Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn’t like to give in easily. When he is not writing, he’s most probably running front-end & UX …
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Setting up a conference isn’t an easy undertaking. It takes time, effort, patience, and attention to all the little details that make up a truly memorable experience. It’s not something one can take lightly, and it’s often a major personal and financial commitment. After all, somebody has to build a good team and make all those arrangements: flights, catering, parties, badges, and everything in between.
The work that takes place behind the scenes often goes unnoticed and, to an extent, that’s an indication that the planning went well. There are hundreds of accessible and affordable meet-ups, community events, nonprofit events, and small local groups — all fueled by incredible personal efforts of humble, kind, generous people donating their time on the weekends to create an environment for people to share and learn together. I love these events, and I have utter respect and admiration for the work they are doing, and I’d be happy to speak at these events and support these people every day and night, with all the resources and energy I have. These are incredible people doing incredible work; their efforts deserve to be supported and applauded.
Unlike these events, commercial and corporate conferences usually target companies’ employees and organizations with training budgets to send their employees for continuing education. There is nothing wrong with commercial conferences per se and there is, of course, a wide spectrum of such events — ranging from single-day, single-track gatherings with a few speakers, all the way to week-long multi-track festivals with a bigger line-up of speakers. The latter tend to have a higher ticket price, and often a much broader scope. Depending on the size and the reputation of the event, some of them have more or less weight in the industry, so some are perceived to be more important to attend or more prestigious to speak at.
Both commercial and non-commercial events tend to have the so-called Call For Papers (CFPs), inviting speakers from all over the world to submit applications for speaking, with a chance of being selected to present at the event. CFPs are widely accepted and established in the industry; however, the idea of CFPs is sometimes challenged and discussed, and not always kept in a positive light. While some organizers and speakers consider them to lower the barrier for speaking to new talent, for others CFPs are an easy way out for filling in speaking slots. The argument is that CFPs push diversity and inclusion to a review phase, rather than actively seeking it up front. As a result, accepted speakers might feel like they have been “chosen” which nudges them into accepting low-value compensation.
The key to a fair, diverse and interesting line-up probably lies somewhere in the middle. It should be the organizer’s job to actively seek, review, and invite speakers that would fit the theme and the scope of the event. Admittedly, as an organizer, unless you are fine with the same speakers appearing at your event throughout the years, it’s much harder to do than just setting up a call for speakers and wait for incoming emails to start showing up. Combining thorough curation with a phase of active CFPs submission probably works best, but it’s up to the organizer how the speakers are “distributed” among both. Luckily, many resources are highlighting new voices in the industry, such as WomenWhoDesign which is a good starting point to move away from “usual suspects” from the conference circuit.
Many events strongly and publicly commit to creating an inclusive and diverse environment for attendees and speakers with a Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct explains the values and the principles of conference organizers as well as contact details in case any conflict or violation appears. The sheer presence of such a code on a conference website sends a signal to attendees, speakers, sponsors, and the team that there had been given some thought to creating an inclusive, safe, and friendly environment for everybody at the event. However, too often at commercial events, the Code of Conduct is considered an unnecessary novelty and hence is either neglected or forgotten.
Now, there are wonderful, friendly, professional, well-designed and well-curated commercial events with a stellar reputation. These events are committed to diverse and inclusive line-ups and they always at least cover speaker’s expenses, flights, and accommodation. The reason why they’ve gained reputation over years is because organizers can afford to continuously put their heart and soul into running these events year after year — mostly because their time and efforts are remunerated by the profit the conference makes.
Many non-commercial events, fueled by great ideas and hard work, may succeed the first, second, and third time, but unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for them to fade away just a few years later. Mostly because setting up and maintaining the quality of such events takes a lot of personal time, effort and motivation beyond regular work times, and it’s just really hard to keep it up without a backbone of a strong, stable team or company behind you.
Some conferences aren’t quite like that. In fact, I’d argue that some conferences are pretty much the exact opposite. It’s more likely for them to allocate resources in outstanding catering and lighting and video production on site rather than the core of the event: the quality of the content, as provided by speakers. What lurks behind the scenes of such events is a toxic, broken conference culture despite the hefty ticket price. And more often than not, speakers bear the burden of all of their conference-related expenses, flights, and accommodation (to say nothing of the personal and professional time they are already donating to prepare, rehearse, and travel to and from the event) from their own pockets. This isn’t right, and it shouldn’t be acceptable in our industry.
Personally, I’ve been privileged to speak at many events over the years and, more often than not, there was a fundamental mismatch between how organizers see speaking engagements and how I perceive them. Don’t get me wrong: speaking at tech conferences has tremendous benefits, and it’s a rewarding experience, full of adventures, networking, traveling, and learning; but it also takes time and effort, usually away from your family, your friends, and your company. For a given talk, it might easily take over 80 hours of work just to get all the research and content prepared, not to mention rehearsal and traveling time. That’s a massive commitment and time investment.
