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Why I won’t speak at a conference for free

Sporadically, I am invited to speak at various conferences. Last week, for instance, I was invited to speak at one focussing on private equity in Africa. I assume it is because I founded Crowdfund.

I would have been a part of a panel, although I was also invited to submit a proposal for a solo talk if I wanted to. (I did so, and it was warmly received.)

The delegates are paying R16 105 to attend the conference and the workshops. (Not sure if VAT is included in that).

The speakers are being paid nothing. It, apparently, is not in the organiser’s policy.

I think this sucks for two reasons:

1. I wouldn’t get paid if I presented.
2. The delegates are paying R16 100 to attend a conference to listen to speakers who are comfortable with not being paid. In other words, they are not professional speakers.

I was told that I am getting “exposure”. That may be, but I am not really looking for exposure in the private equity field. Plus, I must have some exposure there already, since they found me and invited me to speak.

I have long ago made the decision that if you want me to speak for you, or write for you or consult for you … if you are making money, so am I.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very, very happy to speak for free. I love to speak. I will speak for free at any conference that does not charge attendance or that does but just so that costs are covered etc (Tech4Africa falls into this category … I am thrilled to be speaking there, and would actually pay to do so).

Also, I think that not paying speakers is a VERY bad business model. Let’s do some maths: say you are going to have 10 speakers and you are going to pay each of them R10 000 to speak. That will cost you R100 000.

Now, let’s say you are expecting 200 delegates. R100k divided by 200 = R500. So you would have to charge each delegate R16 600 instead of R16 100. BUT, you would be getting 10 relatively high calibre speakers which would be worth FAR more than R500 to the delegate. Surely, if you are paying R16,100 to hear speakers that are happy to speak for free, then you would be really scoring to hear speakers who are slightly more professional. Also, a good speaker is a drawcard for the conference, thus increasing the paying attendance.

So who is going to be speaking for free? Only those who want to benefit from the exposure, which means they are standing at the podium with a hidden agenda. That’s not fair to the paying delegates. Especially if they are paying more than R16 000.

It goes without saying that most speakers who get paid to speak, will immediately treat the engagement more professionally and will put more effort into the presentation content, which bodes well for the paying delegates.

On a slightly different note: the more conferences I attend (local and international) the more I think that the traditional conference model is broken. Paying thousands of rands or dollars to hear unscreened presenters speak is a waste not only of money, but also of time. Getting spoken TO is not nearly as good as speaking WITH. At the recent SxSW conference in Austin (at which I actually did speak), the model is far better (but not perfect): there are about 20 tracks on at any given time and the talks are much more personal and interactive. As a member of the audience, you not only get the opportunity to *really* target what you want to listen to (the choice is so vast), but you have a very good chance of interacting with the speaker during the presentation should you need to.

Conferences are money-making businesses. In fact, they are huge money-making businesses. And most companies that run them get away with poor speakers, shoddy presentation techniques and end up with an unimpressed audience. The biggest reason for this is that conferences are seen as a money-making exercise rather than an educational exercise and are put on by the wrong people.

There is an easy solution to this: if you get asked to speak, and you know you would be adding value to the conference if you accepted the invite, insist on getting paid. If your request gets declined, the organisers will have to dig deep into the barrels for alternative speakers, which will result in a weak conference, which will result in the organisers struggling to put on the next one. Let them fix their own errors.

One can only hope.


  • Eve Dmochowska spends her day playing on and with the Internet, and thinks it is a rather fun way to make money. She is the founder of Crowdfund, a crowd sourced fund to help local online startups get off the ground, and of the Geekspace, Joburgs first hot desking space for geeks. She is also the co-founder of The Broadband Bible which helps SAfricans find the perfect ADSL plan and the Airtime Bible, which compares the costs of cellphone contracts.