Why don’t meeting conferences pay speakers?

pay speakers

Why don’t meeting conferences pay speakers?

“All I want is not to be insulted by the people I’m serving by them paying me less than they pay their kids’ piano teachers or their own hair stylists. They can say all the nice things they want when I’m finished. But when they hand me a paltry check, what are they really saying? What do they expect me to conclude about how much they value my work?”
John G. Stackhouse, Jr

I like going to event industry conferences. I enjoy meeting old friends, making new ones, and learning new things. And I love presenting on all kinds of topics that revolve around making conferences fundamentally better for participants and organizers.

But there’s one thing that really bothers me about these events.

The pitiful reality that few meeting conferences offer to pay speakers.

Traci Browne wrote about this miserable state of affairs three years ago. Sadly, nothing has changed, so I’m raising the topic again.

The default offer, often considered generous, is to cover expenses. (Though I receive many invitations to present that don’t even mention that.( Sometimes organizers have tried to get me to pay full registration too!

When you ask whether they will pay a fee, a common response is “well, we don’t have a budget for that.” Sometimes this is preceded by an embarrassed pause, sometimes not. Hmm, you have an F&B budget, a venue budget, and an administrative budget, but you don’t have a budget for the people who you’ve invited to fill your event with educational goodness and value? Why not?

Why they don’t pay

One answer, of course, is “we’ve always done it this way.” This is a rationalization for a lot of bad things in this world.

Another is “you’ll get exposure.” Listen up guys: good speakers for your sessions already have exposure—they aren’t relying on free speaking engagements. Yes, I have had presentation opportunities lead to client work, but not to the extent that they’ve even come close to paying the time and monetary costs to a) create a session proposal, b) prepare a presentation (typically five to ten times the presentation’s duration), c) travel to and from the venue, and d) give the presentation.

Finally, we have the “don’t you want to give to your community?” angle. Yes, I do. Yes, I speak for free or at a reduced rate probably more than I should. I also look for other ways to receive benefit that the conference organizer can provide, e.g. a professional video of my session or a couple of extra hotel nights at a really nice conference location. But, unfortunately, supporting your professional community doesn’t pay the bills.

The next time you (yes, you, you know who I’m talking to) are planning an event, build some money into your budget to pay speakers. When you ask someone to present, offer them up front specific compensation for their expenses and their time and expertise. The message that you value their presence at your event, rather than taking them for granted, will speak volumes.

Photo attribution: Flickr user danmoyle

44 thoughts on “Why don’t meeting conferences pay speakers?

  1. Adrian, I do have to agree with you on this one, especially since I’m going through this myself right now. I just started speaking a year ago, and the number of times that meeting planners have asked me to waive my speaker free, or don’t want to compensate me ‘because of all the exposure I will get, or the new business that will come my way.’ So 2 questions right back at them are: 1. Can you guarantee me new business? 2. Would you work for free?

    The interesting thing is you point out that it’s events industry meetings & conferences that actually practice this. I’ve been involved with multiple discussions with corporate and association planners that ask the same from us professional speakers. And why is that? If your #1 goal for your conference is ‘content’, or ‘amazing learning experiences’ – why would you settle for someone who just wants to come in for ‘visibility’ or speakers that have been in front of your audience time and time again, or exhibitors?

    How would you change that conversation the next time you get the ‘do it for exposure’? Make sure you evaluate each and every speaking opportunity, the audience, and the amount of your time and effort to prepare the content, and being on the road.

    Adrian, again, thank you. 🙂

  2. Ugh! Being a speaker, I have so much to say about this. But the one that really bugs me is the “well pay for your conference ticket.” What? If they’re not paying their speakers, that means they’re giving you actually nothing. Plus, that means I still have to pay for travel and other allied expenses. And like you say, that doesn’t pay the bills.

    Granted, I do speak for free for local community organizations as part of my community service initiatives. However, if the conference is charging hefty fees for attendees, paltry pay schemes are unacceptable.

