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Hey readers,

This issue is gonna get a bit more serious than usual.

I’m currently waiting in DFW for the last flight leg to Guadalajara, for my last conference of 2018. As I reflect on the past year being in the conference speaking circuit, I can't help but think about the past issues I've had being a speaker.

If we ignore the elephant in the room, nothing will ever change. If Susan Fowler never spoke up about what happened at Uber, nothing about the sexual harassment and discrimination would have been done.

So here I am, speaking up about speaking. In particular, its pay and its fairness.

In this issue, I will share my experience as a conference speaker from the angle of a self-employed, female, person of colour.

One Year as a Speaker

I started speaking in conferences in 2017 where I spoke at 4 events that year. This year, I have a total of 18 events, from’s private event, small community-run conferences to huge conferences with over 1000 attendees.

2018 was the year where my inbox started getting flooded with speaking inquiries. While I’m absolutely honoured, balancing speaking, client work, volunteering and side projects became difficult. 

To speak in a different country, I first have to take time off client work, build a new slide deck or customize the content for the audience, and not to mention, spend the time to travel. (I do work remotely, but you can’t do productive work when queuing in security line or waiting for the bus).

As I started to get more and more speaking inquiries (and good feedback), I decided that it was time to charge.

I researched how other people charge for speaking and I followed their advice. As they suggested, I asked about conference organiser’s budget.

They replied:

I vividly remember being approached by several women in tech conferences with ticket costs from <100 euros to over 400 euros. They invite lots of female speakers and many of them work at well-known companies. But when I ask about the budget, this was their reply.

I was shocked! They invited over 30 speakers and were charging over 400 euros a ticket and had many sponsors. So how can it be that they don’t have a budget for speakers?

The organiser didn’t explain why they didn’t set aside a budget, or where the proceeds go towards. If they said they'd donate all proceeds to an organisation for D&I efforts, I might have considered.

But they didn't. How I basically saw it was that they were asking women to speak about diversity and inclusion and share their time and expertise, for free.

Asking people, especially women and underrepresented minorities to work for free is what I have an issue with, so I declined to speak at that event.

I feel that as an underrepresented minority, we already have to work harder to earn an equal living as the privileged.

Jessica Valenti Jessica Valenti
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@Luvvie YUP. And if you talk about feminism/justice issues, people think you're supposed to just do it for free or cheap "for the movement"

54 See JessicaValenti's other Tweets

And I totally agree with Jessica.

Diversity and inclusion have ROI and is still work. Just because it’s for a good cause, it doesn’t mean we should ask or expect people to work for free.

Some of the conferences I turned down are actually quite well known in the design industry. I was shocked when they reply that they “have already spent the budget”. For me, it’s a different way of saying: “You are not cool/smart/well-known enough for us to pay you.”

Getting lots of this kind of response actually started to make me doubt if I should even be doing this at all.

I mean, lots of conferences are organised to connect the community and share knowledge, and many are nice to attend. But I’ve reached the point where I cannot afford speaking for free or for an honorarium.

As an independent consultant, I am taking time off client work to be there. I am not someone who works at Google or Twitter who is travelling and speaking on their company's money and time. If the organiser is not able to pay T&E (travel and expenses), the company usually pays and the employees usually don't have to take vacation days to speak.

Speaking is a different game for someone that works for themselves. Not only do we have to take time off work, there are also opportunity costs involved. We can't put the same sets of expectations for a freelancer that one would put on employees of a big company.

So I decided to evaluate my year and compare my earnings with the time I spent speaking. What’s not included are opportunity costs and invisible costs (exhaustion from travelling makes me less productive even when I'm home).

18 events in 2018:

  • 3 paid no fee and no T&E
  • 2 paid only either hotel or flight, no speaking fee
  • 5 paid the travel (flight and hotel), no speaking fee
  • 3 paid a fee of 500-1000 euros, no T&E
  • 1 paid T&E plus a fee of ≤300 euros
  • 2 paid T&E plus a fee of >300 euros (1 domestic travel, 1 international travel)
  • 1 profit share event (non-conference)
  • 1 meet-up for non-profit org

The most common scenario is that the conference would pay for flight and hotel but no speaking fee on top. You can also see that more are unpaid (10) than paid (6).

There were 3 conferences that did not pay anything at all (which I agreed near the beginning of the year before I started charging), which offsets the earnings from the paying conferences.

If you take in account of the travel time for 13 international events, that is almost one entire month just travelling! (a round trip was never on the same day, so I counted 2 days per trip. But it’s usually more in reality)

Besides, the honorarium that I got from speaking is lower than my day rate.

It turns out that even super famous speakers like Jessica Hische encountered this issue.

I am basically in the same situation Jessica was. It’s just not feasible at a certain point to not charge at least my day rate for the 2+ days I missed on client work.

I know I am not Jessica Hische, but I don’t have to be her to realise that I’m struggling.

How I feel about conference speaking these days:

Obviously, I didn’t want to name these individuals and conferences involved. I would like to believe that they didn't intentionally want me to work for free. Maybe they are just figuring this out or they never realised that speakers want to be paid, or how much self-employed folks and URM are struggling. But this one I just have to be transparent about.

Behold, the most ridiculous email I got this year.

This organiser reached out with a keynote opportunity, and I was like ‘tell me more!’. Then I found out that they are just selling talk slots so companies can advertise to attendees.

