Getting paid to speak (the gory details)

US banknotes under different types of light

Most people agree in 2019 that conference speakers should be paid; at a very minimum, organizers should cover the cost of travel to the conference and lodging while there. After talking about this on Twitter, I realized that new speakers might not know what to expect, not so much about amounts but about how this works, how payments happen, what outlays you might have to make, what questions are reasonable to ask. I’m going to get into alllllll the nitty-gritty ins and outs in this piece.

I’m basing this on my own and many friends’ experience. I’m a well-known speaker in two different niche areas: UX design, where I mostly speak at commercial conferences, and civic technology, where I mostly speak at community or association conferences. They’re very different, and I’m very sure this post won’t cover every situation; I welcome additions in the comments.

We’ll start our story with an invitation:

Someone wants you to speak at their conference — yay! In the best case, after some initial discussion they will send you an email saying “We would love to have you come and talk about X topic on these dates. We will cover your travel and Y nights of lodging, and we can offer an honorarium (or speaker fee) of $(Q)QQQ”. ←I’ve never been a five-figure speaker yet, but some people are; for me, hundreds or low thousands is typical. If the dates work for you (and you can swing it with work) and the topic is in your wheelhouse and you’re happy with the package, you provisionally accept. Sweet.

You can jump down to “once you’ve provisionally accepted” if that’s all you need, but let’s pause & look at other possibilities.

  1. If you know already that you can’t make the dates or don’t want to do it, send a polite reply thanking them and saying you can’t make it. If you’d like to be kept in mind for a different year, say so — and it’s a nice touch to offer to recommend someone else who is great on the topic. I try to recommend someone from a less-represented group than myself as often as I can.
  2. But what if the offer didn’t mention anything about travel reimbursement or a speaker fee? Assuming you’re interested, you reply with “Thanks so much for thinking of me, I’d be really excited to do this! Can you tell me what you offer in terms of travel support and speaker compensation?” That should get a clear answer more akin to the above example (the answer may say zero for both, but it should be clear). If they can’t tell you clearly, I would consider it a red flag. If the response includes travel support and a speaker fee that you’re fine with (even if that’s zero — I’ll talk about when that might be ok in a minute), then flowchart yourself back to my third paragraph and provisionally accept.

Why provisional?

I keep saying provisionally accept because, unless you’re an independent consultant in full control of your own schedule and activities, you probably have to check in with someone. Your boss is a good start, assuming they’re supportive. You need to find out if your employer has a policy on outside speaking. (If you’ll be speaking as a representative of your company, you should expect to be paid your regular salary for all prep and conference time and to have your travel costs covered, and this piece is largely irrelevant.) The questions to ask about outside speaking are:

  • Whether the company will pay you for your time, i.e. can you do prep during work time? Can conference days be considered work days?
  • If you’re allowed to do some prep on company time, can you still accept a speaker fee from the conference organizer? Is there some specific procedure the company prefers? (In some cases, the company will ask for the speaker fee to be paid through them, in which case they can withhold taxes for you.) Note also that non-profits will sometimes ask speakers to split fees for branded talks. It’s unusual to not be able to accept travel reimbursement, but it’s a fact of life for government employees in their official capacity, so I’ll mention it for full coverage.
  • Whether the company needs to review your talk in any way. If they require you to take PTO for outside speaking, they should not have a right of review, but they may insist that you don’t mention your affiliation at all, which means you can’t list it in your bio or on the program. You’ll need to tell the organizer this up front.
  • What the company asks for in terms of branding or mentions. If this is a tech conference and part of your company’s recruiting strategy is having employees show public leadership, you’ll almost certainly be asked to make your affiliation prominent and mention that you’re hiring and are available to network during the conference.

There’s no single rubric for the right answers to these questions for you to say yes or no. But clear answers should allow you to make an informed decision based on your situation. If it makes sense for you, go to provisionally accept.

Why might you say yes even if there’s no speaker fee?

