Strong opinions, weakly held

The high cost of unpaid conference speakers

One of the more interesting debates that’s cropping up off and on around the Web and Twitter is whether it’s unfair for conferences to invite speakers without compensating them beyond free attendance at the event. Remy Sharp’s argument can be inferred from the title of his post, You’re paying to speak. This reminded me of a post by Andy Budd from last August, Paying Speakers is Better for Everybody. Budd’s post is a bit less inflammatory and comes at it from the perspective of what a conference organizer gains by paying speakers:

As an organiser I think paying speakers is actually a very good idea, whether they ask for it or not. This is because it changes the relationship from a voluntary one to a business one. When you’re not paying somebody you really can’t expect them to put a lot of effort into their talks, help you promote the event or respond to your emails quickly (a constant bugbear for organisers). However by paying speakers for services, you set up a different relationship and a level of expectation that makes your life easier and the quality of your event better. We’re not talking huge piles of cash in un-marked bills btw. Sometime a few hundred dollars or a voucher from Amazon is enough to make a speaker feel valued.

My friend Alex King disagrees (with Sharp, at least):

This sort of entitlement crap really irks me. No one is making you speak at a conference; it’s a choice.

Here’s what I think – it has nothing to do with fairness. Conferences often don’t pay speakers because they can attract attendees to their events with a slate of speakers who are willing to appear for free. It’s as simple as that. There are a lot of reasons to want to speak at a conference, not all of them driven by a clear financial motive. I like to give talks for the same reason that I like writing blog posts – I think it’s fun to participate in the marketplace of ideas, and standing up and sharing those ideas with an audience is a great experience. Speaking to a group makes me pretty nervous, but I do it anyway because the response is usually pretty great. I would also add that assuming you choose the right events, attending as a speaker is really fun. Most people at the event know who you are, and many of them want to talk with you about your talk, which is on a topic that interests you enough to write a talk about it.

Preparing for a talk is pretty fun, too. It’s an opportunity to really think deeply about a subject and figure out how to present it in a useful way. Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but the rewards are intrinsic. If you disagree with me and feel like that’s not enough of a reward to do it, that’s OK. Ask for a fee, it can’t hurt. I just think that treating this as a matter of dollars and cents misses a lot of what’s going on with the relationship between speakers and conferences.

I should add that I am really lucky. I work for a company (Etsy) that will pay for me to go to a conference and give a talk without any expectation that I will pitch anything to the audience. I already attend few conferences, and I’d attend even fewer if I were spending my own money on it, whether I was speaking or not.

This is the real point I want to make for conference organizers. When you don’t pay speakers, you limit your pool of possible speakers to those who are self-funded, or, more likely, are paid to attend by their employer. That immediately eliminates a lot of potentially interesting voices. It also, in all likelihood, reduces the diversity of your group of speakers. It also makes it more likely that a greater percentage of your talks will be thinly veiled product pitches or painfully obvious recruiting pitches rather than well-prepared talks on inherently interesting subjects.

In the end, I agree with Andy Budd. Paying speakers is better for everybody. At the same time, I think the best speakers are usually those who would give excellent presentations regardless of whether not anybody is paying them.


  1. If someone is coming to the US and is being paid to speak or teach (beyond travel costs & expenses) you need a special VISA, which the conference organizers have to apply for.

    So it would be helpful if the United States fixed its laws 😉

    See http://www.uscustomssaga.com/2010/01/us-customs-does-not-allow-conference-speakers-my-experience/

  2. It’s also worth nothing that some local and regional conferences are simply too small to pay speakers. See NCDevCon, which is a great conference because it is affordable to attend. I do believe they pay for hotels for speakers and comp their attendance, but they try and get a good bit of their speakers local so they don’t have to do that for everyone. If they had to pay a speaking fee + all costs for all the speakers it would make it a far less affordable conference.


  3. Great article and I often wonder about the missed opportunity in paying speakers as well. I have spent more than 8 years as a producer in the for-profit conference production industry and to be honest, a lot of these companies could not give a crap really about the subject matter and they operate for maximum returns. Conference producers often come right out of college (paid measly salaries) and are asked to put together events with jaw-dropping ticket prices in all a matter of a month. There is likely no budget to pay speakers, and there is one, it likely is no more than $1k for the whole event. Timelines to round up speakers are too aggressive and producers are told to do whatever it takes to get the speaker to confirm and have them immediately marketed online to attract buyers. If they drop out, money was possibly already made from advertising that speaker. Only speakers with the most lavish titles from the brand-name companies can possibly get something covered. Your passion for the topic fall on deaf ears. There are numerous for-profit conference companies that will make an event on any topic that can spin ticket sales, and they will always take advantage of speaker generosity. Also, be aware that some companies even cancel their conferences and don’t refund attendees registrations- don’t find yourself on the speaker panel for those events!

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