Conferences have come a long way in the last 30 or so years.
When I started attending conferences, as an undergraduate student, the model for conferences based around academic researchers presenting their work to each other, see what is current in the field, and help to advance their field of study by establishing new paradigms and areas of study. Students, professors, and other researchers at the university level were (and still are) expected to present their findings to the community and we would all meet at a venue to attend each other’s talks and paper presentations. Presenting research was a ticket to published articles, professorship, and tenure It was a way of life. We paid to attend — or our organization paid for us to attend — and this was life.
As I moved into technology as a career and away from academia, I started attending more trade shows and vendor-hosted events. Somewhere along the way I began to attend conferences hosted by various associations and membership organizations. The latest evolution is from attendee, to attendee/presenter, and on to presenter. There was even a short period of time (two or three years) where I led the planning for a conference, and a couple of other years where served on the organizing committee for a few different conferences. Suffice it to say, I’ve been participating in conferences in one fashion or another for a long time.
Over the last five or so years, I’ve spoken at a quite a few of conferences. Small and large, and everything in between. I’ve facilitated workshops at these events, moderated panels, and even occasionally run special sessions adjacent to the main conference. With three exceptions, I’ve never been explicitly compensated for any of my services at these conferences, and while I’m not necessarily upset about it, I’ve been thinking a lot about why and what this means for technology as an industry and for experts in the field.
For conference attendees, technology conferences are about learning new things and keeping up with an industry that is always changing, and changing quickly. For early career folks, it’s an opportunity to learn, network and build community. For more seasoned analysts, conferences are also an opportunity to establish themselves as an expert in their field. For professional speakers like me, presenting at conferences is one of the ways that I can share insights, my own research, and discuss topics that are important in my professional and passion communities.
For the conference organizer(s) and the organization hosting the conference, great speakers attract attendees and boost ticket sales, which yields name recognition and revenue. Great speakers also help the conference by offering quality education and hands-on experience to their attendees which may allow the organizers to boost revenue.
Is “exposure” enough?
Many conferences offer exposure to attendees, which is particularly important for those folks who are mid-career and looking to establish themselves as expert in there are. But let’s be real: “Exposure” only goes so far, and it doesn’t pay the bills. If I’m an early career person looking to make a name for myself, exposure is important. If my organization is willing to pay for me to attend the conference, or a I can afford to pay for myself, this is a wonderful way to establish myself.
If I’m a solopreneur or I’m bankrolling my own attendance for another reason, exposure is not really helpful. The problem is that the people who are most in need of exposure are the people most harmed by being paid with “exposure.” Typically, these are those people who are historically excluded from the field. In tech, this means people of color, women and people of underrepresented genders.
Pay to play … er, speak
Virtual conferences have been a boon for speakers and presenters like me — at least to some degree. There are more opportunities for a wider variety of speakers from more diverse backgrounds, and no travel time means we can attend conferences around the world. The downside is that conferences still cost money, and the norm for presenters outside of a special keynote is that we pay to speak.
Virtual conferences have significantly reduced the financial burden of getting to and staying at a conference, but most conferences require that all attendees, including speakers/presenters, are required to pay a registration fee. The technical conferences that I attend normally have registration fees anywhere from $150 to $1,500. Average expenditure per attendee based on 2019 was about $1,200. Even if you assume half of that is lodging that wouldn’t have been necessary during the pandemic, it’s still a lot of money to register for a conference.
In the last year and a half, I’ve been asked to speak multiple times at various virtual events, and with one exception, the expectation has always been that I register for the event and pay the registration fee. No matter that I was invited and I was not actually attending anything other than my own session. I’m not the only one this happens to.
Evolution of an outdated model
International science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) conferences have become standard features of life for folks in these fields. From about the turn of the 20th century, people (mostly men, but that’s another article) would gather in groups to discuss scientific advances. Technology has had a huge boom in the last 30 years and we’ve moved way beyond consumer sales shows. Conferences like SXSW, SpiceWorld, Esri’s Annual User Conference and USGIF GEOINT are networking and educational opportunities, as well as trade shows. There have been many organizational changes within conferences over the years, so why are we still working with a pay to speak model?
Change the channel
We need to change the way we run conferences. To step up and actually increase diversity of presenters at technical conferences, we need to make conferences more accessible. One way to do this is to pay speakers, or at least provide some form of compensation, particularly to those who have historically been excluded from the opportunity.
I’d like to see the conference model change to benefit both the conference AND the speaker, and not just as another line on a list of presentations that accompanies a resume or portfolio. I would like to see conference organizers prioritize paying speaker fees to all speakers not just keynote speakers and workshop facilitators. The effort that goes into creating and delivering a presentation takes time and effort, and speakers should be compensated. Virtual conferences have shown us that we can make conferences more accessible geographically; let’s make them more accessible in more ways.
- Offer scholarships to attendees and honorariums for speakers
- Create programs to sponsor speakers
- Encourage authors to sell books at our conferences
- Think outside the box to develop new ways and a new model that rewards speakers financially and not just with the prospect of more “credibility”
The best way to improve on the success that we have had with technology conferences is to tell our presenters that we value their participation and their work — with words, with opportunities and with compensation.