Being a speaker: Parts Unknown

A compendium of bizarre anecdotes while traveling as a conference speaker

I’ve participated as a speaker at more than 40 different IT conferences in more than 30 countries during the last few years. Most of the time it’s a great experience: you meet new people all over the world, you hear (and try to speak) new languages, you visit wonderful places, you eat a lot of great food, you experience new cultures and you share your experience.

But sometimes bizarre things happen and it’s time to talk about them.

I compiled here some bizarre experiences in the last five years because I think it worth sharing for fun and for people wanting to organize an event. I didn’t mention names or dates because it’s not the point and I’ve already discussed these problems with each organizer individually — although not always with good results.

Disclaimer: most of the time you don’t get paid for speaking at conferences so unless you work for a company that pushes you into speaking, you decide to do this because you like sharing knowledge with the community, traveling and participating in the conference experience like my case. Per engagement, as a speaker you spend 3 to 6 days without the family, you reject some consulting or training paid work for the whole week, and you spend hours in airports and days in a tiny coach class seat on airplanes (just during 2016 I spent 13 days in 58 flights).

Time for some bizarre anecdotes!

We are losing money because of your Twitter account

Speakers are not responsible for filling these seats. We always want to speak with as many people as possible!

Most conference organizers ask speakers to tweet and comment on social network about our participation. That’s ok, I usually send a couple of tweets during the previous months to promote my participation and indirectly the event. But i don’t spam my timeline. For one conference I’ve received by email the following message — sent to all speakers 2 weeks before the event:

“Frankly you’ve not all been tweeting very much, and this really hurts our business.(…) Please take some time over the next 4 weeks to dedicate at least 1 or 2 tweets a week advertising yourself coming to XXXX”.

What!? Speakers hurting your business? The most aggressive message I’ve received as speaker from an organizer. The request even sound like one of those agreements for Twitter celebrities to promote a brand. Of course I had to reply to that aggressive message and as I thought I was the only speaker complaining so the next message was even worst stating that every conference expects to get some tickets sold from speakers’ social media; that it’s not in the contract but it’s clearly part of the deal (!?). I explained that it’s a bonus but definitely not part of the deal! Speakers speak! Sometimes the presence of speakers can help selling tickets, but speakers are not responsible of selling tickets. (S)he even says that because of that reimbursements were at risk.

I’m a grown man

Sometimes speakers just want to go and get some good coffee. Oh yes, my finger doesn’t fit in that hole :(

I have to be honest here: I’m not a good conference attendee. While I can attend one or two sessions, when I’m in speaker mode I’m a terrible attendee, so if I’m not speaking or doing any social activities, I prefer to walk out of the venue for a while. One time, I was in a conference that was really boring and the Wi-Fi wasn’t working, so I decided to get out of the venue and go to a Starbucks, 2 blocks from there. The organizer saw me at the door and yelled to me: “Where are you going? You can’t get out!”.

I couldn’t believe I was having that discussion. (S)he was saying that I was invited by them and they are responsible for my security and I can’t get out of the venue. In fact, (s)he mention the organization expects me to be sited in the front row for the whole conference with all the speakers.

I mentioned that I was leaving the venue on my responsibility, that I’m a grown man and I’m not an object they can position wherever they want. (S)he didn’t agree. So I got out anyway without the permission and (s)he was really angry. They invited the next year anyway, but I rejected the invitation.

The hangover

This anecdote didn’t happen in Saudi Arabia; everything you see here is a non-alcoholic drink

First time in that country. A country on which English (or Spanish, my actual language) is really rare in the city. After the event day at 8pm, the organizers booked some taxis and send all the speakers to other venue were we were supposed to have dinner. The other venue was out of town and it was a disco, in a basement (no cellular network). They realized there were no food there, just drinks. They say they will get food there from outside.

Here comes the interesting part: after a couple of hours, every organizer was drunk. Completely drunk. So drunk that they didn’t even spoke English anymore. And the food never arrived!

Around 2am, the situation was enough for me, so I ask one of the organizers: get me a taxi. Fortunately I had local currency with me. The organizer didn’t want to. “Hey, you need to drink more”. “No, I don’t, I want to go to the hotel now”; after a “discussion” involving hugs and kisses (well, in this case I can say the organizer was a she) I convinced her to get out to the street level -in the middle of nowhere- where she called a taxi.

