I frequently hear the complaint that there are too many conferences, exhibitions and networking events, not just in Singapore but everywhere, and most of them aren’t up to much. The complaints are often the same; overpriced tickets, low-level attendees and speakers who are more interested in pitching the audience than sharing genuine expertise. The latter complaint is the one I hear the most and yet the reason for it is clear and easily remedied. Pay speakers.
Last month Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, resigned as Oxford Literary Festival patron over lack of pay for authors: “The principle is very simple, a festival pays the people who supply the marquees, it pays the printers who print the brochure, it pays the rent for the lecture halls and other places, it pays the people who run the administration and the publicity, it pays for the electricity it uses, it pays for the drinks and dinners it lays on: why is it that the authors, the very people at the centre of the whole thing, the only reason customers come along and buy their tickets in the first place, are the only ones who are expected to work for nothing?” Well, quite…
Because of the Oxford Literary Festival's attitude to paying speakers (they don't) I can't remain as a Patron any longer. I've resigned.
— Philip Pullman (@PhilipPullman) January 13, 2016
Last month I was asked to speak at a conference by a good friend and content industry colleague. I have spoken at this conference twice before and, both times, spent around two weeks preparing a well-researched and attractive presentation. Both my previous performances were highly rated and I was honoured to be invited back. But this year, my circumstances have changed. I am no longer working full time, I have taken a large pay cut and am spending what money I do have attempting to produce two films. Additionally, at last year’s event, I spoke to an almost empty room laid out for at least two hundred expected delegates. After that particular session I contacted the organisers and offered to assist them in any way I could with their agenda, speaker recruitment, marketing, sales, whatever. I felt the conference addressed an important knowledge gap in Singapore and so deserved to be better attended. I never heard back from them.
This year I asked my friend what was being done to improve the attendance of the conference both in terms of quantity and quality of delegates. Not a great deal it seems. It is a ‘side conference’ for a much larger event, which is well attended and subsidised by a related but separate group of sponsors and delegates. Because this conference is not the main draw it is left to juniors to run who have a demonstrable lack of interest in the subject matter and whose KPI’s revolve simply around cost. My friend, it must be said, works extremely hard creating the best agenda and recruiting the best speakers he can find, he sympathises with me deeply and has tried to convince the organisers that they need to invest more but his plight falls on deaf ears. So, with few other options in Singapore, he ploughs on, doing the best he can with what he’s got, even though he’s not getting paid either.
You see, they can always find another speaker. That speaker might not be as qualified or capable, they may have an axe to grind or a product to pitch, but they’re free so who cares? Well, I care. This conference isn’t cheap and it’s aimed, in part, at independent content creators who aren’t rich. They deserve better. Paying speakers will result in fewer events but better, more carefully curated agendas with classier content by professional presenters, which in turn will reduce competition and attract more paying delegates and sponsors. It’s a win-win!
As I wrote in a previous post this month, I’m actually not averse to working for “exposure” but if that’s what you’re promising then you gotta deliver. Imagine if I turned up without my deck and nothing much to say. Or if I only spoke for ten minutes when I’d been booked for an hour? The organisers would go ape. But when they promise me two hundred executive bums on seats and there’s only twenty juniors in the room I’m expected to shrug it off. Well no, not if you’re a profit-making private enterprise monetising my content. I have no issue whatsoever speaking for non-profits and industry associations either for exposure or simply because it’s the right thing to do. But when you’re selling four figure tickets based, in part, on my content and paying everyone except me, well that’s a deal-breaker.