But many conference organizers don’t see it this way. The size of the event, with hundreds and thousands of people attending the conference, is seen as a fair justification for the lack of speaker/training budgets or diversity/student scholarships. It’s remarkably painful to face the same conversations over and over and over again: the general expectation is that speakers should speak for free as they’ve been given a unique opportunity to speak and that neither flights nor expenses should be covered for the very same reason.
It’s sad to see invitation emails delicately avoiding or downplaying the topics of diversity, honorarium, and expenses. Instead, they tend to focus on the size of the event, the brands represented there, the big names that have spoken in the past, and the opportunities such a conference provides. In fact, a good number of CFPs gently avoid mentioning how the conference deals with expenses at all. As a result, an applicant who needs their costs to be covered is often discriminated against, because an applicant, whose expenses will be covered by their company is preferred. Some events explicitly require unique content for the talk, while not covering any speaker expenses, essentially asking speakers to work for free.
To get a better understanding of how to get there, I can only recommend the fantastic Conference Organizer’s Handbook by Peter-Paul Koch, which covers a general strategy for setting up a truly professional event from planning to pricing to running it — without burning out. Bruce Lawson also has prepared a comprehensive list of questions that could be addressed in the welcome email to speakers, too. Plus, Lara Hogan has written an insightful book on Demystifying Public Speaking which I can only highly encourage to look at as well.
Yes, venues are expensive, and yes, so is catering, and yes, so is AV and technical setup. But before allocating thousands on food, roll-ups, t-shirts, and an open bar, allocate decent budgets for speakers first, especially for new voices in the industry — they are the ones who are likely to spend dozens or hundreds of hours preparing that one talk.
Jared Spool noted while reviewing this article:
“The speaking budget should come before the venue and the catering. After all, the attendees are paying to see the speakers. You can have a middling venue and mediocre catering, but if you have an excellent program, it’s a fabulous event. In contrast, you can have a great venue and fantastic food, but if the speakers are boring or off topic, the event will not be successful. Speaking budgets are an investment in the value of the program. Every penny invested is one that pays back in multiples. You certainly can’t say the same for venue or food.”
No fancy bells and whistles are required; speaker dinners or speaker gifts are a wonderful token of attention and appreciation but they can’t be a replacement for covering expenses. It’s neither fair nor honest to push the costs over to speakers, and it’s simply not acceptable to expect them to cover these costs for exposure, especially if a conference charges attendees several hundred Euros (or Dollars) per ticket. By not covering expenses, you’re depriving the industry of hearing from those groups who can’t easily fund their own conference travel — people who care for children or other relatives; people with disabilities who can’t travel without their carer, or people from remote areas or low-income countries where a flight might represent a significant portion of even multiple months of their income.
“The formula is:Break_Even = Fixed_Costs/(Ticket_Price – Variable_Costs)Costs, such as speakers and venue are the biggest for break-even numbers. Catering costs are mostly variable costs and should be calculated on a per-attendee basis, to then subtract them from the price. To calculate the speaker budget, determine what the ticket price and variable per-attendee costs are up front, then use the net margin from that to figure out how many speakers you can afford, by diving net margin into the total speaker budget. That will tell you how many tickets you must sell to make a profit. (If you follow the same strategy for the venue, you’ll know your overall break even and when you start making profit.) Consider paying a bonus to speakers who the audience rates as delivering the best value. Hence, you’re rewarding exactly what benefits the attendees.”
That’s a great framework to work within. Instead of leaving the speaker budget dependent on the ticket sales and variable costs, set the speaker budget first. What would be a fair honorarium for speakers? Well, there is no general rule of how to establish this. However, for smaller commercial events in Europe, it’s common to allocate the price of 3–5 tickets on each speaker. For a large conference with hundreds and thousands of attendees, three tickets should probably be a minimum, but it would also have to be distributed among simultaneous talks and hence depend on the number of tracks and how many attendees are expected per talk.
Provide an honorarium, even if it isn’t much. Also, ask speakers to collect all receipts, so you can cover them later, or provide a per diem (flat daily expenses coverage) to avoid the hassle with receipts. As a standard operating procedure, suggest buying the flight tickets for the speaker unless they’d love to do it on their own. Some speakers might not have the privilege to spend hundreds of dollars for a ticket and have to wait months for reimbursement. Also, it’s a nice gesture to organize pre-paid transport from and to the airport, so drivers with a sign will be waiting for a speaker at the arrival area. (There is nothing more frustrating than realizing that your cabbie accepts only local cash to pay for the trip — and that after a frustrating flight delay arriving late at night.)
Once all of these costs are covered, consider providing a mentor to help newcomers draft, refine, adjust, review and iterate the talk a few times, and set aside a separate time when they could visit the venue and run through their slides, just to get a feeling of what it’s going to be like on stage.
