How I Make My Decisions to Speak at Conferences

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Consultants who make money speak at conferences. I love to speak. Give me a microphone—I am a happy person.

I keep having to turn down speaking requests, both domestic and overseas. I would love to go, to learn and to meet people. Sometimes, I'm not available.  More often, I can't “afford” to do so. Often, the actual money is only a part of the decision.

The decisions I make are about my product development and my Costs of Delay.

Context Free Questions Help Me Decide

I know that I will write and speak about what I want to be known for over the course of a year. I know I will create on-site and virtual workshops. I know I will speak, coach, consult.

The question is how much of each?

Here are some questions I ask when I receive a speaking request:

  • Am I available?
  • Is this something I want to be known for?
  • Is this topic something I enjoy speaking about?
  • What will I gain from participating?
  • What will I lose from participating?
  • Is the request far enough in advance that I can manage the request?

These are context-free questions. Note that they apply to any speaking request.

Here's an example. A conference that required international travel asked me to speak as a track talk about 45 days in advance. They paid coach airfare and my hotel room for the entire conference because it was a track talk. No hotel reimbursement before or after the two days of the conference. I would have needed more than 15 hours of travel to manage the request.

BTW, I'm not offended by a track talk. More of “my” people come to a track talk. I would rather speak to 10 engaged potential clients rather than 5000 unengaged people who feel trapped at a keynote.

I said no. The organizer asked why not. I explained I would need to arrive early to manage my jet lag. I also said that to cross an ocean, I require business class airfare. (Business class is about sleeping. It has nothing to do with food or drink. I rarely eat when flying to Europe. Flying west is often different and depends on where I start.)

Because they didn't reimburse business airfare and more hotel nights, I couldn't afford the hit to my business.

Now, that's international. Domestic might be a different issue.

When I speak for a domestic audience, I run through my questions. I speak at conferences to explore new ideas and gain clients. I do see my speaking as marketing. Then, I ask this question about what I will lose from participating:

How much will it cost me to speak at this conference?

I have a number of out-of-pocket costs: transportation to/from the airport both ways, airfare, hotel nights, food.

Notice that I didn't count the conference registration. I expect conference registration. If you want me to participate in the conference, you're “paying” me to be there by including full conference registration in the speaker honoraria.

There is also the cost to my business—the Cost of Delay. When I'm at a conference, I'm conferring. I'm not writing. I'm not creating or delivering workshops. I'm not coaching or consulting. I'm at the conference.

If you've ever seen consultants fly in, give their talk, and fly out, that's the reason. The money (their Cost of Delay) they lose by speaking at the conference doesn't make sense for them. These people don't receive enough value to speak and stay at the conference. The honorarium isn't enough.

What's the Honorarium?

What should a conference offer to make it easy for speakers to speak? Here's a possible list:

  • Airfare. Not a flat fee reimbursement for any speaker, but all of a given speaker's airfare.
  • Hotel rooms, including before and after, especially if the conference is near a weekend. If you, as a conference organizer, negotiate your hotel contract right, those extra nights will pay for themselves in lower room rental or food and beverage costs.
  • An honorarium. This doesn't have to be money, although I prefer money. You might buy one of my books for everyone who registers. I've conducted private sessions with local managers, a one-day preconference or postconference workshop. You might offer me something else that would make sense for both of us.

Make it easy for me to say yes to you.

Notice that I did not list a speaker dinner, or a tour, or anything else that wasn't about making my time worthwhile.

(Rant on conference food:  When you tell me breakfast is included and it only has carby things, that's not breakfast. Even if I still ate carbs, speakers need protein and fat to have the mental energy that goes with delivering a great talk. When you feed me a conference lunch without a single green vegetable, I can't maintain my health. Great speakers maintain their health and food is the fastest way to maintain or wreck it. And the happy hours? I'm a speaker. I can't afford to get sloshed. I'll ruin my reputation. Rant off.)

I have had to leave speaker dinners at 9 pm without having been served because I was the keynote speaker at 8:30 am and I need my sleep. (I travel with meal replacement bars because this occurs way too often.)

As for tours: I don't want to tour for 12 hours and then speak the next day at 8:30. I want to get adequate exercise of my choice and then sleep so I awake refreshed and ready.

Even before I had vertigo, I used caution on pre-conference activities. You're not paying me to speak and yawn.

And, that's really the key for conference speaking. You're paying me in some way: with marketing, with reimbursement of expenses, with an honorarium.