After 15 minutes, the taxi arrived and I asked her: “Did you give the driver the hotel’s address?”, she said yes. It wasn’t the case and the driver didn’t understand Google Maps. BTW, it was a country not using latin characters so the hotel name in English wasn’t helping.

At the end, I could arrive safe to the hotel and I had some late dinner at 3.30am thanks to service room. The next day, at around 1pm one of the organizers contacted me to see if I’m ok.

The worst hotel experience in my life

Actual sign in the bathroom’s door

I’ve been in more than 180 cities in 55 countries so far and one of the worst hotel experiences happened in a conference. I don’t expect luxury; on some special situations, I even shared room with other speakers; but there is a limit. An even higher limit if it’s a paid conference and you mentioned in the speakers’ room how happy you were because you were making money that year.

The hotel was well located, but my first night was a nightmare. Impossible bed, a quarter of a pillow, a bathroom with no water, a broken door, no windows, no AC, only a really noisy fan, and the Wi-Fi didn’t get signal in my room (at that point, I didn’t care about the Wi-Fi). Did I mention my room was in the third floor with no elevator? I think I slept only 2–3 hours that night, I woke up with back pain, I found a near café with Wi-Fi, I emailed the organizer, I booked a near Holiday Inn Express for the 2 nights left and I moved all my stuff. Before check out, I asked: how much does the room cost? US$ 18/night. The conference was held in an university (free venue), there were 300 attendees paying US$80/each.

PayPal triggers an speaker-organizers war

PayPal dinning room at their Headquarters in San Jose, CA. I was delivering trainings there. Actually, nothing to do with the war but hey… I have to illustrate it!

Sometimes, we pay for the air ticket and then after the event -yes, it should be before- we get a reimbursement. One time, a conference organizer wasn’t covering all the ticket (prices went up after approval and I was paying a difference, I accepted it, it happens sometimes).

When I sent the airline ticket, the organizer answered stating that (s)he will be using PayPal because I wasn’t a domestic speaker. I replied that it’s ok, I do have a PayPal account but I asked if (s)he can please add the 5% PayPal will charge me for receiving money from other country and currency. Remember, it was a reimbursement (not even 100% of it), not a speaker fee.

Oh my god; that request started a war. The reply started with “I will remind you of your non-disparagement clause”. WTF! I even looked into the contract and there were no non-disparagement clause. (S)he was so angry of that 5% request! The reply included:

  • “You can leave your money in your PayPal account and it doesn’t cost you 5%” (BTW, at one point I gave up requesting for that %, but the nonsense discussion was still there)
  • “We have a contract and that is what will be paid out, and your conduct is expected to be in line with the contract and the code of conduct” (the contract doesn’t specify PayPal will be used)
  • “I do not understand why you are trying to make an enemy and argument with me the conference organizer” (are you God?)
  • “you are arguing with me about the fees you may face to get paid not being in the contract.” (at this point it was just common sense: reimbursement!)
  • “you are speaking at one of the most diverse tech events out there, you are talking on a topic that will get you a lot of exposure at the event locally and globally, you have the chance to sell more copies of your books, and promote your other ventures. Yet you insist on critiquing and casting judgement on me and my organization. Most speakers don’t get a cent, I will not be bullied into providing you more funds than what is agreed upon in the contract.” (I’m a bully speaker)

And (s)he ended up the message with: “If you want to withdrawal speaking because of this you will see in your contract that you will be swallowing all of the cost. I suggest you take a step back and look at your behavior, and re-read the contract and code of conduct, if you are found in violation of the code of conduct or your contract during the event you will also not be getting paid.”

This was one week before the event and it was the first time I though seriously about cancelling everything. I waited one day, didn’t answer the email and went there anyway. Attendees don’t deserve a cancelation just because the organizer is such an idiot. I enjoyed speaking there, my talk was one of the highest rated talks during the conference and the organization payed me the reimbursement, and I payed US$80 of PayPal commission. I didn’t speak again at any conference organized by that company and I didn’t tweet or mention after that experience.

Being abandoned in the middle of nowhere

Fortunately, for me it was a 200, not a 404.

