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Why I Don’t Pay to Speak

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This is a post I have planned to write for the best part of a year, and recent discussions have brought it back to the top of my to do list.  This post is a way for me to collate my feelings about, and stance on, pay to speak.  I also plan to use it as somewhere I can point people to the next time they ask me to submit to a pay to speak event.



0. Important Prefacing Notes

Last Updated: 09.05.18


0.1  Format: I’ll lay out this post in a numbered style so that when I use it as a reference in future, I can point people to specific points, if needed.


0.2  Definition: Pay to speak or “#paytospeak”, as it can often be seen on social media platforms, is when a conference or event forces their speakers to make a monetary loss from agreeing to speak at their events by way of having to cover their own travel and / or accommodation costs in order to physically make it to the event and fulfill their speaking commitment.  Whether the event will only cover accommodation, has a low limit on expenses that is unlikely to cover all costs, or refuses to cover any speaker expense at all, if a speaker has to spend their own money in order to speak, that makes it a pay to speak conference or event.


0.3  Subject and Focus: I want to make it very clear that although recent discussions (at the original time of writing) have sped up my writing and publishing of this post, it is not about any one discussion, conference or event, or any person who has presented the arguments that follow either to me or in a discussion I have been part of.  This post, unless explicitly otherwise stated, is not specific to any one person, organisation, or event.  It is a response to pay to speak as a practice, and the many justifications that different people have given me for carrying out those practices.  Who the justifications have come from is irrelevant in this context.


0.4  Counter-Arguments: The counter-arguments in section 3 have been placed in quotation marks, but this does not necessarily mean that they are exact quotes from real people.  In some cases, the wording is the same as delivered and in others, it has been adapted either due to loss of memory for the exact details or to encapsulate a wider sentiment of the same arguments from multiple sources.  However, I have heard all of them, and have not fabricated any of them.

0.4.1  Update: I’ve taken feedback that, despite my statements in points 0.3 and 0.4, using quotation marks could still be misleading to some and might give people the wrong impression, no matter how unintentionally.  For this reason, I have removed the quotation marks from the counter-arguments and, as suggested by a reader, reworded the counter-arguments to be in my own words as much as possible, without altering the combined sentiment of the original statements, from multiple sources.  I hope this will help to avoid anyone attributing any counter-arguments to a specific person, discussion, or context.


0.5  Free Meet Ups: I consider local meet ups that are free to attend to be in a different space, with other considerations.  This post, as a whole, does not concern local meet ups, although certain points within may still apply.


0.6  Edits and Updates: Since this post has been written in haste (despite taking several hours) and there will always be new considerations, I will most likely make edits or additions in future, to enrich it as a resource and reference for my own use.  If you’d like to reference it for your personal use, you are free to do so by sharing the post URL.  If and when edited, I will note the most recent updated date below.  For clarity, point 0.6.1 shows the last updated date for the post as a whole; dates listed directly under section headings refer to changes made specifically to that section.  The updated date under this section heading ignores any updates to point 0.6.1.

0.6.1  Post Last Updated: 09.05.18



1. Why I Don’t Pay to Speak: Summary Reasons

Last Updated: 30.11.17


1.1  Financial Loss: The vast majority of speakers do not get any financial compensation for the work involved in speaking.  This includes the many hours of preparation, rehearsing, and the actual presentation of the talk.  This means that the vast majority of speakers do not make any money from speaking, and essentially work for free.  With pay to speak, speakers are forced to actually make a financial loss, on top of not being compensated for their work; hence the term “pay to speak”.  I do not believe that speakers should make a financial loss for delivering a talk at a paid event.


1.2  Respect: Speakers make and deliver the vast majority of content at conferences and events; they cannot take place without the speakers.  The very least that organisers can do is pay for their content creators and presenters to physically be able to attend the event.  It is a basic show of respect.


1.3  Imbalance of Profit and Loss: I’ve learned how much profit conferences and events can make from both ticket sales and sponsorship.  They can absolutely afford to pay speakers’ travel and accommodation expenses, and I find it frankly immoral that some organisers have their creators making a financial loss while the organisation profits from their work.  The scales are clearly tipped in the organisers’ favour.


