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Speaking At Conferences, Should You Be Compensated?

Posted by on December 22, 2010

Speaking at conferences is a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work.  When I speak at an event I like to think that I am providing something unique both in terms of content and in terms of presentation. Sometimes I get approached to speak and sometimes I submit requests to speak.  The question of compensation always comes up.  Most recently I submitted to speak at an international conference and was met with a lot of enthusiasm for my topic, but at the end of the email it said “you will have to pay for your own, visa, travel accommodations, and all expenses.”  Huh!?  My out of pocket expense to speak at this event would have been over $2,000 just for expenses, not to mention the time it would take me to put everything together, travel, and then present.

Why would a speaker pay out of pocket to speak at someone else’s event when the speaker is the one bringing in the content, the new ideas and perspectives, and educating the attendees?  It’s a bit like taking your car to a mechanic and then asking the mechanic to give you money to work on your car, it just doesn’t make sense.  The traditional response from conferences organizers is, “you will get exposure.”  So? Exposure means eyeballs and if there’s anything we’ve learned so far with social media it’s that eyeballs don’t really matter that much.  You don’t want exposure you want leads and deals closed, and no conference can usually guarantee that.  I don’t tell the mechanic he should pay me to work on my car because he gets exposure and other people will see how great of a job he did on my car.  So how should speakers be properly compensated?

Most speakers have a particular speaking rate that they charge depending on the event, whether it’s a public or private event, if it’s a keynote or breakout session, etc.  Either way you’re usually looking at a speaking fee of somewhere around a few thousand dollars.  In fact, there are plenty of people out there that charge around $10k+ to speak on social business topics. The next thing to consider are the travel accommodations and expenses.  I’m pretty avid at the minimum to NEVER have to cover my own expenses, that’s silly.  If a conference truly believes that you are going to be adding value to their event then at the very least they should cover all of your expenses to speak, sure there are some exceptions.

The big problem we see today is the whole notion of “pay to play,” meaning “you can speak at our conference if you pay us thousands of dollars.”  Which many of the top conferences out there employ because at the end of the day they need to make a profit, but sadly the audience members are left with hearing sales pitches and product demos by the “speakers” who paid to speak!  In an ideal world speakers should be selected based on what they can bring to the event not based on how much they are willing to pay.

I’m getting a bit tired and irritated with conference organizers that are not compensating their speakers or worse, that are asking the speakers to spend money out of pocket to speak.  I don’t even know how some of these organizers have the nerve to even ask that?  Not only that but many of the conferences are charging THOUSANDS of dollars to attend and oftentimes re-hash the same content, same ideas, and same concepts as they did the year before.  A lot of conferences (at least in the social space) are starting to become a joke, and they are all starting to sound alike.  How many social media conferences are there a year?  Who knows, thousands!

There are so many fantastic speakers out there that spend their time researching topics and ideas and making their presentations top notch only to be left empty handed.  Speaking at a conference is akin to taking on a new client and you don’t work for free so why should you speak for free?  That’s a poor business model and a poor way to allocate your time.

I’ve spoken at many local conferences in San Francisco and in those situations, sure, I can walk over to the venue or take a quick cab ride; and while I’d prefer to be compensated for my time at those events that oftentimes doesn’t happen.  Still, I do speak at those events because I get to practice speaking in front of a crowd, might get some good connections, and don’t spend money out of pocket.  Every year I do several paid speaking gigs and a few that that I’m not paid for directly but my expenses are 100% covered.  At the end of the day it’s a business decision you have to make as to which events you want to speak at and how much you should be compensated.

So if you’re a speaker please make sure you get compensated for your time and effort, at the very least your expenses should be covered 100%  If not, then don’t bother with the event (unless it’s something local you can just walk to or drive to).

If you’re a conference organizer please show enough respect to the folks you are asking to speak by compensating them and covering their expenses (at the very LEAST cover all of their expenses).  Don’t you think it’s fair to pay the people that are making your event come to life and are attracting the attendees?  Let’s stop the bullshit.