Everyone Defines Value Differently

What is valuable to a conference organizer might not be valuable to a speaker.

Too often, conferences (like managers) want to manage their costs. That's a great idea. The question for conferences (like managers) is this: How could you arrange things so you increase value for the participants and the speakers?

When you ask me to speak ask yourself this: What would make it possible for me to say yes? Is this something I've been writing or speaking about in other venues? Is this something your conference would value? How can you make me an offer that's a win-win for both of us?

My Decision-Making Works for Me

If you think this sounds a little like how to make decisions for a consultant's project portfolio, you're right. Everyone's project portfolio is different because everyone values their options differently.

I use context-free questions to clarify my thinking. I ask about the honorarium because my time is worth your money. And, I'm asking you to consider that what is valuable to you might not be valuable to me.

When you offer me a win-win for my speaking, I can deliver a great talk, meet with the participants, and make it worthwhile for all of us.

I love to speak at conferences. I'm willing to travel almost anywhere, assuming the circumstances are right. And, I might not be the right speaker for you.

(Update: I wrote a book, Write a Conference Proposal the Conference Wants and Accepts that incorporates this and all the other conference proposal posts.)

10 thoughts on “How I Make My Decisions to Speak at Conferences”

  1. I love the questions that you shared; when I first started speaking at events, I found myself saying yes to everything. Over time, I’ve learned to be more selective in the speaking opportunities I apply for and accept.

    And I 100% agree with your conference food rant–I’ve found myself going out for meals in order to have healthier options at some events, which adds to my costs to attend.

    1. Thanks. I found that once I was more selective, I made more money from conferences and the organizers appreciated me more. Yeah, I should not rant any more about conference food…

  2. Great post, Johanna. Really resonated with me about speaker health and energy.

    I can’t fly overnight across an ocean and bounce right into giving a keynote or full-day workshop the day after I land. There’s no way I can do that and provide a great learning experience for participants.

    I don’t need biz class (yet!), but I do insist on premium economy to get a decent night’s sleep, plus a full day after the day I land to begin acclimatizing to the time zone. And I’d far rather conferences spent their money on healthy meals and decent breakfasts with protein than on a noisy, boozy late night speakers’ dinner with over-rich food. (End rant.)

    I’m finding that more conferences are beginning to get this when I explain what I need and why. The #paytospeak movement is helping as well.

    1. Fiona, thanks. Yes, we are both thinking about value for the participants, the reason we’re traveling in the first place. (Yeah, don’t get me going on the food again!)

      When we articulate our value, we can then help our clients decide what to charge participants and how to organize the conference so everyone wins.

  3. Question: Should they pay panelists as well as speakers? Four panelists would cost more than a speaker, and it’s not clear that they should also be paid.

    I used to attend a lot of trade shows and conferences as press, and I too was frustrated by the food issue. Far too often I see pastries offered as the only breakfast option. As much as I love sweets, experience has shown I am better off if I do not eat that much fat and starches on an empty stomach. This is why I made sure to stop by McD’s for a breakfast sandwich on my way to the show or conference.

    1. Nate, if your role as a panelist is to provide some sort of value: educational, inspirational, humor, then the answer is yes. Might they pay you less? Sure. Might they ask you to do this as part of your other speaker responsibilities? Sure.

      I offer to do “whatever they want” as part of my negotiations. If I’m speaking at least once, I’m happy to do a panel for “free.” We’ve already negotiated my fee and other honoraria. I’m happy to make life easy for them.

      You and I bring tremendous value to conferences. We didn’t get to where we are by parroting what other people said. We each (in different areas) provide significant value. We took time to learn it. (I’m reminded of the quote about the time to fix something vs the experience to know where to look. Argh, can’t remember that quote.) Why wouldn’t we be paid for that value?

      1. You’re right. I’ll keep that in mind for next time, and at least hold out for non-financial compensation – getting a free booth on the show floor, for example.

        1. Excellent idea. There are lots of ways to compensate us speakers for our time and our insights. I’m firmly in the camp of making this a win-win.

  4. Harlan Ellison said when you pick my brain, you pick my pockets. No one in their right mind works for free, or “exposure” hustles. Plumbers don’t plumb for “exposure” and firemen don’t polsh the truck for under $150K per annum in the West coast. Great article about having to stay vigilant with american hustlers and hucksters looking for freebies.

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