The End of Speaking

Once upon a time, going to web conferences meant a lot to me.

The early Event Aparts changed my career direction. I watched Jeff Veen speak in his story-telling narrative style and thought, “I can do that. I should do that.”

Khoi Vinh’s SXSW presentation on the grid was the seminal moment that put me on the path towards UX and away from the web as I knew it. Learning I could bring visual order to context and content… it changed things. To a lesser extent, Richard Rutter’s talk at the same SXSW walking through typographical vertical rhythm put me on that course, too. I started doing talks. I bombed. I got better. People came to my talks because I was the speaker. I felt like a D-grade celebrity, like I wasn’t a big star, but people knew who I was.

The last few years, though, I’ve been pulling away from the stage. In 2019, I’m not submitting for any conferences. I don’t have the energy anymore to spend hours on talks that I have to pay to give, and I don’t think they generate the value for me I used to think they did. I’m also unsure of the value conference generate for attendees anymore, either.

The design conference as we know it is dying. Tickets are expensive, travel costs high. The speaker selection process is painful. Meanwhile, conference speakers are rightly asking for something for their troubles besides a pat on the head. And the pervasiveness of social media has undercut the need for meeting face-to-face.

A conference pass can cost anywhere from free (BarCamps and unconferences) to thousands of dollars (UX Week). Travel can range from nearly free (for local) to thousands (for international flights). Hotels, even at conference rates, can run over $100 a night. Throw in incidentals, meals, taxis, and it adds up. You can economize, of course, but are the talks and the networking you get valuable enough to justify the thousands of dollars you may spend just to attend? Is it valuable in a time when there’s a free Slack community for just about every facet of what we call UX?

Then there’s the expense of paying to speak, which is essentially what we’re asked to do by most conferences.

In my experience, it takes 40–100 hours of work to write, build, and practice a presentation. (Want to know why some big design celebrities tend to trot out the same three talks all the time, or write one new talk a year? That’s why.)

My standard rate when I was running my own firm was $150/hr. So if I take the minimum 40 hours out to do this work, that’s $6000 in lost income. Add in travel, hotel, meals (so many dinners), taxis and transit, AND the lost time of getting to and from the conference site… I’m dropping another $1000–2000. And I haven’t even mentioned the conference fees that I’m paying if I didn’t get my pass comped.

One of the major conferences in the UX world doesn’t even comp a pass, much less pay for travel and hotel. When I asked them why they weren’t paying speakers, I got “we try to keep costs down.”

Other conferences do comp passes, of course, and a rare few offer expenses, hotels, and honorariums. All of them are after the same thing — they want to at least break even. Some want to turn an outright profit… while not offering a dime in compensation for the labor of creating, practicing, and delivering a talk.

This would all be fine if I could turn that $8000 I spent on the presentation and conference into bookable work. Except, well, that rarely happens. I talked to eight people about how they generated business when I started my consultancy. Only one said a conference talk generated business. Everyone else said they got far more from word of mouth — or even from books they wrote. (By comparison, my writing has generated two speaking opportunities for me — and arguably a business opportunity or two. And I don’t have to travel to write.)

“Exposure” doesn’t work as a business model when you’re a freelancer or being paid on a government or academic salary. The ones who can afford to speak, overwhelmingly, are those employed by corporations willing to pay for travel and expenses or highly successful independent designers who can afford to pay the expenses and then write them off.

Because I was self-employed in America, I could write off the expenses. It’s a really nice write off — except you can only really do it if you are making enough to be able to write expenses off. As a result, you see a lot of speaking slots filled by those running their own consultancies, usually older, whiter folk, mostly men.

The selection process for being chosen as a speaker doesn’t make the experience any easier. Every call-for-proposal generates a slush pile of talk proposals the reviewers have to whittle down into a schedule. (And it’s a real slush pile; to quote one reviewer I know, “Why is it only men who submit thought pieces?”) Once they have a tentative lineup they start reaching out to possible speakers… only to get turned back because the speakers can’t afford to attend (thanks to conferences not paying speakers). The speaking slots get filled with people who can afford to attend — again, mostly white, mostly men. It makes me wonder which voices we’re not hearing because conferences aren’t paying. (I will also add that the curation and selection process can be its own barrier to entry for speakers, demanding hours of work on crafting a proposal only to receive little feedback other than a curt “no thank you.” It turns people off from submitting when they feel they put a lot of effort into a form letter reply.)

