Life’s A Stage: Paying Speakers At Events

Behind the scenes, conference organizers and bloggers tell me writing a post like this is a liability. They say things like, “it might look bad on us to talk about paying speakers.”

I’m left shaking my head. Just the night before, I was told that I need to “watch out.” That I’m getting a “reputation.” I brushed it off and decided not to dignify that comment with a reply.

But it kept echoing in my mind. A reputation? For what? For insisting that people be paid for their hard work?

Do you really think we don’t deserve it? Let me explain my process and just how much time I put into every presentation.

  • I sit on the phone with you and talk topics, do rehearsals on your timeline and read all those, “can you please tweet this” emails. That’s at least 3 hours.
  • I sit down and outline my content before I ever start creating slides because I’m determined to create something practical and useful, not a rant on ridiculous behavior in recruiting. That’s an hour or two of research, assuming I don’t change my mind 3 times.
  • Then I create my slides. That takes a minimum of 4 hours just to get a first draft that doesn’t look wonky in presentation mode.
  • I practice. A lot. At least 3 full dry runs before I show up at your place.
  • I come all the way there. The critical point to make here – I hate to travel. Airports are the layer above hell if you ask me. This airport adventure alone is worth a large sum on my side, but let’s call it at least a day of being unproductive in the air with shitty wifi.
  • When I’m there, I’m there. I’m tweeting sessions. I’m presenting. That’s social media management services for 4-6 hours a day, usually over a few days.

At a minimum, this is 40 hours of work I could be getting paid for, and you’re not even willing to throw me a couple hundred for a flight?

And yes, I make exceptions. I adjust my fee according to the budget of the person on the other side. But if you expect to use my face and my content to make you money, know that I expect to be compensated.

I am not ok with anyone shaming me in any way for expecting that or expecting it for others.

I understand that events are not highly profitable endeavors. If you are so concerned about making money that you can not even kick-back the price of 1 ticket to your event to each of your speakers, as a friend and someone who runs a company I would suggest you get out of this business.

What makes it worse is that most of these companies blow their budget on the big names who have money to spend sitting around and talking in the first place.

Yes, I understand billboard names drive big crowds. But my expense report goes to my bookkeeper who I have to pay even to open an email. Who do you think Clooney sends his receipts to?

Do you think he packs a PBJ to eat in the airport? I do. Pay me.

So yeah, I’m okay with having a reputation that insists on a few things when I’m going to put this kind of effort into your event.

Here are a few things I do expect.

  • Every speaker who is not a sponsor is being paid something that is at least equal to the price of one ticket to your event. I will make exceptions for:
    • Fundraisers/nonprofits,
    • Small businesses,
    • Probably other things I’m not thinking of.
  • I want to see all kinds of people up there. I am not showing up just to break up your manel party. I also don’t want to look at your speaker list and only see white people. Let’s make our conferences a reflection of reality.
  • That this event isn’t just about you making money. That it’s about making people a little better when they leave.

With that, my reputation and I are going on a vacation.

2 thoughts on “Life’s A Stage: Paying Speakers At Events

  1. Katrina,

    First, you know I love you. Second, you’re somewhat right here and somewhat wrong here! ;)

    Becoming a paid speaker has nothing to do with the events. It has everything to do with the market. Also, your example of each event should at least set aside the cost of a ticket for each speaker is a bit broken.

    If a ticket to an event cost $1,000, you believe the speaker should be getting in some form or fashion $1,000 (straight comp, travel expenses, tacos, whatever). Great, except, not only is the event not getting your $1,000 for the cost of the ticket, now they are out $1,000 for compensation. Also, what if the event only costs $79 to attend, do you still feel the same? I’m doubtful.

    Back to the market concept. I spoke for at least three years, unpaid, where I paid my own way to the events as well. I, in fact, in the last week, spoke at event where I did not get paid, and paid my own travel (that’s very rare nowadays, but still, it’s a decision I made based on the value I believe being in front of that audience will bring me in return).

    I spoke for free, because basically, while I thought I was great and entertaining, my NPS scores were probably in the 50s. My NPS scores at every live event I’ve done in the past 12 months have been mid 80’s to mid 90’s. Why does this matter? The market wouldn’t have paid to see me speak when I started. The market will now pay to see me speak because of the free work I put in to position myself to be paid to speak.

    Too many in our industry cry afoul for being paid as as speaker, but they suck. Truth hurts. They’re mostly one trick ponies that nobody knows, and they give very little of value to the audience. And it’s questionable they could hold an audience for an hour. Just because you work for Google, doesn’t mean you know anything! (You know nothing, John Snow!)

    An event should not pay every speaker the same amount. It’s a ridiculous notion. I don’t expect to get paid the same as Will Smith, when I speak at a conference where Will is speaking. And while I think Will is immensely entertaining, but is he really worth six figures for an hour? Actually, yes, because those attending have decided he is. They would pay separately to watch him. Still if I’m getting $5k to speak for an hour and Will is getting $150K an hour to speak, that feels really off, yet, that’s the market slapping me back to reality.

    A great experiment for those who feel they should be paid would be for an event organizer to give every single attendee part of their money back when they walk in the door in cash, and they as they attend sessions they personally are deciding who should get the money. I think most speakers would be shocked at how little money participants would actually give them.

    All this being said, I run events. I pay travel for my speakers, and if the money is there, I pay speakers. But, I also, don’t run my events as my business to make money. If it was a profit center for me, I would definitely be looking for some free content from up and coming speakers who want a stage and need practice to sharpen their saws.

    So, should events pay their speakers?

    That depends on many factors:
    1. Do you have the money to pay expenses and fees?
    2. Does the person speaking have the market pull to demand expenses and fees?
    3. Have you put yourself in a position, as a professionally paid speaker, to be paid expenses and fees.

    BTW – I’ve seen you speak. You bring value to an audience. You are not a one trick pony. I would pay you.

    Sackett, out.

  2. Excellent food for thought, and Tim’s comments were enlightening as well. I will also offer another take: speaking is teaching and teaching should be done to expand the art, not for profit. I fully support speakers being compensated for expenses, I personally feel too many folks have made money peddling suspect thought leadership, and not serving the TA community. I believe we would all be better off is we served the art of TA and not ourselves. I’ve spoken at some great events, and would never accept anything that profited myself, as I feel it an obligation to teach. Just my thoughts.

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