Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Pay To Speak - why care and other collected thoughts

I hold a strong belief that the world of conferences needs to change so that it is not #PayToSpeak. This means that while you are not necessarily making money for speaking (that should happen too), you are not paying money out of pocket for speaking.

Recently I spoke at a big conference that has no call for proposals but invites all speakers and says to pay their travel, including the following weekend's hotel nights to enjoy the beautiful city the conference is at. They have a policy of checking in with them on bookings or them doing bookings for you. So when they did my bookings for flights, they had me leave home 3:30 AM and return home 2:00 AM. That meant no public transport available to the airport. I could drive and park there, or I could take taxi. I chose the latter as cheaper option. When I arrived after 8 hours of being stuck on travel for something that would be a 2 hour direct flight, I had a taxi pick me up. However as I needed to get out immediately after my scheduled talk to still almost miss my flight, I had to find (and pay) the taxi myself. The flight tickets did not include any luggage, so I ended up paying 80 euros just to bring my stuff with me. Packing so that I can take it all inside means compromises on cosmetics I would rather not do while having to feel presentable. That's one of the women's problems, I guess.

The extra costs totaled to 180 dollars, which was more than the cheap flight they found me. Their view was that they wouldn't pay and that was yet another nail in the coffin killing my speaking willingness. Now it looks like they might pay, but I believe when the money is on my account.

So being against #PayToSpeak means that I believe that while it is reasonable to ask speakers to be considerate of costs (no business travel), it is not reasonable to optimize in ways where you just transfer the costs to them.

To be clear, many conferences are #PayToSpeak. Most in fact in the field of testing. A little less in the field of programming. A little less in the field of testing now that we are getting to a point of being respectable industry (including automation).

Why should the conferences care?

We've seen examples like Selenium Conference moving away from #PayToSpeak. The results they report are amazing.
  • 238 % increase in number of submissions - there are a lot of people with great content that cannot afford to teach in conferences that are pay to speak
  • new subjects, new speakers, new nationalities and new perspectives - all valuable for us learning in the field
  • percentage of women submitting growing from 10% to 40% - showing that the pay to speak might disproportionately impact underrepresented groups ability to teach in conferences

Surely you don't mean that we should pay newbie speakers?

I find that #PayToSpeak conferences present their audiences three groups of speakers:

  • Those so privileged financially that paying isn't an issue
  • Those with something to sell so that their companies pay them to deliver a sales pitch in disguise. Some better disguised than others. 
  • Those dreaming of public speaking experience finding no other options but paying their woes, sometimes delivering great talks. Believing paying is temporary. 
I believe that people in first category can opt out of payments in a conference that pays the expenses. In my experience they rarely do opt out on the out of pocket money, but many have opted out on profit sharing to leave money behind to support new speakers. People in the second category might become sponsors and pay more than just expenses to attend, and have their sessions branded as "industry practice / tool talks" which is often a way of saying it's selling a service or a tool. 

The third category is what makes me sad. 
This should not be the case. We should pay these speakers expenses. Our audiences deserve to learn from them.

As conference organizer, the thing I'm selling is good lessons from a (insert your favorite positive adjective) group of speakers. There are other ways of managing the risk of bad speakers than making sure your audience only gets to listen to the financially-well-off-and-privileged segment.

You could ensure the speakers with less of reputation get support and mentoring. With things like Speak Easy and folks like myself and Mark Dalgarno always popping up to volunteer in twitter, this is a real opportunity for conferences as well as individuals.

For Profit and Not For Profit

Finally, these words don't mean what you think they mean around conferences. You can have a not for profit conference with really expensive tickets and they can pay the speakers (this is the vision I build European Testing Conference towards - making real money to pay real money to speakers within a not for profit organization using profits to pay other conferences speaker's travel). You can have a for profit conference with ridiculously small cost and they still pay the speakers (Code Europe was one like this - they made their money out of selling participants to sponsors in various ways in my perspective).

Speaker's choices of where they show up with great material matters. But most of all, participants using money on the conferences matter most. Pay for the good players. Be a part of a better world of conferences.