  3. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You are so right. I’ve had to start turning down speaking engagements when they actually _cost_ me to do them. And there’s one industry association I would love to be more involved with but they require speakers to pay a registration fee and I draw the line there. The only thing worse is the refusal of meeting professionals to pay for legal advice…but that’s another rant for another blog. Thanks for raising this issue.

    1. Yes again. I am a new graduate and haven’t attended any conference. This time I got an invitation later and could not register for a presentation but I am planning to attend. So I have many questions about travel costs and accommodations as I am not working, and I thought maybe participants would be paid. And if this is the case planners should look at this with the third eye because we need really experience, the presenters are gaining exposure it is okay, but if I can manage to attend and then can’t go back to my community to share my new skills just because I have no money to go back how will I contribute or how can I be motivated to attend many conferences ….please planners hear our voices

  4. If organizations want to continue to remain relevant in featuring the best thought leadership,they’ll develop a budget. I do agree that the syndrome of “we’ve always done it this way” is in full effect. But when membership begins to decline and they lose further relevance, perhaps they’ll get the message.

  5. Dahlia, Heidi, Jennifer, Bob, and Tyra: Thank you it’s nice to get
    support on what is an uncomfortable topic. So, what do we do? If more
    speakers turned down the invites where they’d effectively lose money by
    accepting perhaps we’d start to see a change in the entrenched mindset
    of so many conference organizers? I know I’ve become highly selective of
    what I’ll do for expenses only. And if organizers learned that we’d be
    more likely to say “yes” if they were upfront about offering, say,
    expenses plus a small honorarium instead of not even making an offer on
    the initial invite, wouldn’t that be progress?

    We can but set good individual examples and boundaries, and hope.

  6. It just boggles my mind to hear things like this. I was in the musicians’ union for 18 years and with the exception of Arthur Fiedler’s funeral, I never once performed for free.

    One can rationalize it all day, but if one is not getting paid, that means one is an amateur. I don’t understand why anyone would want to pay money to listen to someone who, by their own admission, feels their presentation is of no value.

    Perhaps I need to give a talk on this. 🙂

    From the planner’s perspective, why buy the cow if you’re getting the moo for free? — jl

    1. Well said, Justin. My clients would never think of getting my services for free, so why, when we switch to the meeting arena, do we enter this parallel universe where what we do is valued so little—if at all?

      1. well at the risk of self promotion, let’s go upstream and find the “poor kid thinking” at work, which is the planners themselves feeling that what THEY are doing is not worth that much, hence they cannot asked THEIR customers to pay more either. The challenge is, in part, to convince them that what they are doing is worth their customers paying more, and they should not to try to offer “value” solely in the form the same thing we did last year but now at a lower price. — jl

  7. Great post, Adrian and obviously, you’ve struck a nerve for many. Can you imagine not paying for the venue, the F&B, AV, technology, wifi, etc? Yet what drives the attendees’ decision to attend most? The content. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still far more to go — here’s hoping together we can drive change on this item, as it’s critical to our future.

  8. The problem in my mind isn’t that people ask you to speak for free. That seems very smart on their part. The problem is that so many people say yes. If you want to change the paradigm…just say no.

    1. Personally, I often say no, Sam. I wouldn’t describe asking people to speak for free as “smart”, I see it as disrespectful. If a substantial number of potential clients routinely asked you to work for free, how would you feel? When education at meeting industry events is only provided by people who, for whatever reason, are willing to accept no compensation, what do you think the quality of education at those events is like—and how much better might it be if we paid a fair price for it?

    2. I agree that the willingness of some people to speak for free is the biggest hurdle to fixing this problem. If people agree to speak for free, then why would the organizers change their practice?

      1. Patty, that’s such a good question that I answered it in a “Dear Adrian” blog post that can be found here. Thank you so much for asking it!