1.4  Diversity and Inclusion: Pay to speak creates a huge diversity and inclusion issue.  By enforcing pay to speak, conferences and events are actively excluding disadvantaged members of our community, and therefore keeping them at a disadvantage.  More on this in the next section.



2. Diversity, Privilege and the Elite

Last Updated: 01.12.17


2.1  Importance: The diversity and inclusion issue around pay to speak is important enough to have its own section, as it extends beyond speakers’ own personal loss.  Diversity and inclusion is an important consideration in our community, industry, and society.


2.2  Privilege: Some speakers can and do pay to speak.  I have done this in the past too.  I have only been able to do this because I have been privileged enough to be in a position where I have had enough money to be able to financially afford to pay to speak.  I have spent in excess of £1000 just to speak at two national events, and this is something that a lot of people simply can’t afford, even if they would be willing to pay.


2.3  Exclusion: By enforcing pay to speak, conferences and events are opening up opportunities only to the people who are privileged enough to be able to afford to comply.  Though there are many benefits to speaking, those who are not in a position to be able to pay to speak will never experience those benefits, therefore keeping the disadvantaged and underprivileged in those positions and creating a space reserved only for the elite.


2.4  Working Privilege: Some organisers have told me that speakers’ employers should pay for their travel and accommodation costs.  There are many issues with this but, sticking with the diversity issue, many people work for companies who are not willing or able to pay expenses for their employees to be out of the business, no matter what the reason is.  For the self-employed, the option of just asking their boss simply does not exist.  Again, this is a matter of privilege.


2.5  Non-Monetary Loss: Money is not the only thing that speakers stand to lose with pay to speak.  Considering my experience of paying to speak while at a previous employer, my expenses included personal financial costs, use of holiday allowance, and (I believe) it also negatively impacted people’s perception of me from within the business for taking time out to speak, even though I was using my holiday allowance to do so.  Depending on circumstances, other people’s expenses or losses might also include childcare costs, time away from loved ones, missed paid work, and more.


2.6  Social Responsibility: I am still in a privileged position where I can afford to pay to speak in many cases.  But for me, this isn’t simply a case of whether I can afford to do something; it’s a case of ethics and social responsibility.  I am lucky enough that I can afford to pay my way into the circle of the elite at pay to speak conferences, but I choose not to.  I choose not to fuel and support the practice of pay to speak by way of participation because I believe in the great importance and benefits of diversity and inclusion.  I know there are so many great minds that we are not currently able to hear from at conferences and events because they are not able to pay to get there.  I choose not to pay to speak because I do not believe in supporting a barrier to inclusion.


2.7  Same Old from the Same Old: With lack of diversity in speakers comes lack of diversity in experience, ideas, and stories.  I’ve heard from many experienced conference-goers that they are tired of seeing the same old talks from the same group of people at conferences around the world.  In some cases, the talks that are circulating around these events haven’t been updated in several years.  Attendees want to see diversity of speakers and, by abolishing pay to speak, we can help to do that by removing the barrier for the underprivileged and opening up opportunities for new speakers who have previously been unable to speak at these events.  Eventually, lack of diversity will be bad for conference organisers too, as people will stop paying to see talks that they’ve already seen years before.



3. Counter-Arguments

Last Updated: 01.12.17


3.1  Travel and accommodation costs are too high for conferences to cover these for all speakers.

They’re also often too high for individual speakers to cover these costs from their own pockets.  Conferences have the funding from ticket sales and sponsors to help cover these costs; speakers do not.


3.2  We don’t cover travel but we provide accommodation, which is very generous.

I’ll be honest, I find this borderline insulting.  It’s one thing to have speakers pay to speak; it’s another thing entirely to try and convince me that it’s generous to do so.  What is generous is that speakers work for free to make your event a success.  The least you can do is pay for them to get to the place where they’ll be working for you.


3.3  We do cover accommodation, we just don’t cover travel.

We are already working for free, we just ask that you cover our travel and accommodation expenses.  Covering accommodation without covering travel is still pay to speak.