One time I was in a city of those that are declared as “dangerous” for tourists, with usual suggestions such as: “don’t grab a taxi in the streets, only at the hotel”.

The transport hotel-venue-hotel for speakers was provided with vans by the organization but one of the conference days I’ve been asked for help. “Can you be judge in a contest that is happening today from 7 to 10pm in the same venue?”. I agree. I missed that day’s dinner but it was fun to listen to 15 app developers showcasing their work. The contest ended and the organizer told me a van will wait for me outside of the venue, (s)he was going to the parking lot to get his/her car.

Did I mention the venue was a huge park outside of the city near a highway? Well, I exited the venue looking for the van and… no van was waiting outside. In fact, no cars, no people, no lights, no life were outside. I tried to get into the venue again to the parking lot to find the organizer (or at least to get some WiFi because the roaming wasn’t working) and the security guy told me: “you can’t get in again, we are closed”. I explained the situation to him and he didn’t care too much about it. Fortunately I speak the language of that country. So… “can you call me a taxi?”. “I don’t have any number to call”, answered the security man.

What should I do? I’m outside the city, near a highway, it’s 10pm, nobody is there anymore, my roaming wasn’t working, I was carrying my laptop and other gadgets, there was no Wi-Fi and the rule in that country is: “don’t take a taxi on the street” (they were no cars on that street!).

I don’t know why, but a miracle appeared: a taxi appeared from nowhere in the middle of the darkness. I took it. Nothing happened, but I was definitely upset (and a little afraid of the situation). I arrived the hotel safely, I emailed the organizer. (S)he answered with one line: “I’m glad you are ok”. That conference happened one year later, they invited me, I rejected the invitation with the proper explanation.

I own my time

What if I want to take some days off and go to the beach near the event. I’m paying for any difference. BTW, nice beaches in Dominican Republic; it’s a shame I don’t like the beach ;)

Sometimes after I accept a conference speaking engagement, other invitations near that city appears. Sometimes I take the opportunity of the trip and do other city for tourism or other reasons. I always arrange the flight cost as from my city to the conference city, the organizer agree on the cost and then if there is any addition for other cities or changes other conference or myself pays for it.

During one of this 2 conferences-in-a-row situations, the organizer of the first conference discussed with me when the reimbursement had to be made. “But you also went to this other city for other event!”, “So what?” I asked. We agreed on the price and I’m not an slave of your property, I can do whatever I want with my time and my travelings! I went to your event, I did 2 talks and 1 workshop, I didn’t get paid for the work, I spent 14 hours traveling to your city and you don’t want to reimburse me the flight because I took advantage of the trip and I did something else? (S)he offered to pay half the price. I didn’t accept.

Sometimes there are also some organizers that feel that because they paid you the travel you have to be for them every day, even the days before the event, to visit a sponsor, to go to some tour visiting community friends or just to be there ready at any time for any activity. It’s a good idea to offer an agenda and let each speaker decide if (s)he wants to take some, all or no activities. You need to remember sometimes we are jet lagged, we are tired and sometimes we had to do some remote work.

What if I don’t have local currency to pay this?

I have more than 30 currencies in change in my collection; but we don’t usually have much money just in case in our wallet when we speak in a new country.

Organizers need to be very clear about what is being covered by the organization and what is not. A good organization will cover breakfast, lunch and dinner for all the organization days. Anyway, one time all the speakers were invited to a speakers’ dinner. We all guessed it was covered by the organization as always and how the invitation was made.

It was not, and we went to a fancy restaurant. And that’s not all: it was a cash only restaurant. 80% of the speakers didn’t carry any local currency so it was a big issue. Also, the organizers at the end stated that now “everyone is on its own”, so we needed to take taxis to the hotel that we need to pay in local currency. Most speakers were angry, I took a taxi with a CTO of a big company that was sponsoring the vent. He was really angry; he even said that his company rules don’t allow him to take a taxi like that on the street -on a violent city-, that they will never sponsor that event again.

Closing Marks

Conferences are a great place to meet hundreds of people, learn and share.

95% of the time speaking at conferences is a great experience! I’ll continue doing it as much as possible, I will travel as far as necessary to share experiences with the community. But if you are organizing a conference, meet-up, congress or event and you want to invite speakers, now you know what you should never do with your speakers.