  9. It’s an interesting question, and one that bugs me both as a speaker and as an event organiser for TEDxCanberra (as a TEDx event, we’re forbidden by our license to pay presenters, which does bother me).

    My personal view is that presenters should be paid for their time. However, where some circumstance prevents you doing so, your presenter management team should go all-out to make the presenter experience unforgettable – good flights, best hotel possible, special side events, great presenter care, and so on.

    It’s in being a great presenter experience, that you can offset the effort your presenters give you. My team makes a real effort, and while we would pay if we could, we at least make the experience and effort worthwhile.

    1. Stephen, that’s an interesting point you raise about events like TEDx that are contractually forbidden from paying presenters. Since our brief interchange on Twitter this morning I’ve thought about the issue a little more. As I mentioned then, I am cynical about the philosophy behind TED itself (see https://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/event-design/2011/10/the-tyranny-of-ted/).

      I see the TEDx licensing fee outright prohibition as a way for TED to place the emphasis when running TEDx on the event itself rather than on those speaking at it. After all, if presenters could make a reasonable amount of money speaking there that might give them status that perhaps they are due, rather than donating their time for the glory of the event.

      When people are willing to speak for free it implies that the event at which they’re speaking is important enough for them to donate their time. Thus TEDx itself gets more glory—at the speakers’ expense.

      I think your suggestion to make the presenter experience unforgettable is a good one, and the best response under the circumstances. But I remain uneasy with TED marketing, which, as I pointed out in the “tyranny of TED” post, has the end result of allowing the top TED honchos to pay themselves millions of dollars a year.

      1. Adrian, I see where you’re going, though I don’t entirely agree. Not a problem though, that’s reality. I still wish I could pay my speakers for my TEDx, but while I can’t I’ll do other things to compensate them.

        I do know however, that you’re wrong in your last paragraph. There are no million-earners at the Sapling Foundation that owns TED. Their latest 990 (2011, http://990s.foundationcenter.org/990pf_pdf_archive/943/943235545/943235545_201112_990PF.pdf) indicates some big pay packets, but nothing in that order. There’s also a great deal of money that goes out through their charitable work.

        1. Thanks for the correction about the paychecks Stephen. The original post mentioned that the top five employees were paid more than $1M in total, and I mis-remembered. Total compensation in 2011 was over $5M, and retained earnings at the end of 2011 stood at more than $20M—I’m wondering why they are retaining so much of the money they’re given. They donated $700K to charity out of a surplus of $4.8M for the year.

  10. Speaking as a conference organiser – it is incredibly tough to get anyone to pay for anything these days – I’ve had people attend one of my events free and then complain that there weren’t any peanuts during the coffee break. I’ve had sponsors who are happy to pay one of their key employees to take a week to travel long haul to one of my conferences, which must work out about £10,000, but are reluctant to give me £500 to sponsor the event.

    The challenge is to come up with a business model which works – which means charging delegates and sponsors a price they are willing to pay, finding a venue and admin cost structure which fits, and finding speakers who attract the audience at a cost you can afford (often nothing).

    In other words – from a speaker’s perspective – by all means avoid speaking at conferences if you don’t see the benefits or returns on the cost and time expended, but to say that conference organisers should pay speakers because they put time into the event, or are happy to pay catering bills, is not a commercial argument

    1. Karl, I hear your pain. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that.) It’s good to hear your conference organizer’s perspective on the challenges in putting a viable event together and I’m sympathetic. But what I’m really trying to emphasize in this post is the mindset that assumes it’s OK to not treat speakers in the same way you treat your F&B supplier or yourself as a conference organizer (do you feel you should be paid for your efforts?—of course you should be.)

      This mindset comes from old models of conferences that began in the religious and academic spheres, where the speakers were paid by the institutions they were members of. These days, no one is paying a salary to me or Dahlia or Ed or Justin or Heidi; we are independent professionals who need to make a living somehow. But the old models persist.