I’ll be honest, I gave four talks in April 2019 and none of them included an honorarium. YMMV, but for me it’s usually one (or a combination) of three reasons:

  • It’s low time-cost for me, because it requires minimal travel — let’s say less than a 2-hour flight and one night or less away from home — and is a topic I speak on frequently. Venues like local meetups or remote conferences also fit into this category.
  • It’s not a commercial conference, meaning they’re not charging high ticket prices or providing fancy amenities. If there are corporate sponsors, multiple free catered meals, and the tickets are over a couple hundred bucks, they should be paying speakers, period. But association conferences are conceived more as gatherings of colleagues where most of the speakers are dues-paying members sharing knowledge with their peers. They might fly in a keynote speaker who isn’t a member, and might sometimes pay small speaker fees, but I’m willing to cut them a deal I’m not willing to cut for a conference that charges thousands of dollars and assumes attendees are using corporate professional development money.
  • Either participating can help me in some way (I did a TedX talk in 2013, knowing that those are never paid and also knowing that it would result in a high-quality public video of me speaking on one of my core topics, which had been useful in all kinds of ways), or me participating can help something I care about. It is not very hard to get me to speak at anything related to government design, or a specialist user research conference, if I can possibly spare the time…but see the first bullet. Part of my personal mission is to encourage those things in the world. I’m lucky and privileged to be in a position to sometimes do that for free (but I still need my travel to be covered).

There’s one more reason you might accept a speaking engagement with a low or zero fee; it’s not a big one for me, but it’s an important calculation for many speakers. That is, if the conference is somewhere you want to go anyway, could you plan a trip around it with the head start of the flight the organizers are paying for? Most organizers are happy to book your arrival early or your return late. (They’ll only pay for lodging while you’re at the conference, of course.)

All of this — the organizer’s terms, your employer’s support level, the schedule — has to be squared with the facts of your personal situation and what you can afford in terms of time and outlay, based on what you expect the benefits to be. If you game it out and it doesn’t work, the thing to say to the organizers is, “thank you very much, but I’m not able to accept on those terms. I wish you the best of luck with the conference.” You could be more specific, along the lines of, “thank you very much, but I’ll only be able to accept if you can cover my travel costs. Is that a possibility?” if you’re still interested. Asking can’t hurt, but it won’t always do the trick. Sometimes you have to say no, and that’s fine. If you don’t think the terms are fair, then don’t offer to recommend another speaker.

But let’s assume the calculations worked out for you to say yes one way or another. We’re back to yay!

Once you’ve provisionally accepted, what’s next?

