I’ve been a designer for a while, I’m good at it, and I have some opinions and expertise I want to share with the community. I’ve written a few articles and blog posts that’ve gotten good traction, I’ve given a few presentations at work, and now I’d like to try my hand at public speaking. I’d also like to get paid for it. Do you have any tips?
Yes, I have tips. I was late to public speaking myself. Took a while to conquer the inner saboteur that was telling me not to even try, so first off: I commend you on your bravery. Anyone willing to get out in front of a crowd and talk deserves to be commended for their bravery. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s also labor, so you deserve to get paid for it. How much you get paid depends on a few things, which we’ll get into. But let me say this again so it’s crystal clear for anyone who doesn’t read further:
Speaking is labor. Labor gets paid. Never let someone convince you otherwise.
Let’s deal with my fucking privilege, though
When getting advice, you gotta consider the source of the advice. In this case, as is the case with everything I write, the source is a white guy. Like I said, I was late to the speaking gig because I had to get past the voice inside telling me I couldn’t do it. But it was relatively smooth sailing once I got past that. No one ever questioned whether I belonged on stage because I looked like everyone else on stage. Some of you will have to deal with your inner saboteur only to be reminded (as if you could ever forget) that this industry is still sexist and racist as fuck. Worse yet, those two forces will team up. The voice inside your head will tell you that the forces working systematically to keep you from succeeding are doing it because you’re not talented enough. You are. Those voices are lying to you. I don’t know much about being on the wrong side of systematic oppression, but I do know something about voices in your head. Don’t listen to them.
Every time we get invited to speak somewhere we’re going to ask who else is already speaking.
Now gimme a second to talk to the white boys: Hey Kevin and Chad. Here’s what we’re gonna do. Every time we get invited to speak somewhere we’re going to ask who else is already speaking. We’re going to make sure there are women on the schedule. We’re going to make sure there are POC on the schedule. We’re going to make sure the LGBTQ+ community is on the schedule. And if they’re not, we’re going to recommend people for the organizers to put on the schedule and we’re going to make that a condition of being on the schedule ourselves. Nonnegotiable, gentlemen.
But Mike, isn’t this a quota system? No, Chad. “Every slot belongs to a white boy by default” is a quota system. This is just being decent.
Not every conference is the same
Before we start talking about how much you can get paid to speak in public, let’s talk a little bit about the different types of places you can speak. Because it influences how much you can get paid. Educational events, like speaking at a school, generally offer very little, if anything. But if you can spare the time and the labor, it’s great to help the next generation of designers. Then you’ve got the local orgs, groups with UX[localname] acronyms that do a lot of professional development and member outreach. They can generally muster a stipend of some sort. After that, you’ve got your professional conference circuit. Some of which are doing very well financially, some of which are struggling. And most of which are on a rollercoaster of doing well one year, and doing lousy the next.
I have zero interest in throwing shade at people who organize conferences. It’s really fucking hard work. It takes a set of skills I do not have. The majority of conference organizers work their asses off almost year-round, try to put on a good show, and care about their community. They’re also old, like me. The smart ones surround themselves with young people who tell them when they’re falling into old habits, outmoded ways of thinking, lazily inviting the same white faces over and over, and not evolving like they need to be. (That was a giant hint, my old people!) Yes, there are a few bad eggs, that’s true of anything. But the bigger problem tends to be people who are well-meaning, if a bit clueless. We can help them.
Anyway, the professional circuit is where you can start getting paid.
Don’t do the organizer’s job
Getting paid to speak requires a negotiation. And everyone has a role to play in a negotiation. Your role is to get paid as much as possible. The organizer’s role is to pay you as little as possible. Neither of those roles is negative. The more money you make speaking the more this becomes a feasible use of your time and energy. The less money the organizer pays out the more they can ensure the continued success of the conference. They’re trying to save money on the venue, the food, the nametags, etc. Don’t take it personally.
The goal is that you land on something that’s amenable to both parties, and it certainly doesn’t have to be adversarial.
Make sure you’re playing the role you’re supposed to be playing. Which is getting what you need. At no point should you ask a conference organizer what they can afford to pay you. Because if I’m the conference organizer, and I’m doing my job, I’m low-balling you. I’d be an idiot not to. That’s my role in the negotiation.
Let’s run through a typical scenario. You get an email from a conference organizer inviting you to speak. They tell you a little bit about the conference, such as the theme (if they have one) and the number of expected attendees. They tell you who’s spoken there in the past. If they have other speakers booked for this year’s event, they might tell you who they are. If it’s an international conference they might tell you a little bit about their city or town, including local sites and cuisine. Sometimes, they’ll tell you what they’re offering you to speak. Sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll tell you it’s a volunteer-run community event being run on a budget. That’s the organizer doing their part of the negotiation.