On a positive side, if you’ve ever wondered about a high speakers’ drop-out rate at your event, not covering expenses might be a good reason for it. If speakers are paying on their own, you shouldn’t expect them to treat the speaking engagement as a priority.
As Laurie Barth noted when reviewing this article:
“If you aren’t paid for your time, then you likely have less unpaid time to give to preparing your talk and/or have less incentive to prioritize the travel and time for the talk.”
The time, work, effort, and commitment of your speakers are what make the conference a success.
Think twice before submitting a proposal to conferences that don’t cover at least your costs despite a high ticket price. It’s not acceptable to be asked to pay for your own travel and accommodation. If an event isn’t covering your expenses, then you are paying to speak at their event. It might seem not to matter much if your time and expenses are covered by your employer but it puts freelancers and new speakers at a disadvantage. If your company is willing to pay for your speaking engagement, ask the organizers to donate the same amount to a charity of your choice, or sponsor a diversity/student scholarships to enable newcomers to speak at the event.
Come up with a fair honorarium for your time given your interest and the opportunity, and if possible, make exceptions for nonprofits, community events, or whenever you see a unique value for yourself. Be very thorough and selective with conferences you speak at, and feel free to ask around about how other speakers have been treated in the past. Look at past editions of the event and ask speakers who attended or spoke there about their experience as well as about the reputation of the conference altogether.
If you are new to the industry, asking around could be quite uncomfortable, but it’s actually a common practice among speakers, so they should be receptive to the idea. I’m very confident that most speakers would be happy to help, and I know that our entire team — Rachel, Bruce, me and the entire slots empire bonus codes
Crew would love to help, anytime.
Before committing to speak at a conference, ask questions. Ethan Marcotte has prepared a useful little template with questions about compensation and general treatment of speakers (thanks to Jared for the tip!). Ask about the capacity and expected attendance of the conference, and what the regular price of the ticket is. Ask what audience is expected, and what profile they have. Ask about conference accessibility, i.e. whether there will be talk captioning/transcripts available to the audience, or even sign language interpreters. Ask if there is a commitment to a diverse line-up of speakers. Ask if other speakers get paid, and if yes, how much. Ask if traveling and accommodation are covered for all speakers, by default. Ask if there is a way to increase honorarium by running a workshop, a review session or any other activities. Since you are dedicating your time, talents, and expertise to the event, think of it as your project, and value the time and effort you will spend preparing. Decide what’s acceptable to you and make exceptions when they matter.
As you expect a fair treatment by organizers, also treat organizers the same way. Respect organizers’ time and efforts. They are covering your expenses, but it doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable to spend a significant amount without asking for permission first. Obviously, unexpected costs might come up, and personal issues might appear, and most organizers will fully understand that. But don’t use the opportunity as a carte blanche for upscale cocktails or fancy meals — you probably won’t be invited again. Also, if you can’t come to speak due to occurring circumstances, suggest a speaker that could replace your session, and inform the organizer as soon as you are able to upfront.
As an attendee, you always have a choice. Of course, you want to learn and get better, and you want to connect with wonderful like-minded people like yourself. However, be selective choosing the conference to attend next. More often than not, all the incredible catering and free alcohol all night long might be carried on the shoulders of speakers speaking for free and paying their expenses from their own pockets. Naturally, conferences that respect speakers’ time and professional skills compensate them and cover their expenses.
So support conferences that support and enable tech speakers. There are plenty of them out there — it just requires a bit more effort to explore and decide which event to attend next. Web conferences can be great, wonderful, inspirational, and friendly — regardless of whether they are large commercial conferences of small community-driven conferences — but first and foremost they have to be fair and respectful while covering the very basics first. Treating speakers well is one of these basics.
I’d like to kindly thank Rachel Andrew, Bruce Lawson, Jesse Hernandez, Amanda Annandale, Mariona Ciller, Sebastian Golasch, Jared Spool, Peter-Paul Koch, Artem Denysov, Markus Gebka, Stephen Hay, Matthias Meier, Samuel Snopko, Val Head, Rian Kinney, Jenny Shen, Luc Poupard, Toni Iordanova, Lea Verou, Niels Leenheer, Cristiano Rastelli, Sara Soueidan, Heydon Pickering, David Bates, Mariona C. Miller, Vadim Gorbachev, David Pich, Patima Tantiprasut, Laurie Barth, Nathan Curtis, Ujjwal Sharma, Lea Verou, Jesse Hernandez, Amanda Annandale, Benjamin Hong, Bruce Lawson, Matthias Ott, Scott Gould, Charis Rooda, Zach Leatherman, Marcy Sutton, Bertrand Lirette, Roman Kuba, Eva Ferreira, Sara Soueidan, Joe Leech, Yoav Weiss, Markus Seyfferth and Bastian Widmer for reviewing the article.
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