‘We don’t have the budget to pay you’ is an excuse frequently heard by those asked to speak at conferences.
There’s always a budget for caterers, AV, and carpet, yet speakers are often compensated in ‘exposure’ or travel expenses.
With event planners looking to save the pennies wherever possible, it might make sense to cut costs in places where people don’t always expect to be paid. But for some the ‘empty kitty’ defence is wearing thin.
William Thomson, event consultant and founder of Virtual Event Campus:
"Compensation doesn't always mean financial contribution"
I get emails asking me to speak at events that have a note at the bottom saying, ‘We do not pay speakers.’ If you take away the issue of whether you pay speakers or not, it’s still peculiar seeing that in an email. To me all that says is, ‘You’re probably going to ask us to pay you, because we should pay you, but we’re letting you know we won’t pay you in this email to avoid having that awkward conversation.’
This is endemic across the events industry. Most organisers don’t pay their speakers and sometimes people are almost proud to say they don’t pay speakers because they think they have such an amazing organisation that speakers want to speak at.
But what people aren’t equating is payment to value. Payment is how you display value, that’s how an economy and society work. What we’re effectively saying to all our speakers is that there’s no value in what you’re doing, because I’m not equating that value to any kind of payment.
"We are telling you upfront, to avoid the awkward conversation"
- William Thomson
Some people are happy and able to speak for free at events. They might see that as part of the role. For example, anyone who’s in a leadership position within their company may be doing it as part of their role and they’re compensated within their business.
But a lot of people who speak at conferences are in small organisations or are self-employed, yet they’ve spent valuable time researching their topic to deliver it to an audience.
That research doesn’t just happen overnight, it takes days, weeks, months, and years of building up that knowledge to write a thought piece or to conduct that research. So, if we want to have valuable content at our events, we need to compensate those who are delivering it.
Compensation doesn’t always mean financial contribution. I run Europe’s largest independent training and events business for personal assistants; we pay all our speakers. Cash payment lingers between 50 and 300 euros depending on what they’re doing for us. We also offer them an advert on the website, direct mail to our 30,000 subscribers or a sponsored post.
There’s a choice of options that are high value for them, but at not much cost to us. Compensation is also important if you want to increase the diversity of the people who are speaking at your event because white, bespectacled, grey-haired, middle-aged, middle-class men can afford not to be compensated. But young, ethnic minority women may not be able to afford not to be commentated. So, if you’re not compensating properly then you’re limiting your chances of who is able to speak at your event.
Zoe Tuffs, coach and facilitator at Times Ten Coaching and Elevate Mentoring board member:
"Paying speakers isn't binary"
Value is a difficult thing to pinpoint, but you can always see where the alignment is.
For me, when I look at different speaker opportunities, I always look at the overarching alignment. I need to know if this opportunity aligns with my values and purpose, and whether it supports the change I want to see in the world. It’s important for speakers to consider the context and the background of the event and what its intention is.
When you roll all those things together and understand your alignment with the event, you, as a speaker, can decide whether you want to be compensated or not. For the organisers, they should consider what it is they’re paying for. They’re paying for a point of view, a perspective, storytelling. They’re paying for more than just the speaker showing up.
"Organisers should consider what it is they’re paying for"
- Zoe Tuffs
But paying speakers isn’t binary and only talking about money is quite a binary way of looking at it, because value can be interpreted in many ways; that’s where context comes in.
I’ve done plenty of speaker opportunities for the not-for-profit sector where I can see real value and I can see the importance of getting that message across and supporting people in their challenge.
To me, these speaker opportunities have been an absolute no-brainer to get stuck in with. They’re good for my profile and to build my reputation and I can give back in the process. There are scenarios where speakers should absolutely be paid, but it comes back to context and sometimes the value a speaker equates to speaking isn’t monetary.
There is so much value in just being in the room with the right people and it’s up to the speaker to leverage those opportunities.
Robert Weissman, president of Alliance Media Strategies:
"Speakers have agendas, they are selling themselves"
There’s a lot of self-entitlement around being a speaker. You’re a speaker and there’s no other way I can put it, you’re a commodity, you’re selling yourself. You can value yourself like someone else values a commodity, be it the newest soda or beer on the market or the newest automobile, but then there’s the way the buyer values the product.
As flesh and blood, you won’t like to think of yourself as a commodity, but as a speaker you probably are. There are premium speakers that can command luxury prices like Elon Musk, who can command a Ferrari price whether or not he’s worth it. Then there are the Fords and Fiats and so on.
"There’s a lot of self-entitlement around being a speaker"
- Robert Weissman
You always have to put yourself in the shoes of the buyer and as far as generic speakers go, it’s a buyer’s market.
They’re not going to be interested in paying more AV or carpeting than is absolutely necessary. In the same vein, they’re not going to pay for a speaker who cannot produce more results than a speaker willing to speak for less. Speakers have agendas for speaking.
They are either professional speakers or they’re selling themselves or another product. Nobody can love a product like the parent of that product loves the product and if you’re the product itself, you might overestimate your value.