UXPaul McAleer

On Paying Conference Speakers

UXPaul McAleer

This week’s UX topic carousel is, apparently, “Should conferences pay their speakers?” (The answer is yes, of course, by the way, but I guess that’s being debated.)

Anyway, Patrick Neeman put together an argument about everything that goes into running a conference. The bottom line is: it’s expensive and it’s hard. This, ideally, is no surprise to you, dear reader. Conferences are hard! And conferences are a lot of work. And they’re expensive. All true. I don’t disagree.

What bothers me, amongst other things, is this closing point.

Getting a speaker honorarium is an honor, not a privilege. Unless they are offer money in the initial email, there’s a good chance you’re not getting paid. Most conferences choose their keynotes before they open up for submissions, and just to be even considered is a big deal unless you’re part of the speaker circuit. Some speakers toil for years without getting paid. They spent years building their brand through networking and promotion. Don’t desecrate their hard work.

First up, no. Getting paid at a conference that is charging admission and taking in money, even if it is a small amount, is not an honor. As always, getting paid in exposure doesn’t pay the rent, nor the water bill, nor get food on the table.

But what really got me – what really got me good – was the closing couple lines.

“Some speakers toil for years without getting paid. They spent years building their brand through networking and promotion. Don’t desecrate their hard work.”

In short? That’s really too bad. Those speakers chose to speak for no money. There is no reason for that to continue. There is hard work there, yes. But only speakers with an enormous amount of privilege can afford to do that very thing. This to me read very, very much as a defensive, “Well, they got theirs! Too bad!” argument. It’s ultimately not fair to those speakers either, but they also made the choice to do it for zero dollars. That doesn’t mean up-and-coming folks, or people who want to get fairly paid for this, aren’t entitled to it. (Yes, entitled.) People should get paid for their work. Conference speaking is work.

The problem isn’t that people are asking to be paid. The problem is that the current setup only favors and supports people who can afford not to be paid.