  11. You are right on Adrian! I own a booking agency, and the one reason I have a thriving company is that we expect our team of professionals to be paid, and are not afraid to ask the hard questions and state why! We are also willing to walk away when we are offered “exposure” rather than the fee we work hard to earn! I can debate this all night long with the best of those that have their business models set on not paying speakers, but the bottom line is: we devalue ourselves, other speakers, and our industry when we agree to speak for free. It’s not about us at all! Take a look around, unless you are independently wealthy, you somehow have to put gas in the car, food on the table, invest back into your business, and still be able to give and save, and live your passion and dream, just like everyone else! All my speakers, myself included, have set our pro bono work for the year, just as lawyers and other professionals do, and all else has to be paid. Isn’t that how a business operates? Is the speaking profession any different? I also refuse to accept that due to the economy, our industry no longer should or expect to be paid! Really? Lots seem to think so, but I am all for being a “pioneer” in wanting to change what the “norm” has become in this industry! “Are we in it to win it?” I know we can! Thanks Adrian for all you do!

  12. Hi – just this article. I agree. I am part of the product that is being sold. Even a token is useful. I have spoken at about 250 conferences. The thrill of staying in nice hotels is long gone. A consequence of not paying speakers is simple….speakers turn presentations into sales pitches. How often do speakers present their work — and their books — rather than a comprehensive overview of something. Consultants who speaker are often the worst at this. A second consequences is that you start to get generic conferences…..same speaker, same talk, different audience. This goes back to weak conference design — what is the conference designed to achieve? As a speaker, too many conferences have no real objectives.

    1. Good points Ed. In the end the quality of conferences suffers because only newcomers and the generous speak for free or presenters turn their talks into pitches to try and make money some other way.

    2. Also whether something becomes a sales pitch depends on the company involved. In every commercial conference, there are usually two key sides, the buyers and the sellers. Of course there might be other players as well, academics, etc.The buyers are invited to speak and the sellers are invited to exhibit or book as delegates.

      So the sellers in that given market usually present a case study, and the buyers, if they want to present, as opposed to/or on top of exhibiting, can of course present but we try and make sure that it’s not a sales pitch.

      Direct sales pitches usually don’t work because they do not engage the audience, that is why other approaches usually work better, even for vendors, so it’s a win win situation.

      Vendors can do demos, and showcase the product in the exhibition area etc. which of course works as well, as I find that delegates/buyers want to know more about the product and what is available on the market, it’s just that they want to hear about it in a format/way that is engaging, that’s all. So the key is to find a way to engage with the audience.

      Not paying a fee in itself will not actually turn anything into a sales pitch. In fact professional speakers whos job it is to speak are much more likely to turn into a sales pitch after a while, in my experience.

      1. Andrea, I see that you specialize in business-to-business conferences, where the circumstances you describe are common. In general, pretty much everyone at a B-to-B conference, including the speakers, is already being paid (probably a salary) by some company to attend. I suspect that most of the rest of the commenters here work mainly, as I do, in the association conference sphere where the issues we’ve been raising are much more pertinent.

  13. I personally usually look for speakers who are from the industry and can offer a case study, so they will get the visibility and access to the conference, however I do not normally look for speakers who speak, I look for industry representatives who work in that given industry and are speaking to share.

    Having said that I tend to produce certain types of events and have not produced every type, so what I do applies to the type of events I tend to be involved in.

    I also usually look for speakers who are difficult to get and who rarely speak. Expenses is one thing that may be covered, depending on the organisation, the conference etc.

    There is also usually a budget for trainers, who are holding trainings. That’s a product slightly different from the usual conference, in that it’s much more work for the trainer and offers less visibility for them, hence the fee.

    1. Andrea, I’m not sure you really respond to the points in my piece. Why don’t you pay your industry speakers? What puts them in a different category from, say, yourself? “Visibility” doesn’t put bread on the table, and (presumably free) access to the conference is nice, but represents the bare minimum of token compensation in my opinion.

