Sunday, May 3, 2015

Honorariums and conference organising

This is my year of international conference talks as well as continued conference organising. I've recently spent a lot more time than ever before thinking about conference (event in general) organising, after I realised that I'm on the verge of professional in that. You become professional with practice, and the non-profits I've contributed in have given me a LOT of practice.

My motivation for organising events so far has been motivated around my personal learning. I get to meet people, talk to people and pick their brains. Usually longer and deeper, as I'm organising.

My own speaking started as a way of introducing myself, what I'd like to talk about. Even as an extrovert who loves talking to people, I'm very shy talking one-on-one to strangers unless I know we share a common interest. Speaking to an audience gets people to talk to me. And I love talking back.

Recently, I've been getting a little less on the side of learning when organising and speaking. Many people I talk to are more junior than me, and while they're wonderful and help me structure my thoughts, the mind-changing conversations tend to happen with people who have been around for a while.

With my personal learning motivation, I might organise peer conferences (international, the brains I want to pick don't seem to be available in Finland or I've used what I can get from those) and open spaces like coaching camps, to emphasise people who teach (seniority) as participants.

But I love organising the other stuff too, and I'm turning that more towards a business. I'm just now deciding, that I want to work on getting paid for the time I use on organising. Eventually.

It's very much similar to the consideration about getting paid when you speak at an event. I'd like to see, as an organiser that the conferences and events I do would be moving towards a model where we could afford to pay a honorarium (speaking fee). But while my events are free, cheap and non-profit, there's a lot of work to manage the risk of promising that up front.

Most conferences make the profit in the last two weeks. If I paid an honorarium of 2000 euros for every speaker (plus travel+logding), I would need more trust in my paid audience than I have right now. So, I'm thinking about a conditional honorarium model: we'd budget for honorarium and pay that if we make the target on audience. We need to work towards more ethical conference organising.

I really want to bring in people who don't only deliver a talk, but stay after the talk to hang around and to network. I realise this is sometimes very limiting on who I should invite.

There's five categories of people who speak at conferences:

  • Speakers who are local. When travel expenses are insignificant, all you invest is your time. And if you meet good people and get to listen to the other talks for free, perhaps its worth it. Or you show up just to deliver your talk to promote your own existence or your company. 
  • Speakers who are willing to pay to talk to lower the personal total cost of conference. The fact that you get to participate for free is enough of compensation. Sometimes the conference is just awesome and you want to be there at least once. 
  • Speakers who are willing to pay to talk for promotion reasons. It could be that you're promoting yourself (need a job, want to be perceived as a speaking professional) or that you're promoting your company (we sell products / services, awareness of those between the lines). The amount you're willing to pay depends. Oversees travel is more expensive, different conferences are more of promotional value than others. 
  • Speakers who are unwilling to pay directly to talk. These people will contribute time for free, but expect the direct costs of travel and lodging to be covered. 
  • Speakers who are unwilling to lose money for talking. It's a group of people who often have enough requests and paid work to consider opportunity cost: time used on a conference is time not used on a paid customer. And the promotional value isn't enough to not get direct income from this gig. And these are people who think conferences need to shape up their act, and vote with their feet on not participating if the finances are unfair. (For an article on how much and why a honorarium should be, see 
Many big, commercial and successful conferences are based on getting people in the first three categories. The speakers pay to speak. Keynotes tend to be invited and financially compensated. These conferences would have a choice to do things other way, to attract more suggestions and presumably raise the bar on what goes through into the program. Why would they, if what they have this way is good enough for their purposes and helps them make more profit? 

Many small, local non-profit conferences and events also rely on the first three groups, as they have financially no other choice. 

If you want you call of proposals to attract the full talent pool, you need to also promote the honorarium. With every "pay to speak" component, you are likely to lose a group of people. And even that is not enough to reach all: sometimes the most important thing is that the person feels she/he is wanted in that particular conference. Nothing beats the personal touch.