3.4  If conferences paid expenses for speakers, they wouldn’t be able to make a profit.

My goal as speaker is not to make a financial loss so that conference organisers can profit.  This is not acceptable justification and, in fact, there are several conferences who do not make speakers pay to speak and still manage to turn a profit.


3.5  The challenge with reimbursement is with the number of speakers.  In the past, there have been literally hundreds of speakers.

That just means you’re exploiting literally hundreds of speakers.  Don’t choose to have that many speakers and then use it as an excuse as to why you can’t afford to pay expenses for that many speakers.  More speakers means more attendees, which means more ticket sales and sponsorship, which means more money to cover speaker expenses.  If that’s not how the numbers are working out for you in reality, you run the conference, so you can easily reduce the number of speakers until the figures work out.


3.6  That other conference might cover expenses, but they have a limit.

Yes, but the limit increases as the distance you have to travel increases, and it is usually enough to cover all costs, so long as you are sensible with your booking choices.  I imagine that the limit is only to help them work out their maximum liability and plan their own expenditure, since I don’t imagine many people going over their set limits.  In any case, pointing fingers at other conferences is just a distraction from your event, which is still pay to speak.


3.7  Track chairs are still required to pay for their own travel.

Then track chairs are being taken advantage of, just like the rest of us.  Just because one person is being exploited, that doesn’t make it okay for me or others to be exploited too.


3.8  Workshops are paid.

How does that help speakers, who still need to pay to speak?  And if expenses aren’t covered for workshop presenters either, what benefit is it to be paid for the workshop if the money just goes towards travel and accommodation that they have to pay for in order to deliver the workshop?


3.9  Only keynote speakers receive compensation for travel expenses.

Not only is this of no use to non-keynote speakers, but it shows me that you believe some are “worthy” of having costs covered and some are not, even though everyone has to put in hours of hard work for the benefit of the conference.  This is not something to be proud of.


3.10  We can negotiate on paying your expenses, but we won’t pay for all speakers.

Please see section 2, point 6 re social responsibility.  This isn’t just about me looking to have my own expenses paid when others still need to pay to speak, and this shouldn’t just be an agreement between you and I.  It should be your policy to cover all speaker expenses without the need to have each individual negotiate for their own.


3.11  You get a free ticket to the conference or event.

And you get my contribution to the content of that conference or event.  Why should I pay for that while you profit from it?


3.12  It’s common practice in the area to only give speakers a free ticket for the conference.

A lot of things that aren’t right are common practice.  We’ve only been able to slowly change some of those things because people who believed in doing the right thing did so, even when others didn’t.  Don’t look to others in order to justify your actions; look to others to learn what you could be doing better.


3.13  We are a non-profit and use the money to give back to the community.

It’s not giving back to the community when you ask members of said community to pay to speak at your conference or event.  And there are other non-profits that organise events and still manage to cover speaker expenses.  If they can do it, why can’t you?


3.14  Speaking at the conference can help to build your reputation and could lead to speaking at other events.

Having us speak at your conference or event can also build your brand reputation and draw in more attendees.  Not to mention that most conferences have speakers promote and market the event to their networks in some way.  Don’t pretend that the exposure and reach is only one-way.  You can’t pay for travel and accommodation with reputation but you can pay for it with ticket sales.


3.15  Speaking at our events could open doors to new clients for contractors and consultants.

And if you’re not a contractor or consultant?  With this mentality, you are encouraging speakers to use their speaking slots for sales pitches, which most audiences detest.  It gives a bad impression of the speaker, degrades the quality of the event, and is bad for everyone.


3.16  Ask your employer to cover travel and accommodation costs.

If you, as the organisation directly benefiting from speakers’ work, are not even willing to cover travel and accommodation costs, what makes you think that another organisation will be happy to do it instead?  It’s completely unfair to tell speakers to do your bidding of putting the expense on someone else, especially when a lot of employers do not support staff in their speaking efforts, and the speaker is ultimately still left to cover costs from their own pockets.


3.17  Start a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the expenses.

I think this could only be suggested by someone truly from the elite; someone who has no idea how degrading and humiliating it can be to ask others for money for something that you are unable to afford on your own.  I can’t even begin to explain this to you.  This is, again, about privilege and stifling diversity.  If it’s that easy to get funding that way, the conference should do it.



