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.