      Again, speaking for myself, I have to disagree with your statement about trainers having to do much more work than a presenter. I have done both, and the work to prepare and deliver a good presentation is just as extensive as the work a training requires.

  14. Okay, I know this discussion has probably run it’s course (never!) but I wanted to share something a speaker I love told me recently. When people ask him to speak for free because they don’t have a budget…or…my favorite…we’re a not-for-profit he says, sure, he’ll speak for free, but he charges $30,000 for travel because he loves speaking but he hates traveling.

    But honestly, this whole thing doesn’t bother me at all anymore. I could care less when conference organizers don’t pay their speakers. I just simply don’t speak for them anymore. If I’m thinking about attending a conference and I don’t know anyone who can vouch for it I ask them if they pay their speakers. If not…and they are charging me to go…I don’t attend.

    It’s actually quite simple.

    1. Traci, we just came across this thread and we must say we completely agree with you. Convention Nation hears your pain, and we will encourage our attendees to review the speakers at the events they attend. If your theory is correct, the unpaid speakers will stand out in the comments.

    1. Here are some reasons I can think of. Other ideas are welcome!

      – When you’re supporting a worthy cause/organization that can’t afford you, as a pro-bono contribution to doing something good.
      – When you are a novice and the exposure and experience is worth it.
      – IMPORTANT. When the contracting entity can give you something other than money that is of value to you. Examples: free access to their expensive product/facilities/services for a future period, access to their members for research purposes, recognition via a high-visibility or prestigious award, two weeks staying free in a rich member’s vacation home in some exotic place, etc.

  15. I realized quickly that the whole thing about meeting planners not paying speakers isn’t going away anytime soon. That’s why I get my own sponsors and I’m usually the only breakout speaker at a conference who gets paid. That’s why I started Speaker Sponsor, for that reason.

    1. That’s an interesting idea Julie. I have to say, though, that most conference organizers would not, in my experience, allow you to include your external sponsor’s logo/brand on room signage or conference kiosks as your website suggests.

  16. A related pet peeve is groups that book the most expensive hotel in town and then want to low ball the speaker or team building facilitator. I have even had non-profits ask if I would speak for free after they had booked one of the most expensive hotels in the area and realized there was nothing left in the budget for professional development. This is definitely putting the cart before the horse. I guess the answer should be “Sure if you can convince my landlord (or the bank that holds my mortgage) to let me stay in my house for free this month and the grocery store to let me have my groceries for free, I will be happy to speak for free.

    The sad part is that it isn’t just companies with budget challenges pulling these stunts. Just this week a company in the financial sector contacted us and asked if we could do team building for a very large group for $30 – $40 a person. You guessed it, they were already locked into a contract with the most expensive hotel in town. Sorry….my mother did not give birth to any stupid children.

  17. This forum is great! Why don’t we start our own speech delivery organization? TEDEAD.com 🙂 Bad idea?

  18. Here’s one I haven’t heard before. Today I was asked by a for-profit company to be on a panel about online meetings. No mention of payment. When I inquired, I got the following reply:

    “We’re a pre-revenue company so our panels aren’t paid engagements.”

    I will try that next time I need a plumber. “I am a pre-revenue homeowner, so our repair opportunities aren’t paid engagements.” Sure to work.

  19. I have a question. I work for a small non-profit and host events…in person events I pay for the speakers’ food and all other activities (including river rafting). When in person event the cost of the event is covered in ticket price.

    I am thinking about hosting a free online event but that means I won’t have money coming in. So how should a speaker be compensated?

    1. The quick answer to your question is “Ask them!” You wouldn’t decide how much to pay a plumber to fix your toilet or a hairdresser to cut your hair; you’d ask them.

      So explain your situation and ask your speaker how they would like to be compensated. Don’t pitch that they should do it for free. Ask them. That’s a respectful (and normal) thing to do when asking someone to do something for you.

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