The incentives are where this changes. Historically, this has been based on attendance (beyond Z attendees, you get Y per person in addition to the base). This is great until you have a single speaker who draws 75% of the attendees. Every other speaker, and the event, loses when this happens. You could argue the others should have picked a better topic/promoted/whatever. That is another topic for another day.
What Bits chose to do starting in 2024 is have a tiered model. A Training Day speaker is paid a base fee. Then if you draw more attendees, you get more compensation. It is based on total attendee numbers, not an additional amount per person. The fee is capped at a maximum £5000 ($6,159.75 at today’s exchange rate which is good for one day’s work) for more than 100 attendees. If a speaker has 200 attendees, that speaker gets the same amount as someone who has 101. I get why that sucks to some, but since Bits is now looking at paying regular speakers, a relative distribution of wealth seems ok.
There are also “tricks” to get people to show up which skew numbers – especially pre/postcons. Giving away freebies is tried-and-true and to me, unethical. It also creates an unfair advantage and is why most conferences ban promotions during any kind of session.
These first two models usually guarantee that I can afford to speak, and my travel expenses are covered. Anything else is “profit” (and I mean that very loosely).
Paying speakers only per attendee with zero guarantees is awful. I did that once – 0 stars in the Yelp review. No minimum? Hard pass.
Never Speak for Expo$ure Buck$
What are expo$ure buck$? Any time someone asks you to speak for free and usually adds some hooey around the exposure you will receive. Four benefits cut and paste from an e-mail Big Data Conference Europe 2023 sent to me:
- Promotion as a speaker via our website, social media marketing, and email marketing
- Personal discount codes
- Networking opportunities with other speakers, sponsors, and attendees
- An invitation to participate as a guest of honor in the next year’s edition
They offered no monetary compensation for a full day workshop, either. 90 minute session or eight hours? It’s the same.
I know what you’re thinking – those benefits are too good to be true, amiright?
Everything in this section applies to work, too. If you’re a consultant, don’t give away the proverbial farm on a scoping pre-sales call. Some potential customers will try; bless their hearts.
As speakers, we all need to keep reminding organizers we have value. Without us, they would not have an event. Some events are worth speaking at for free or low fees as I noted earlier, but that is a decision you need to make for yourself.
A big part of speaking is about giving back and educating. People helped me along the way, and I try to do the same. That does not mean you cannot make some money doing it. I am always humbled when years later someone comes up to me at a conference and tells me how one of my sessions helped them. THAT is why I spend hours on presentations.
What do you think – should speakers be paid? If so, what do you think is fair? If not, why? Have any other thoughts on this topic? Chime in below.