4. Compromises and Sacrifices

Last Updated: 01.12.17


4.1  A Necessary Evil?: I’m not some naive idealist.  I know there may be some times when we, as speakers, make compromises and sacrifices in order to achieve something or reach a goal.  In those times, we – I – might bend our own rules and compromise on the stand against pay to speak.  I won’t sit here and promise you that I will never again pay to speak, but I will make my choices as wisely and honestly as I can, as I do genuinely think that pay to speak is bad for everyone.


4.2  Starting Out: As I said earlier, I have paid to speak in the past when I was just starting out as a speaker (I’m kind of still just starting out, but I have some presentations under my belt now).  Back then, I didn’t realise how much money conferences make and I didn’t realise that there were conferences who respect and appreciate their speakers enough to pay for their travel and accommodation; I didn’t realise I had a choice.  I honestly don’t know if I could have broken into the world of speaking without ever having to pay to speak, and I don’t know for sure that it’s possible for anyone else yet either.  I don’t blame anyone who thinks pay to speak is their only way to start speaking, and who makes that compromise.


4.3  Growing Reach: It’s true that speaking at conferences – especially the more well-known / popular ones – can give speakers more reach and exposure.  Although I have a decent number of followers on Twitter and good readership on this blog, I certainly don’t think I’m “tester famous”.  I know there are a lot more people I could reach with important messages like this one if more people in the community knew about me from seeing me speak at these pay to speak events.  It pains me, but I can’t honestly tell you that I will never compromise on pay to speak in order to reach more people.  Speaking honestly, there might be a time when I do that.


4.4  The Call of the Keynote: There’s a certain amount of prestige and status that comes from being invited to give a keynote.  To me, it feels like a recognition of hard work and achievement, and it’s probably a nice stroke to the ego too.  I’ve never been invited to give a keynote as yet, but I bet it would feel pretty amazing.  Again, I can’t honestly tell you that I wouldn’t pay to speak in that instance, or that I wouldn’t let a conference pay for my expenses while knowing that other speakers at the same event still had to pay for their own.  It feels a little selfish to even imagine that scenario, but keynoting is a big deal and, again being completely honest, I might make that compromise in future if I find myself in a position to do so.


4.5  No Speaker Guilt: As you can see, there are sacrifices I’ve made and compromises that I might make in future.  I imagine that others have and will be in these situations too.  As much as we need speakers to stand up against pay to speak as well as organisers, sometimes there are hard decisions to make, and we compromise.  If you are a speaker who has or is thinking about compromising, I do not judge you and I do not assign guilt to you.  Know your reasons for your decisions, whatever they may be, and do what feels right to you.  Unfortunately, we sometimes have to play these games in order to get to places where we can do more good.


4.6  Source of Income: Some people are lucky enough not only to have their expenses paid by the conference, but to also be paid a monetary fee for their work.  These are most likely the people who regularly run workshops and / or present keynotes.  Don’t forget that being in that position doesn’t necessarily mean having more money to burn than the rest of us.  I was recently asked if I make a living from speaking at conferences around the world.  I don’t, but some people might.  Accepting slots at pay to speak events might be a needed source of income for some people.  Yes, they might be in a more privileged position, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a compromise they feel they need to make.  No judgement.



5. Proof that It Can be Done

Last Updated: 09.05.18


5.1  Role Models: I mentioned above that there are conferences and events out there that do pay travel and accommodation expenses for all speakers, even some non-profits.  When we see more organisations and individuals doing the right thing, we slowly make it harder for people to claim that it can’t be done.  I am grateful for the role models we have, who are already doing the right thing.


5.2  Ministry of Testing: If you’ve followed me for more than a minute, you’ll know that I’m slightly obsessed with all things MoT.  Even though they are not a non-profit, they actively do more for the community than any other organisation I’ve seen.  When you speak at one of their TestBash conferences, MoT will cover all your travel and accommodation costs.  They trust you, so all they ask is that you are sensible and keep costs reasonable.


