Speakers’ Union

Events seem to come in four broad types – the first three are those run by events companies, for whom this is their core business, those run by professional bodies where they hope to make a bit of money but it’s something their membership expect having parted with a wedge already (even though they usually have to pay again too), and those run by committed professionals who just want to break even because it’s the love of the subject matter that drives them to bring everyone together. I’m talking here about the first two categories. The fourth is dealt with a little later.

I’m in that group of conference and event speakers who are on the cusp of getting paid as a matter of course – sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. We might get expenses covered or a free ticket for the day, but we’re still tormented by the need to forego a fee for the opportunity for profile. This is usually achieved on the organisers’ part by sending a list of attendees to the last event, all of whom miraculously seem to be Directors and VP’s. It’s a gift, we get an audience, we’re grateful. We’re made to feel like we’ve been selected. Invariably, therefore, we agree. Yet we have done the maths – multiplied the ticket price by the attendee numbers and deducted a rough estimate of venue hire, catering, materials., AV and marketing – and worked out the net income. We’ve then deducted the rough cost of the ‘keynote’ speakers at the start and end of the day who don’t have much to do with the subject matter and who are explorers or athletes or astronauts or economists or magicians, and arrived at a number. We’ve thought – it wouldn’t take much to make us feel a little less exploited. That includes for those ‘in a job’ where it might be less pressing.

There is a principle at play. The majority of the events in the ridiculously overcrowded calendar are of the commercial, profit making variety. They have no intrinsic knowledge-enhancing or network-building aims beyond securing attendance at the next event. They rely on speakers doing their part for the satisfaction of seeing their name on the brochure, and the tweet-reach of their performance.

The contention is that all speakers should be paid, regardless, unless it’s an event in the third category, where an arrangement can be made if agreeable to all.

In a previous life I used to co-manage a recording artist, with No1 selling albums and top ten singles in a small country not far from here. During recording sessions and on tours I became familiar with Musicians’ Union rates. The rates were not high, but they effectively worked as a living wage. Every musician got paid for their contribution, principally because no-one would do it otherwise. You didn’t find anyone playing rhythm guitar on a megastar’s album purely for the privilege – they got the listing, the profile and the kudos, but they could have a pint and a pizza after the session too.

Profile doesn’t pay the mortgage. Being invited to speak is not a gift. The event organisers are lucky to have you. It is time for a Speakers’ Union. Not a real thing, not a bureaucracy with membership and cards and any kind of political affiliation – but an informal agreement between everyone asked to speak at a profit-making conference to be paid a minimum fee. It shouldn’t matter whether they are in a job or not. What might the level be? I would propose £500 (which is $500 or €500 – Brexit was invented by those who struggled with currency conversion) and a free ticket to the event for the day (it’s amazing that even this benefit is not universally applied). That is a minimum, it still leaves the speaker and event organiser free to agree a higher fee.

The other practice that needs to be put in a shallow grave in the woods is charging speakers for their slot. While this might be construed as an honest recognition that very often speakers are making a sales pitch, it actually means that the event is a fourth category, a trade show. They are often dressed as a conference, leading you to believe that they are about knowledge enhancement and networking, but the request for payment soon reveals the reality. They still manage to get people attending, parting with a wad of cash for the privilege, believing it’s a conference. They should be clear about the proposition and state that the speakers paid for the right to be holding the mic – or stop the charade altogether. Speakers should be paid here too at Speakers Union rates, even if they are selling.

Of course, this idea won’t work if people still agree to speak for free. Everyone needs to abide by it. The next time you get a call from Aspirational Events asking you to speak, just quote ‘Speakers’ Union rates’ and see what happens. It will take a while to bed in, probably several years, and you will doubtless lose many opportunities until there is universal participation. I’ve probably kissed a few goodbye just from writing this post. Some of the less popular and successful events might bite the dust but that’s no bad thing in an overcrowded market.

As an attendee, it would be far more satisfying too, knowing that those presenting were being paid and therefore had probably been more inclined to put time, effort and thought into their pitch. I’ve seen too many rock up and babble their way through slides they had clearly never seen before the moment they were introduced to an unsuspecting throng. You may even be inclined to pay a higher attendance fee, thereby funding the payment of the speakers. It works all round.

All you have to do to join is say you’ve joined. And hold to it.


4 thoughts on “Speakers’ Union

  1. Hi Neil. Broadly I agree. There are plenty of people who want you to do stuff for free, blogging included. I am always slightly angered when the event is profit making. However I also run one of those other events you mention. The committed group sort. CIPD NAP. It’s a not for profit organised annually by volunteers. Ticket prices are kept very low – a third of the cheapest national CIPD conference ticket for two days including all meals and a gala dinner. We rely on the goodwill of people to come for expenses. We can’t even promise that much exposure. We do provide free wine though….. Profile doesn’t pay the mortgage. But I’d still hope people would support our friendly little event.

    • Perhaps if you are running an event broadly as a not for profit charitable venture, you should be a charity. A speaker could decide to support your event by giving time to the charity (gift aided or not) but it would be a more honest proposition. Those running a conference business should recognise their profits come at a cost to the very people they need to provide content and gravitas so they can sell tickets. I always used to donate my fees/case of wine or whatever to charity, but that was my choice. Anyone on the speaker circuit more than occasionally will need to pay household bills etc and should be afforded the rational dignity of a fee.

  2. I agree Neil. I now ask to be paid for speaking at conferences, seminars and training events. £500 ($ € equivalent) is about right for a single session… more for multiple sessions or if there’s a lot of travel or preparation involved. People value what they pay for, and expertise and time is a valuable commodity. If we sell our knowledge cheap we undervalue ourselves and others will follow suit.

    Its true that profile is also valuable, so that’s where negotiation comes in. And at the same time, we can always choose to give our time pro bono for a worthwhile cause.

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