  • Hey Jacob,

    I used to struggle with this several years back… As someone who's been on both sides of the fence (organizer and speaker), I hear what you're saying, but at the end of the day, I don't see a lot changing with the current model. In fact, in the last 8 years of speaking engagements (as far back as I've been speaking + tracking the results), over 50% of my leads have come from my speaking endeavors. I've paid to speak (nationally and internationally) in the form of airfare and hotels and have been paid well to do the same. Each engagement is a judgement-call, in my opinion. I actually have a 2-page document (unpublished…a bit too course for public consumption) that I call “how to get the most from non-paid speaking engagements” and I refer to it (less so now…it's mostly in my head) when I'm approach for a gratis engagement where I'm paying my way to get there. There are a host of reasons why those events are still worthwhile and another host of reasons why organizers can still put together events where we'll all pay to be there.

    Personally, I believe that the conference organizers do show a healthy dose of respect to the “talent” simply by asking them vs. someone else to speak. While that may not go all that far, it is something.

    In terms of covering expenses, and this is coming from the organizer side, there's a market equilibrium issue at play here where you *could* get paid…if the conference fee went way, way up. And if it did that, attendance would go way, way down. I'm sure that you've seen what it costs to put on events at some places and if you're in the business of running conferences (we only do it part time) you know just how expensive they can be.

    I certainly wish that I had a solution (save for working harder, speaking more and becoming the keynote or plenary session speaker, who is often paid when the breakouts are not) rather than just piling on, but perhaps a valid POV nonetheless.

    I'd love to see what solutions/ideas the other commenters come up with.

    • jacobmorgan

      Hi Danavan,

      Sadly, I don't see much changing with the current model either but it's great to hear that 50% of your leads have been coming from conferences, as I mentioned above I'm sure that happens for some folks but I doubt for the majority. Definitely agree with you, each speaking gig is absolutely a judgement call.

      Many conference organizers select speakers based on celebrity status not on business intelligence, practical experience, or smarts. And oftentimes it's the speaker that is asked to submit to speak and the organizers are the ones that then chose folks. If I ask you to come fix my sink and say I won't pay you because you should feel honored that I asked you to do it would you? Probably not.

      Thanks for the comment, glad you stopped by!

  • Hi Jacob,

    Good points! I especially like (or don't like, depending on how you look at it) the one about the presenter having to PAY to speak, and then the audience hears a sales pitch instead of valuable, educational information. Don't you think that the event would want to avoid getting a reputation of bringing in salespeople disguised as educational speakers? By paying the speaker, the event could demand quality content and instill parameters that regulate/limit the sales pitch. Seems like a win-win-win situation to me.

    Also, with the analogy about the mechanic–I think it's faulty because a big part of the pitch that “you'll get your name out there” is dependent on having your name and face in front of the audience. The analogy works if you put a sticker on your car saying it runs thanks to Joe/Jane Mechanic. Instead I like to think of asking a reputable chef to cook for your dinner dinner party. “Hey fancy chef with all of the skills, bring your food on your time and our guests can watch you cook. Maybe they'll hire you for their own party!” <— Pretty lame.

    Hope you're doing well! Love the cute pics of you and Blake from the photoshoot. 🙂


    • jacobmorgan

      Hey Lauren,

      Great to hear from you again. So I'll let the mechanic fix my car for free provided that 100 people get to watch, still no mechanic out there would do it 🙂

  • Jean Marie Bonthous

    Well said, Jacob, I wholly support what you say.
    I'm not sure that , as Danavan writes, “conference organizers do show a healthy dose of respect to the “talent” simply by asking them vs. someone else to speak.” It may be that all the people that they have contacted before, have declined their unfair offer….
    Regarding the “market equilibrium” issue at play, it does not have to be black or white. Conference organizers, instead of trying to make killer profits, could opt for a more sustainable model where they create goodwill.
    How about some transparency in social media conferences accounting? My sense is that if someone had the inclination to do this, and stand for win-win arrangements between speakers, organizers and attendees, he/she would get not only a lot of good press but a lot of attention from speakers and potential attendees alike. The conference business as we see it is just what it was 50 years ago. It may be time to reinvent it, and bring a new spirit to it…

    • jacobmorgan

      Hi Jean,

      That would certainly be interesting wouldn't it? If conference organizers were transparent about all their costs and accounting? I doubt it will ever happen but hey it would be great to see and I'd be all for it!