5.3  WeTest: I haven’t had the pleasure of attending or speaking at this New Zealand based conference, but it’s definitely on my to do list for submissions, as their treatment of speakers is incredible.  As a non-profit, not only do they cover all travel and accommodation costs for speakers, but they arrange it all directly in advance, so speakers do not need to have the funds to cover these costs up-front.  This can only be a wonderful thing for diversity and inclusion.  I have so much respect for WeTest for having this policy and hope that other conferences and events will follow suit.  Co-organiser, Katrina Clokie, explains how WeTest have achieved this.


5.4  European Testing Conference: Another conference on my “must submit to” list is European Testing Conference.  As well as having a fantastic speaker expenses policy, they also have a model whereby they share profits with speakers, so long as the conference does turn a profit.  This really shows me that they aren’t just in it for themselves or to make money, but they really want to show their appreciation to the people who help make their events successful, and share that success.


5.5  Richard Bradshaw: Richard is the Friendly Boss at Ministry of Testing, but he’s also a prominent community member and speaker in his own right.  In a previous post, I wrote about ways that individuals can fly the flag for diversity and support others.  As an individual, Richard has repeatedly taken a stance against pay to speak conferences and events, even when they offer to give him special treatment.  He has publicly stated on multiple occasions that he will not speak at an event unless costs are covered for all speakers.  He is truly a leader in our community because he uses his position and privilege to take a stance for the benefit the community, and I have great respect and appreciation towards him for that.


5.6 Selenium Conference: This used to be a pay to speak conference, but that changed for the better in 2016, when they transitioned to paying all speakers’ expenses, without losing money.  I highly recommend reading the linked experience report for details of how they did it, and how it positively impacted the diversity of the conference.



This post is much longer than I originally envisioned, so thanks for reading this far to learn why I don’t pay to speak.  As I stated earlier, there may be reasons and counter-arguments that I’ve forgotten or haven’t considered.  Feel free to mention them in the comments and I may or may not add them to the post at a later date.

8 thoughts to “Why I Don’t Pay to Speak”

  1. I agree with your points above. And as both a consultant and as the leader of a local user group / meetup, I agree that most instances payment should be expected. And that is why I as a leader of a group that has FREE monthly meetings -AND- once a year a free All-Day Conference ( yes, we do have to charge $20 for lunch ) . . . I so much APPRECIATE those consultants who choose to come out to our All-Day Conference to speak. Thanks to one and all of them from throughout the years. . . .

    One thing to note is that our All-Day Conference is part of the International Agile Tour who, well as they say on their webpage . . .

    The International Agile Tour is a series of non-profit events over several cities throughout the world. The AgileTour is a way for enthusiasts of Agile to spread the word about Agile practices and to share their experiences, both good and bad, within their local community.

  2. Although I’ve not (yet) spoken at a testing conference, I have spoken at conferences in other disciplines and sectors in the past. I am also familiar with a third “stream” of conferences; and for two – three years I tried to make a living as a freelance photographer. So your post went over very familiar ground, and I am broadly in agreement with almost everything you say.

    As a photographer, there are no shortage of people and organisations that expect you to work for free. All the excuses you report are ones that photographers know well. A friend of mine who is a professional cartoonist reports similar comments from some of his clients (or potential clients). The photography market is a bit different, in that the professional, who has spent thousands on gear and training and may have twenty or thirty years’ experience, can find themselves being undercut by wannabes with an entry-level camera and a belief that professionals only do either fashion shoots or sports shoots, and they’ve done both for friends and family, so they must be as good as anyone else. Also, there’s a belief in the public at large that “anyone can take a good snap”, and it is true that almost everyone who has ever taken a picture has produced one photograph that has a “Wow!” factor. This ignores three things: a) the ratio of “Wow!” pictures to all pictures is pretty low for most people; b) a professional has to produce many more “Wow!” pictures at the drop of a hat, and be able to do so under all conditions; and c) a professional has, within reason, to be able to produce pictures of potentially any subject. I did social photography (Weddings and birthdays), news photography, fine art, products and rooms (still life for companies, professionals and estate agents), architectural (estate agents again) and forensic work (fire service). Some of this I was better at than others, but there were plenty of times when I could not pick and choose what sort of jobs I did.