  1. There will be a speaker agreement between you and the organizers, memorializing these details and committing you both. This won’t always happen absolutely first, but it should happen before things get too far along. If there is anything specific that you require to give a talk, be explicit about it — if your talk requires an unusual video setup, or you need to speak seated, or you don’t join all-male speaker lineups on principle, this is the time to make sure that the organizers are ready to support you before signing. They may also have things to make explicit to you; for example, I just signed a Speaker Code of Conduct for a set of paid speaking engagements later in the year.
  2. The first thing you’ll send the organizers will be a talk description, bio, and photo. Some organizers will help and/or heavily edit these; some will take whatever you submit (but most will at least give you a word length). If you responded to a call for presentations, you may already have written the description. Some conferences will request specific types of photos; if you don’t have what they ask for, it’s ok to say that and send what you do have. (Once, an organizer said they would prefer a photo of me laughing, specifically in solid-color business-casual clothing. I didn’t have it and it all came out fine.)
  3. At some point, if the conference is in the US and there is an honorarium or speaker fee (but not for travel reimbursement), the organizer will ask you to fill out a W-9 form.
  4. As the lineup is announced, you’ll likely be asked to promote your talk and the conference. Organizers will often give you discount codes that you can post, as well as a link to your specific talk description. Some will suggest additional promotional work, for example recording a podcast with you as a teaser (I’ve never been paid extra for this — it’s part of the package. It’s usually unscripted/casual and doesn’t require a ton of prep). Many will offer to co-promote anything of yours that’s in the market, which can be a blog post or a book or anything else.
  5. After you cross about the 3 month mark in the countdown, the organizers will want to make sure your travel gets booked — they need you to get there! If the conference is holding a bloc of rooms at a hotel, they should and nearly always will take care of booking your hotel room for you. This means that you’ll never need to pay for it, although the hotel will ask you for a credit card at check-in for “incidentals”. That means things like movie rentals or minibar use or room service or other extras. If they don’t do this up front, it’s worth asking if they can. Submitting hotel receipts later is a hassle as is extending yourself to pay them up front.
  6. Flights are a little bit different. I’ve worked with some conferences that book speakers’ flights, and some that don’t. It’s probably about 50/50. I suspect many of the ones that don’t would do so if I explained that booking it myself would be a hardship. Conferences that book speaker flights will need all of your details — full name, passport number if applicable, seating preferences, frequent flyer numbers, when you plan to arrive and depart. (My recommendation: never fly in the same day you’re speaking; it’s just not worth the stress.) Conferences that don’t book speaker flights will normally give you a budget, and it should be enough to book a convenient flight. If you need to go over the number to get a nonstop flight or a reasonable connection, by all means tell them and ask for them to reimburse a little more; they’re very unlikely to say no to another $50 or $100. I have never yet insisted on a business class ticket, but some speakers do and some organizers are willing if asked by a key speaker.
  7. Once you have your ticket, if you’ve bought it yourself, you’ll need to provide the receipt to the organizers to be reimbursed (and so that they know when you’re getting there). In my experience, conferences reimburse travel costs anywhere from immediately to upon arrival at the conference. If they say they can’t pay you for travel until afterwards, that wouldn’t seem quite right.
  8. If the conference is international and a visa or other paperwork is required, the organizers should be ready to help you get through it, but expect to spend a little time on it.
  9. When your travel is booked and the conference tickets are selling fast, your attention can turn to your presentation. Remember that the organizer is invested in your success — they’re paying good money to bring you there, and their attendees are paying good money to be there. They want to make sure you have what you need to deliver the great talk they’re anticipating. You can ask all kinds of questions — I usually check in about slide formats (some organizers consider my preferred format, Google Slides, a pain so I at least want to give them a heads-up), stage & monitor setup (will I be able to see presenter view & speaker notes? should I plan to walk around? will I need a clicker? will there be a countdown clock or will someone give me 10, 5, & 1-minute warnings?), formality level (if everyone at the conference will be wearing suits, I don’t want to show up in jeans, or vice versa), microphone type (handheld vs. lavalier vs. headset), background colors on the stage (learned my lesson after showing up in a cobalt-blue dress to present on a cobalt-blue stage), room setup if I’m doing a workshop. I don’t have dietary restrictions, but this is a good time for that too — there are usually conference break-snacks and sometimes lunches or receptions, and there’s very likely to be a speaker dinner, hosted & paid for by the organizer. They should make sure you can participate fully.
  10. If you’re presenting a workshop or a talk with handouts, printing works similarly to flight booking. Many organizers will do it for you if you get your materials in by a deadline, usually 1–3 weeks in advance of the conference; most will reimburse you if you do it yourself and save the receipts. (It’s worth checking if there’s a budget limit.)
  11. Some conferences request your slides in advance (usually about the same timeframe as materials to be printed), for one of two reasons: either they’re running all the slides from a central computer (in this case, they should provide all the equipment including any necessary dongles and a clicker), or they offer the slides to attendees upon arrival. One conference series I’ve spoken at several times does the latter because many of their attendees are there representing a team and will be expected to recap the conference for colleagues when they get back.