Speakers aren’t the reason the conference happens, though. Conferences happen because the conference organizers and the attendees value the “networking.” I will not deny the power of the network — some of my most lasting relationships in the design industry came from meeting people at conferences. And yet… there’s the nagging problem I have — that my real network exists outside of conferences.

I was a semi-early Twitter adopter. (My user number is sub-1 million, which gives me as much social cred as a middle-aged white guy on a social network has, namely, the exact credibility I currently have, whatever that is.) Twitter got me a job in tech. It helped me build a network of designers I could listen to and seek advice from (and conversely designers that listened to and sought advice from me). Lately, Slack has been doing the same for me.

When I go to conferences I run into people I’ve only known from Twitter or Slack. It’s great to meet them and hang out with them. The conference is just an excuse to hang out, though. It didn’t build the network; it just helped foster more connections with them.

Are conferences great places to network? Absolutely. Do attendees still need conferences for the network? Maybe not. The rising generation of developers and designers grew up online; they built their networks without the strong requirement that their friends must be in meatspace all the time.

How can conference creators “save” conferences (assuming they’re something we think it’s valuable to save?)

  • Pay speakers. Pay them for their time. Pay for their travel and hotel.
  • If you have to raise ticket prices, so be it. I’m sure with a little thinking you can come up with a better pricing model that still gets the right people in the door. (Besides, I remind you that many conferences, including ones that don’t pay speakers, are already charging well north of $1000 already just to get in the door of a 500 person conference. Where is that $500K going anyway?)
  • Treat every proposal the way you would want your proposal treated. Curate relentlessly, but fairly. Provide actionable feedback. Make people want to try again.
  • Yes, conferences will still need your tent-pole speakers. (But if tent-pole speakers are all that a conference is about, why even have forty breakout sessions over three days? Do the keynotes and let’s go straight to karaoke.) Clearly, there’s value in a multi-track conference. That value, though, only manifests when you value the speakers’ time and effort into producing the best possible talks. By doing that, you value the time and effort attendees are putting into attending. A conference can be more than tent-poles if you place a value on assembling the best possible tracks.
  • De-emphasize speaking at big conferences as the be-all end-all of career growth and success. Yes, I’ll still burnish my “spoke at SXSW and Webvisions and MinneWebCon” achievements, but in all honesty, my speaking work has been fairly insignificant compared to my regular design work. There are a lot of kids out there who want to be Jared Spool giving talks at all the conferences and little venues, but based on his airline rage tweets I’m not even sure Jared Spool wants to be Jared Spool some days.

For years some naysayers in UX have been emphatic that “those who speak about UX do not do UX,” that those who are on these stages all the time you can’t point to any good work they’ve done. I don’t believe that to be true at all. However, I do know there are a lot of designers out there doing good work that won’t ever grace a stage because they can’t afford to be there. That concerns me more than anything else. Conferences should represent who we want to be as a design profession, and I’m not seeing that aspiration on the daïs right now when we keep running out those with the money and privilege to be up there.

As for me, I’m tired of the speaking circuit. I get much more out of writing that I ever did from speaking. So I’m taking myself out of the game. The industry deserves to hear new voices that have never been heard before. Would that conferences make the moves to allow those voices to come through.

In the meantime, I’ll be at a conference or two here and there, wearing my attendee badge, looking for the new voices, and waiting either for the renaissance of the design conference as a platform for new voices pushing for social and cultural change — or for the death of the conference.

The Interconnected

Writing about being humans working on the web

    Dylan Wilbanks

    Written by

    Artisan tweets locally foraged in Seattle. Principal @hetredesign, cofounder @EditorConnected. Accessibility, UX, IA. Social Justice Ranger. ᏣᎳᎩ. 🌮. He/him.

    The Interconnected

    Writing about being humans working on the web