    But the bottom line was that I could never make any money at this. Daily rates have been on hold for at least ten years; and there are plenty of clients who pay far less than the going rate. I eventually had to give up and get back into testing just to make a living.

    Having said that, there were two occasions where I did work for free. One was coverage of a large (voluntary) sporting event, where I was engaged by an agency run by the daughter of a friend of mine. The gig was happening close to home, it gave me good access to a subject I wouldn’t normally have been able to access, the resale rights reverted to me for private sales, and the agency did at least provide food and drink, and would have provided accommodation if I had had to travel. The agency took the gig as a bit of a loss leader, but for the following year they entered a bid to cover the same event at a different venue with a far more comprehensive package that would have paid photographers. However, the organisers declined to arrange coverage the following year, leaving it to participants to arrange their own photography. The organisation was voluntary, though they had a number of high-profile corporate sponsors; so they were under cost pressure. Had the same agency got the gig for the following year, I would have considered that to be quite a bonus; and I did at least get to network with other professionals in the region.

    The other gig I did for nothing was the fire service work. They required a panel of photographers to cover their area and to go out to incidents to provide photographs of record, as well as pictures suitable for news work and potential forensic and evidence photography. They did not offer payment, but they did pay full expenses and provided training, a uniform and safety equipment, plus food and drink when out on jobs. I took this one because the sort of access this granted was priceless; it was only spending cuts that had made them stop giving payment a short time before; and there was the possibility of future full-time photographic employment as they did have one professional on staff. It was only earlier cuts that had reduced the full-timers from about four to one. I got some great material from that gig (I did four jobs for them, but never got to go on an actual incident – so it goes) and got a fantastic insider view of the fire service.

    The point behind this ramble is that I took a couple of decisions to do some work for nothing; but they were rational decisions based on sound reasons that fitted my goals. As it happened, I ended up doing more testing and when I secured a full-time testing role, I dropped off the photography work, paid or unpaid. The majority of “work for nothing” offers got the treatment from me that they deserved; when I worked for nothing, it was because I could see more gains for me from so doing, The testing conference circuit is a bit different, but there might just be times when paying to speak is the right decision for an individual speaker for a specific conference. But that has to be a decision for the speaker; and the majority of “pay to speak” conferences are going to be deserving of general contempt for the reasons you gave.

    The other area where I have conference experience is in the organisation of science fiction conventions (not to be confused with comic conventions or other conventions where tv and film people do appearances). In many cases, these events are organised by ad-hoc committees that come together specifically to organise the convention for that year. Afterwards, they all go and lie down in a darkened room and vow ‘never again’. (Those vows usually only last about two or three years; the Usual Suspects can be found running conventions on a regular basis.) They are all, however, organised by amateurs. They attract not only readers but also authors and publishers, who as professionals are able to offset their expenses against tax. Conventions will declare certain people to be ‘Guests of Honour’ (equivalent to keynote speakers) and all their expenses are met. Other speakers, however, do it for the pleasure of taking part, plus any kudos it gives them in the wider community. Even the professionals, the writers and publishers who are not (on that occasion) Guests of Honour, will participate in panels or talks if asked for nothing. And the attendees are paying out of their own pockets to come to the convention . Conventions hand their profits, if any, over to charitable bodies as well as passing monies on to the following year’s convention.

    Again, my point is that under some models, a variant of the “pay to speak” situation is acceptable and accepted. But the benefits to attendees and speakers alike are not financial; they are those intangibles that go beyond “mere” money, and these intangibles mean a lot to those who participate.

    Having said all that, these are only riders to your main point, that speakers at testing conferences should not pay to speak. And I think that you’re right in possibly 95% of cases or more. The majority of testing conferences, as far as I can see, are run as commercial undertakings by commercial organisations; but if they have to find excuses for not paying contributors, then their business model is flawed. (Your points 3.4 and 3.5 above apply.) And no-one has a God-given right to run a business. If they cannot make it pay, then there is no obligation on anyone to support the business for any reason except their own. And my experience suggests that you will know for yourself when those occasions are. The rest can be told to walk north until their hats float.

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