I’ve been speaking to audiences professionally since 1994 when I gave my first paid talk on the societal implications of Internet Relay Chat to a large audience of leaders in higher education. Eventually I flowed through the ‘tech speaking circuit’ at large events like Comdex, down to closed events with just a few hundred folks.
Then, other than a couple of pro bono gigs locally, I took a 7 year hiatus. The internet bubble had burst, I had moved on and was focused on a company I’d founded which really didn’t benefit from me having a higher public profile.
About four years ago I dove heavily into studying the implications of social media which led me into the work I do in social business over at my current company SideraWorks. I also dove headlong back into speaking at events, this time mainly on the ‘social circuit’.
I was in for a bit of a shock. The experience of dealing with conference organizers, getting paid, the amounts being paid, the level of respect given, the lackadaisical approach to logistics, the expectations, the contracts, the venue setups. Virtually everything I’d come to know about speaking professionally was…different.
But I’d look around me and see all of these other speakers, speakers I respected and thought vastly more talented than me, dealing with the same system and not complaining so I figured that perhaps it was just me. Maybe I’d been lucky and just coddled a lot in my earlier years. Maybe I just needed to suck it up and play along like everyone else.
But to be blunt, this year has been the straw that broke this camels back. At SideraWorks we focus more on the internal side of organizations. Company culture, internal education, executive workshops, processes, scalable social structures, etc, etc. You get the picture, we reach a pretty holistic audience. That means we speak at a much more varied set of events both public and private in areas like HR, Legal, IT, Business Leadership, and so on.
Why is that relevant? Because those events have been like a breath of fresh air. The speaking industry hadn’t changed. The social circuit just didn’t conform.
In the spirit of full transparency, let me give you some real data from 2013 alone (so far) in regards to the ‘social circuit’.
- Five events which we were contracted to speak at went under before they ever got started. Three of those involved partnerships to provide our workshops at their event.
- Two events wanted to change the terms of our agreement within three weeks of the event itself.
- One event failed to include us in their onsite printed agenda for the attendees
- One event decided one week prior that they could only accept PowerPoint and insisted there be no multimedia in the presentation (which presented an issue since there was six minutes of multimedia in the presentation). Yet the person who went on immediately after had a ton of multimedia in their presentation.
I’ll stop there, but you get the idea. Of the events that went under or that we pulled out of because we refused a last minute change to pre-agreed terms, there was a monetary loss in the very high five-figures. In addition, we had bought our non-refundable airfare ourselves so were out those dollars as well. The opportunity cost of having blocked out that time on our schedule instead of selling it to clients is also close to six-figures, although to be fair we were able to rebook some of that time if there was enough advance notice.
Guess how many events that weren’t on the social circuit we had an issue with? Zip, zero, nada. In addition, I think it’s worth stating publicly that most software/user conferences do a pretty stellar job, even if they are in the social space.
So why don’t you hear more about this? Because the social circuit is a pretty incestuous little space. We all like each other. Even after getting screwed, many of these folks are friends (not to mention the fact that if you depend on speaking on this circuit for your income it’s probably not wise to bash the events).
There are a million reasons why this particular circuit evolved this way, not the least of which is the fact that there were plenty of quality speakers out there willing to work for free and the fact that many of the organizers had never run events like this.
But I’ve always been pretty good at reading the writing on the wall, and if you’re an event organizer in this space let me assure you that we have passed the top of the maturity curve. ‘Build it and they will come’ will no longer continue to work (it’s already failing). You *have* to get ahead of the game financially. You must be able to fund the next event in advance of the event itself (that includes paying your speakers). Pushing the risk to everyone else but yourself is not how it works in the real world. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not a business model, it’s a shell game.
We’re lucky, because of what we do at SideraWorks we have a bit of luxury and diversity in the type of events we choose to speak at. Otherwise I’d be just as afraid to write this post as the next person.
I don’t want a lot of specific bashing of events in the comments, instead I *would* like for speakers to tell others what events they work with where they have great experiences. I think that would be as helpful as anything, it certainly would have benefitted me over the last few years.
P.S. – If I’d listened to Scott Stratten and C.C. Chapman when they warned us about a couple of events I’d also be a lot richer. So I highly recommend checking around before accepting a gig, and more importantly…*listen* to what they say.
P.P.S. – I was going to just add this in a comment. But I can’t express enough how important the tiny little details are where speakers are concerned. I’ve never forgotten a welcome basket waiting in my hotel room when I checked in. Or a handwritten followup thank you note, etc. They are cheap, they are superficial, they feed the ego…but they make you feel appreciated and that colors everything about the memory when the speaker looks back on the event.
Matt Ridings - @techguerilla