Free speech

The business conference circuit is a merry-go-round of people trying to get on a platform and pronounce their expertise in a subject in the hope that they get noticed by someone in the audience with a bit of budget, so the speaker can drum up some business for his or her company. Because of this dynamic, most speakers at business events are not paid to speak, and in many cases (where they are a sponsor of the event), they are paying to speak to an audience.

But I don’t have anything to sell, other than myself. I do have years of experience speaking at events, organising other speakers, and chairing events. I’ve spoken all over the world on many subjects and in a variety of formats, and even written speeches for politicians, diplomats, and FTSE100 CEOs to help them speak on areas I am familiar with.

I do speak for free at many events, for not-for-profit organisations, or events that have a particularly important audience I want to reach and it’s worth it for me to do the event free. But I don’t normally speak at commercial events for free. And after all, if a conference organiser wants a decent chair who can handle speakers, field questions, ask relevant questions when the audience doesn’t, and generally keep things running, then surely that has some value?

So it’s a bit annoying to get called by a conference organiser who says he “heard of me from somewhere” and who then asks if I want to chair his conference. I said the agenda looks interesting, so maybe. He then asked me to detail if I have ever chaired an event before. Perhaps he could have done a little bit of the most basic homework? Google is quite good for that.

He offered me a free ticket to the event. Which, as a speaker, is kind of essential to get in. And the free ticket has a value of £1,400! So there is my payment – in free entry. If people are paying £1,400 to get into the event then that’s a commercial event, so why are important elements of the event – such as deciding on a chairman – done on the cheap by calling around to find someone who will do it free?

I actually have a speaker agent in the UK and USA now, because I often found that companies would book me, then change date or cancel events with short notice, meaning I would turn down other work and hold dates blocked in my diary, only to find them refusing to pay for an event that did not happen. At least with an agent in the middle it’s all contracted. I once had to explain opportunity cost to an Indian technology firm after they cancelled an entire week of work with two days notice.

Maybe I’m just ranting, but I know that most of the free speakers have a company to promote. If the conference organisers want someone independent, ready to offer opinion and thought, and with great experience speaking and chairing, then they should be prepared to pay.

Mark speaking at Chatham House, London, June 2005

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