  12. You’re almost ready to go to the conference. You may need to invest in some small-scale equipment, and your organizer won’t reimburse for this stuff. If you’re presenting from your own computer and the talk isn’t at a lectern, you should have a clicker that you know works with your machine & your slides (the conference will supply it if you’re presenting from their equipment). You should also have whatever might be needed to hook your machine up to the conference’s video setup. Just about every conference hall in 2019 is using HDMI connectors to get slides on the monitors, so if your laptop doesn’t have an HDMI port, you’ll need a dongle that connects to whatever you have. This is another good thing to check in about when you’re asking about specifics. Most frequent speakers carry around a little pouch with assorted dongles, clickers, and spare batteries or chargers; it’s ok to build this up as you go. In addition to that, I email my talk to the organizers the day before (if I haven’t had to submit it in advance) and bring a copy on a thumb drive as well. As a pro (and if you’re being paid, you’re a pro), back-ups are a very wise idea.
  13. Ok, time to head out. Your flight goes smoothly and you make it to the city where the conference is, where maybe you’ve never been before. If it’s a city without great public transit, many conferences arrange airport transportation for speakers. You usually don’t need to ask — they’ll tell you if they’re doing it — and you don’t need to pay for it. If they’re not doing that, they should provide you with detailed instructions on the best way to get to the hotel (and if it’s a taxi, they should reimburse you with a receipt). You check in, verify that your room is paid for, hand over your card for incidentals, and very often find a nice welcome note or some conference swag either at the desk or in your room. It’s a pro move to email the organizers and let them know you’ve arrived, especially if it’s evening and your talk is early on the next day’s program.
  14. While you’re at the conference, you generally shouldn’t expect to pay for food and drink at events sponsored by the conference, though if you make other arrangements of course you’re on your own. The hosted speaker dinner in particular is a common tradition to thank speakers for their work. They vary greatly in formality, so it’s worth checking on that too — I’ve been to many where jeans are appropriate and a couple where jackets and dresses were the standard. Sometimes you can guess based on where they are, if they’re at a restaurant. Conferences that fly in a lot of speakers from far away sometimes offer other amenities like a special tour of the area for speakers; these will be free for you as well, unless you’re specifically told otherwise.
  15. Many conferences love to have the speakers around during the conference, and pretty much all of them are fine with you hanging out in the conference hall working on your laptop during talks, which you may need to do if you’re not on PTO for the conference. Most will advise you a quiet space to go for calls that isn’t your hotel room, if if needed. If you attend some of the breaks or receptions and answer a few questions, say a few friendly hellos, (and usually receive a few nice kudos too), people will feel extra value in having you there. I’ve never known this to be absolutely required, but many times it’s strongly requested, and it’s often an unwritten expectation. If I’m working from the hall, I also like to tweet great points from other speakers’ talks, or amplify interesting material from the conference hashtag.
  16. Everything goes great! The audience loves your talk, you get great questions, lots of people tweet about you ←realistic if a design conference and you’re ready to head home in triumph. When do you get paid? If there was no honorarium, you’re largely done. You should have your flight reimbursement by now, no charge for the hotel, and you submitted your receipts for any printing right before the conference. If there’s an honorarium, there’s a pretty wide variation. I’ve been paid upon signing the speaker agreement (relatively rare), right after the conference, or as much as 90 days after. Very occasionally, a conference organizer will pay a base rate plus a bonus based on your attendee evaluations, so in that case there’s some post-conference tabulation to do. But this is worth asking up front, matter of factly: can you tell me when you’ve typically paid speaker fees in years past? (If the conference has a track record, this should be an easy question.) Some organizers will hand or send you a check; some will ask for your direct deposit information. Once, recently, an international conference asked to pay me via PayPal (and delivered the payment promptly). If it’s longer than you were led to expect, or more than 90 days and you haven’t been paid, it’s absolutely legitimate to ask; and you don’t need an excuse, but business and tax records are both perfect ones if you’re more comfortable stating a reason.
  17. So I guess the last thing is taxes. I only know the US case here, but what happens is that after the turn of the year, the organizer will send you a 1099 form in the mail showing the speaker fee(s) they paid you. Taxes will not have been withheld and this is considered self-employed income; you’ll need to report it as such when you do your taxes for the previous year. Travel reimbursement or paid travel does not need to be reported to the IRS (though if you’re a government employee you may need to report it to your ethics officer). If the conference was in a different country, of course they won’t send you a US tax form, but you will still need to report the income. Make sure you track it.

This all sounds like a lot, but it’s mostly because I wanted to lay it out in excruciating detail. I’m on record believing that we (especially in design) need more, and more diverse, speakers sharing knowledge at events. I hope this helps with taking taking the plunge.

PS, you can also reach out to me about a mentoring session if you’re a UX practitioner contemplating the pro level of speaking (or advancement in general) and would like to talk more. I always give schedule priority to people from under-represented groups in UX.