  • Jacob, you're clearly pretty heated about this. But as a conference organizer, I have to disagree (in some situations).

    Sure, there are conferences making hundreds of thousands of dollars, and charging attendees an arm and a leg, and perhaps those should pay you. But I think a LOT of attendees, and a handful of speakers, really don't understand the cost of a conference. I put together conferences for a living. My goal is to make them as affordable as I can for quality attendees, meaning tickets range from $50 – $500, depending on when you sign up. And guess what? I don't pay a single speaker and still walk away with just enough profit to pay my debts for the months I worked on the show.

    You can read a more complete layout of my thoughts on how paying speakers mis-alligns your interests here (…/) – but in a nutshell:

    1) When you ask for $15k, you are making an assumption that you are bringing $15k of value to the event. Really? Are you going to help me sell $15k worth of tickets? If you are, I will happily pay you. But Im doubtful. And $15k is about half of my entire budget for the event (most of my conferences are small, >500 person events and cost me about $30k to produce, and I walk away with about $17k in profits – there's transparency for someone below asking.) I work on client events that make more, but also cost more, and have to pay more hands for their production.

    2) If you aren't getting value from being there, then perhaps you are choosing the wrong events to speak at, or not handling the networking at them well. I have seen speakers get acquired by a sponsor at 2 of my client shows, after the producer introduced them. I have had attendees ask me for introductions to speakers to start business with them. I had a speaker at FailCon say they saw their site traffic triple – and say a relative boost in revenue – that day and the following week.

    Now the above of course also depends on a strong organizer who will be on the side of his/her speakers – introducing them to the right people, helping them prepare a strong presentation, and making sure the best ears and eyes are in the room. But I prefer to work with my speakers to create a high value add for everyone there, not just pay them to do a job and leave the show.

    Just my two cents from an organizer's perspective. Overall, I'd say there are other ways to respect speakers than just paying them.

    And, as mentioned in the post I linked to above, this really just applies to startup/social media conferences where almost every attendees is a possible client for speakers – and predominantly those that don't charge attendees thousands.

    • jacobmorgan

      Hi Cass,

      Thanks for the transparency and the honesty but to play devils advocate why should the speaker or the attendees need to know or even care about how much it costs to run a conference? When I purchase a product or service from a company I don't care how much it costs them to make it (such as if I buy a computer from Dell). When I go eat at a restaurant I don't care nor do I want to know how much it costs them to make a dish I'm eating. So I think the point of how much it costs to run a conference is a bit irrelevant for the speakers and the attendees.

      1) You're making the assumption that value is the same as return which are two very different things. The amount that value something is not the same as the amount of return you are expecting to get out of it. Assigning value is along topic but it's actually a big part of how I price client engagements, however value and return are not the same thing. I've never charged or asked for 15k to speak at a conference, but that would be nice 🙂

      2) Totally agree with you, as a speaker if I'm not getting value out of the event then why bother attending? However I still view speaking at events almost as client engagements. Consultants and speakers shouldn't offer their services based on the promise of potentially getting more business, because at the end of the day promises don't pay the bills. Now again, there are exceptions and I'm sure some speakers have received some great business from the events. It's an individual business decision that everyone needs to make.

      At the minimum I believe conference organizers should at least cover expenses for the speakers. I honestly think many speakers out there are a bit desperate for client work and exposure so they speak at any event any time they can, however, these speakers are not the one's that organizers should be picking to speak at their events. Actually, most of the social media conferences out there are usually filled with other social media people. The best place for a speaker to get business is not a conference where there are plenty of other people that do the exact same thing the speaker does. Speakers with expertise should be speaking at conferences where the clients are not where their friends and other social media people are.

      Thanks for the comments and for your transparency!

  • Spot on Jacob!