This is what they are charging attendees. Minimum 7K per talk and 2K per ticket. I was speechless. I don’t know if all talk slots are like that or if they are just selling a few select sponsored talks. But either way, I don't want to be involved.

If you would like to pay 2K to be advertised to, sign up at EyeforTravel by all means (or if you want to pay 7K pounds to advertise to people who are paying 2K).

With these experiences, I started to wonder... am I the only one that organisers are not paying? What’s the experience level of speakers that organisers spent all the budget on? Are most speakers just not paid, and suddenly after 100 events or whatever they start to charge 5-figures? Do white males also have trouble charging for speaking? I started to research into other women and PoC’s experiences.

What I found is that many women have trouble making a living and getting decent pay from speaking as well.

In particular, I found some shocking cases.

This speaker was told that this conference's policy was they don't pay any speakers, which was not true. You can read more about it in this Forbes article.

And she's not the only speaker not being paid.

Sabrina Hersi Issa Sabrina Hersi Issa
View on Twitter

One conf asked me to speak, offered $0 dollos. SAME conf asked MY BROTHER, offered him $20K and private jet to China

605 See beingbrina's other Tweets
EricaJoy EricaJoy
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Today I declined an invitation to speak at the 2019 San Francisco @lesbiantech Summit because they don't pay their…

1996 See EricaJoy's other Tweets
Kate Morris Kate Morris
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I love getting paid nothing to speak at a conference that charges $500 a ticket

191 See morris_kate's other Tweets

I don’t know why, but I seem to only find experiences of women not being paid. I don’t see men talk about this on Twitter, so I don’t know if it’s because they are being paid and we are not, or they just don’t talk about it.

What I do know is that many speakers especially female and people of colour are undervalued and underpaid.

Many people argue that speaking for free gives them “exposure”. But I can tell you that, in this one year of speaking, the amount of project inquiries I got from speaking is...


Yep, zero. The only inquiries I got were from other speakers which don't count as exposure from the stage.

In fact, after my talk and all the praises, people will tell me that they loved my talk, and ask me to provide additional resources, books and links.

This person doesn’t want just my talk and slides, he wants me to do the research for him and send him all the papers so he can do the design himself. And of course, without paying me.

So far, no one that came to my talk inquired about booking a consultation or a workshop.

Recently I announced that I'll organise a workshop in 2019 for people to get hands-on experience. But despite the popularity of the talk, the workshop is not selling as fast as I hoped.

For now, the idea that speaking brings you client work has been invalidated.

Then again, I don’t have a book or course to sell. Nor do I promote myself or my services in my talks. I don’t want to start advertising in my talks, but these days, I’m wondering if I should start doing it. Was I being too modest/honest on stage or was I giving away too much knowledge in my talks?

You may think that I am too critical and I should just appreciate the exposure I got. I appreciated all the opportunities and I enjoy speaking. But I also have to find a balance between doing work that I like, doing work for good causes, and doing work that pays. Some organisers are nice that they shared my workshop and some even came back to book me again. But not all organisers do that.

The gif I shared earlier is from the movie Dangal which I highly recommend (it’s on Netflix). This wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat eventually went back to get an office job because wrestling did not bring him money and he needed to raise a family. Will I be in the same situation where I'm forced to give up speaking because I run out of money and time to do things I'm passionate about and pays the bills?

When friends ask me about my speaking, I often joke that while it seems very fancy, but the way it’s going, I feel like it’s just gonna make me a famous and poor artist, eventually.

I learned that exposure is bullshit. Not just design work, but speaking too.

Sometimes you hear speakers say that they got thousands of book sales or a huge gig from speaking. I would say they're really lucky and that's the exception, not the rule. And maybe they're not a URM.

The comments from friends made me realise that people only see what’s on the outside without wondering what the truth is. Someone that wins awards after awards may be struggling as well. Someone speaking at 20 events a year may be paying for all her expenses while you think she's making a fortune.

The most important thing I decided to do is to raise my speaking rates and decline all free speaking. Also, I will not take on more than 4 speaking gigs in 2019.

Now, there is something that you can help me with, dear reader.

I wrote this because I want to surface the dark side in public speaking. My goal is to advocate a fair scenario that satisfies and benefits all of organisers, audiences, and speakers. We cannot do that if I am the only one who knows and talks about it.

Here is what you can do:

  1. If you are here because you saw my cross-cultural UX talk, I'd really love to see you at my workshop. If you don't have the money, I would really appreciate a shout-out on social media or you can share with your friends and colleagues. There are 20 spots and I would love to see it sold out by the end of January.
  2. If you know a conference organiser, you can recommend XOXO’s operational guidebook. XOXO pays speakers fairly and equally and sets a high bar for event organisation.
  3. If you go to conferences, ask if the speakers are being paid. If speakers are doing free work, there is no incentive to deliver a solid talk or prepare in advance.
  4. The next time you see a complaint about speakers doing their slides the night before, raise the topic that the speakers might not be paid (and likely travelling on their own dime).
  5. Introduce me to conferences that pay speakers. If you don't know anyone, even just recommending me in your networks helps justify that I charge a speaking fee.
  6. Share this newsletter to raise awareness of this situation.
Pieter Levels ✨ Pieter Levels ✨
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It’s ridiculous it’s the default now that conferences don’t pay their speakers but do charge for tickets and get sp…

150 See levelsio's other Tweets

Pieter is right. This is the biggest unfairness that no one talks about. And together, we can do what's right and change this default.

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Jenny Shen Design

Saturnusstraat 141, Hoofddorp, Netherlands

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