Tag Archives: speaker

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

When will conferences allow more participation?

I was at a lovely office by the river Thames on Tuesday, chairing an event focused on the environment and sustainability. It was interesting and there were some good speakers from companies such as HSBC and IBM, but a few thoughts crossed my mind as I sat there controlling the speakers and taking notes:

  1. At most conferences, the audience is packed full of knowledge, but they end up only having a few short minutes in a controlled Q&A session, the rest of the time is given to the speaker. Yet more knowledge and learning can be drawn from having a debate with many experienced people, rather than all listening to one experience. So why isn’t the unconference format more popular?
  2. Why isn’t more knowledge captured at conferences? All these learned speakers get together with an interested audience, but the majority of events I attend don’t bother to video the talks, or even capture the audio. All that information can be extremely valuable and published in a rich multimedia format with notes from speakers or audience members. Usually the last you hear of the content is at the end of the day over networking drinks.

I realise the status quo is that sponsors finance events and sponsors want visibility and the opportunity to provide ‘thought leadership’, but when will some event organisers start structuring conferences that (1) create learning and real knowledge that lives on past the day itself and (2) allow everyone to participate in a meaningful way – if they want to?

Southwark Bridge