Saturday, July 16, 2022

Exposure does not pay the bills except that it does

We're making rounds again on discussing diverse representation in conference speaking - a topic near and dear to my heart. I very strongly hold a belief that conference speakers being such a tiny fraction of all possible speakers should represent population and future, and that requirement adds the work of organizers and increases the quality of the content. 

What does representing population and future mean? It means working actively against current systemic structural forces that make it likely to see all male lineups, and awfully pale lineups. It means working against the bias towards finding UK/US/Canada -speakers for appearance of greatness for fluency in language. 

I learned this week - again - that I am personally still not able to always think in terms of future since I defended a lineup in Germany on this day's European minority percentages instead of systematically requiring normalizing to global percentages on major events that set the face of what is normal and expected.

Pay to Speak

In terms of a concrete action conferences - *all conferences* - need to do is work against having to pay to speak. Pay to speak refers to money out of speaker's pocket for securing a speaking position and it comes in many forms. 

  • Having to pay your own travel and accommodation to a conference not in your home town
  • Having to take unpaid vacation from your work to be at conference as all employers don't allow you to clock in conference time
  • Having to pay an entrance fee to the conference to show up in whole event to continue conversations your talk and presence starts
  • Having your company become a sponsor so that you can speak even when your content isn't about the company's offering
Getting Paid In Exposure

We would like to not only have to not pay to speak, but to be paid for speaking. The hours we put in rehearsing, living in projects to speak from experience, improving ability to deliver talks, preparing this talk and delivering the talk are counted in fairly large time investments. Exposure does not pay the bills. Except that it really does, in long term. 

Long Term Benefits of Exposure 

When you get on a stage, it can be a very powerful calling card you are broadcasting to multiple people. It is particularly brilliant for socially awkward ambiverts like myself. People come and talk to me on topics I speak on. Their questions drive my learning deeper. Their experiences give my experiences counterexamples and diversify my approaches. And I take a better version of me back to work. 

Growing enough of that platform, it turns into money *in my pocket*. I get paid more for work than my peers because of the accelerated learning conference speaking and meeting people to learn with gave me. I get also sometimes paid extra to use the specific skills of speaking in public that people allowed me to rehearse on their stage. They carried the early risks of me flunking my talk on stage and annoying their paying audience

Exposure is what moves people in underprivileged groups to higher privilege. I should know. 

With my 28 talks currently scheduled for 2022 I can confidently say that I have - for this moment in time - become one of the speakers often requested in the field of software testing. Two of these session I am paid for, and one I pay to speak at. Only three of the sessions require travel. 

The Underprivileged

Investing into this exposure isn't that easy, and it is worse for the underprivileged. That is, finding time today to invest in your future is already a stretch. Finding money, relevant amounts of it when talking about international travel, even bigger stretch. 

So how do we help? 

  • When we can only pay fees or travel only to some of our speakers, we pay the underprivileged. And I don't mean the sappy "apply for scholarship and we pay you for your sad story" demeaning stuff, I just mean that choose underprivileged groups to pay them. Trust that if they have acquired privilege they will use some of their earnings to make world better for those who come after. To get to equal future, we need to do the opposite action to the structure. 
  • When we can't pay fees (the sum of fees is small compared to the side costs of fees), pay expenses. No business should rely on other people paying our expenses. 
  • Invite the underprivileged, not just to submit but to guaranteed speaking slots. They have enough of things that take the free time so you could shoulder more of the work, no matter how "equal" you think open CfPs are. Because they are not. Those with assistants have a lot more time in reaching out with their proposals. 
The Organiser Risk

Finally, we need to discuss a little bit the relationship of speakers and organizers. Because for speakers exposure can turn into money but for organizers, event income in general stops at the event. Some sell access to videos or "information banks" with slides, but that is not commonly yet a great source of income. Organizers don't get the exposure benefit, it is on speakers only. Like me riding on the fact that I have done 500 talks in 28 countries, the organizers enabling that get at most nice words and occasional promotion if I choose to do so. 

Organiser risk, on the other hand, is very real. RISK is a possible future event with a negative impact. It's all great when none of those realise but when they do, it's all on the organiser. 

Some risks that realized for me as an organiser are:
  • I paid two speaker's travel and hotel even though they never spoke at the conference
  • I received a death threat from an unhappy ticket holder who was using the conference as visa entry to Europe and when denied visa didn't like the cancellation terms *
  • I spend hundreds of hours in work post conference to legally profit share with speakers (insurance, taxes are a LOT OF work)
  • I lost a lot of money on two conferences for failing at marketing, leading me to avoid finalising paperwork and thus more financial losses with how insurance and taxes are in Finland. 
And a close one:
  • I almost had to opt out of my own conference and contribute from outside the venue because I would prioritise someone with a guide dog over my own presence with severe animal allergies. 
After all of this, I still recommend organising, but I also appreciate that the hours needed for organising to try to avoid risks that may still not be avoidable are much more than any hours I have used on speaking. I think we speakers give ourselves too much credit for our importance to conferences. 

To bring better understanding to comparison of how the money is shared, let's consider these:
  • Hours used to speak vs. Hours used to organize
  • Timeframe speaking keeps us busy (temporarily limited) vs. Timeframe organising keeps us busy (continuous, reactionary growing)
  • Costs incurred
  • Continuity that allows for future years of the same

* On death threat - didn't seem like I was really in danger with the distance. They bought a ticket, didn't come and wanted money back after the conference because they weren't allowed a visa. We had cancellation terms and all that but I get that losing 500 euros is a lot of money for some people in the world. I was ok then, I am ok now. I couldn't talk about it while the conference exists to not escalate the risk or to scare of paying participants. There's a lot that happens in organising that we do not see.