    • jacobmorgan


  • You know, I think it's the speakers' fault here. If the would stop selling the time for peanuts, they'd be paid money. Many are just happy to be taken “seriously” and think it's cool to appear, even if they pay for this. I have done some events like this, but the events were FREE for all to attend and we wanted to promote blogging in my city. But for anything that would actually mean I have costs to attend, would mean I need money. I don't design sites for free, can't see why I should speak for free at a “commercial” event (meaning people pay to attend).

    • jacobmorgan

      Hi Ramona,

      Sure, it may be the speakers' fault for accepting the speaking deal, I mean at the end of the day there is no right or wrong here, if the speaker thinks it's a good idea then who am I to argue with them? As I mentioned above, there are always exceptions, such as when the event is free as you mentioned.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Lon Safko

    Wow! Well written! I agree completely! They're asking us to share 20 to 30 years of marketing knowledge to their audience so they can make a profit on their event and expect us to either work for free, or worse, pay to work. I also agree that sometimes, not getting paid to speak is OK. My rule is if the event is non-profit, free, to raise money for a good cause, I will consider it. If the promoter is charging the audience, he's paying the speakers of I don't play. I also agree with the term “exposure”. It can pay off, but often doesn't. Exposure is a by-product for us all, including the promoter for their next conference.

    It's also amazing how many desperate people there are there who jump at the chance to speak for free just to “hawk” their consulting services. There's one group out there doing 150 conferences around the country with more than 400 speakers willing to present fro free. In nearly every case, the promoter get's what they pay for. And when the promoter says, we have a rep from Microsoft, or Google speaking for free, I ask them if that rep “clocks-out” for the presentation and doesn't get paid for that day or are they still on the corporate payroll. That's not free, they're still getting paid.

    As a professional speaker and author I get paid by sharing and teaching you what it took me 30 years to learn. What I share has direct benefit to you and your business. I have to deliver good content with a great take-away value or I'm just wasting everybody's time.

    Often I hear that many of the free speakers are from within the industry. Do you want to try to learn from people who might have stumbled across something accidentally? This isn't what they do for a living. They do what you do. Can your really learn from people who do the same thing you do? It's like asking a third grade student to be the substitute teacher.

    When you hire a speaker, you're hiring a subject matter expert. For me to write an 850 page best selling book on social media, I HAD to know more than everyone else. It's that knowledge and experience makes my presentation worth more than the Xerox guy who figured out how to set up a Facebook page. The bottom line, and that's what we're talking about is… You really do get what you pay for. So, pay for a subject matter expert if you want your audience to learn, benefit, and profit.

    -Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible

  • I think it all depends on the speakers mindset, if his idea is to sell his speech, then he can make more money, if the people are willing to listen to him. Else, if he wants to deliver the information or to share the knowledge, then its most welcomed by many if the speaker is talented.

    Moreover if the speaker is talented and if people are looking for his speech or writings everywhere, or if the speaker is popular, he can make more money. Probably, this could be a source of his livelihood too.
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  • Its a great post. It is a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work. When Ispeak at an event I like to think that I am providing something …

  • Thanks for the transparency and the honesty but to play devils advocate why should the speaker or the attendees need to know or even care about how much it costs to run a conference? When I purchase a product or service from a company I don’t care how much it costs them to make it.

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  • Speaking at conferences in it self is an honor and you get paid when you get good response i dont think you should be paid for that.

  • Rob

    Reading this, it sounds like you’re overgeneralizing your own experience. There are different kinds of conferences and there are different kinds of speakers. You are clearly pursuing some kind of career as a speaker. As such, of course you seek to get paid for your presentations.

    However, “speaking at a conference,” for most academics and professionals does not mean getting paid. Your emphatic “at the very least your expenses should be covered 100%” belies your inexperience with what “conferences” means for most people who attend and speak at conferences. In my field alone (language teaching) there are hundreds of conferences per year, the larger among them with hundreds of presenters. Aside from plenaries and major invited speakers, none of these presenters are paid by the conference organizers. This is standard in academia (which accounts for a pretty major chunk of “conferences”).

    • Nick Borelli

      Sounds like a bad system you are doing nothing to help.

    • Nick Borelli

      Sounds like a bad system you are doing nothing to help.