Here’s how you do your part: “That sounds amazing. I’m honored that you’d consider me to speak at such a wonderful event. I charge $5,000 for a talk, plus business class travel, and accommodations for five nights. Please let me know if this works and we can schedule a call to go over details.” Let’s break that down:
You’re stating your cost. You’re not asking them what they can afford, you’re telling them what you cost. Your job is to get as much money as you can. Does $5,000 sound like a lot? Well, it might be. I know people who get more. Are they that much smarter than you? Maaaaaybe. But also maybe not. Kevin and Chad wouldn’t hesitate to ask for it though. Neither would I. And you’re probably not going to get that for your first talk, but it’s a fine number to shoot for. Can all conferences afford that? No. But this is about you and what you’re worth. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Business class travel? Some champagne socialist you are. True. My rule is that if I have to cross an ocean I’m flying business class. I’m old and I have a bad back. And I spend a lot of time on planes. I’m not willing to spend 12 hours in a coach seat. I’m doing business and it’s right there in the name. Can all conferences pay for this? No. But I’ve made a decision for myself, and I accept those consequences.
Five nights’ accommodation? Well, obviously that’s a number pulled out of the air. That depends on where you’re going, how much of the conference you want to see, and where it’s located. But if you’re crossing six time zones, get there a day early and reset your internal clock. And if you’re going to a foreign city you’ve never been to before, give yourself an extra day at the end to explore. Accommodations are the cheapest part of what you’re asking for and most organizers are excited that you want to explore their city. They’ll give you an extra night.
Now, are you gonna get all of these things just because you asked for them? Absolutely not. But you’re certainly more likely to than if you hadn’t! More likely, this is the beginning of a negotiation. The goal of which is that you land on something that’s amenable to both parties, and it certainly doesn’t have to be adversarial.
The cost of a talk
“You want how much for a 40-minute talk?”
Oh, I’ll talk for 40 minutes for free. All my kid has to do is ask me whether Carvel is better than Baskin-Robbins. But your 40-minute talk took a couple of months to write, put together slides, practice, revise, practice some more, cajole very patient friends and family to listen to dry runs to make sure it was conference-ready. Then I had to fly to where your conference was and fly back. And all that was an honor to do! I am not complaining. I love doing it! But it takes a lot of labor and time. This is part of how I earn my living, by the way. Which means I can’t lose money while doing it, and breaking even isn’t enough. I am here to make money from my labor. The good news is that if I’m good at my thing, and the conference organizer is good at their thing, we both walk away with a bit of cash, and we’ve provided a solid value for the audience, meaning they’ve learned a few things that make them better at their thing.
Also, what I’m charging you is a percentage of the total cost I need to recoup for that talk. I’ll be spreading that around amongst several conferences. If a conference wants a specific talk written just for them, they need to incur the complete cost of writing a talk from scratch.
Their business model is not your problem
Back in the ’90s, during the height of home taping, the record industry got together and did a “Home taping is killing music” campaign. They made a logo with a cassette and crossbones, which frankly was pretty cool. Some entrepreneurial punks answered back by stealing the logo, changing the words to “your business model is not my problem,” and making stickers and shirts. Their version was way more popular than the record industry’s. Plus they copied part of it, which: chef’s kiss.
The only thing you owe the organizer is a good talk.
I’m bringing this up because sometimes when you tell an organizer what you charge to speak, they reply with guilt and manipulation. This is not okay. It’s not okay to tell you that if they paid you what you’re asking no one else would get paid, or they wouldn’t make any money, or that the conference would die if they had to pay you, or that they’re doing you a favor, or that paying you means they’d have to raise the price of tickets. In short, that’s not your problem. They can either afford you, or they can’t.
They can, however, try something like “That’s a bit more than we were thinking. Would you consider doing it for $3,000?” Now you’ve got a negotiation going.
No one is doing you a favor by putting you on stage. You aren’t their guest. You’re there to work. They may be providing you with an opportunity, but it’s an opportunity you earned. You’re also providing them with content for their event. The exchange is mutual and benefits both sides equally. The only thing you owe the organizer is a good talk.
You are an expert, speaking on your expertise, at a professional gathering. Your job is to deliver the content. The organizer’s job is to make the business model work.
And as a conference organizer, please don’t ask me not to make money so that you can.
Ultimately, this is your choice
We choose to do some things for free, we choose to do some for money. That’s a choice. People get to make the choices they believe are right for them. Let’s not shame them for it. Ultimately, this is up to you. You want to talk at a place for free? Do it! You want to charge money? Do it. The worst that should happen is they say no. You want to charge one conference while doing another for free? Totally your call. There are gonna be times when you’re not going to want to fly across the country to give a talk no matter how much they offer you, and times where the promise of a free dinner is all it might take to get you on a plane to Barcelona. You get to make these calls. No one gets to give you shit for it.
I’ll give you one important caveat though, once you agree to do a thing for a certain price, that’s what you agreed to. The time for negotiating ends when you make the agreement.
You’re an experienced adult professional with things to tell people. You’ve put in the work. You’ve done the labor. If anyone benefits from your labor, you’re entitled to your fair share. Go get it.
If you have a question, email me and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question, and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know what the answer is anyway).