A Rant About Speaking at Conferences

By Rory Monaghan

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I drafted this blog post years ago but felt compelled to finish it off and post it today after seeing an article from John Burns in the Irish Times who shared a story about being asked to participate in a panel discussion at the Web Summit for free and he was asked to cover his own travel. There has been a lot of reaction to this story and it has validated some of my previous assumptions that most people who attend conferences don’t know that the people presenting and creating the content are likely not being paid. John’s article comes only a few weeks after Rihanna played the Superbowl half time show and didn’t get paid for the performance, which is something that has made me wonder what other areas of life feature content or art creators not getting paid.

My reason for not posting the blog post before was because I thought it would a major first world problem and it will sound like a privileged man whinging about something he willingly participated in BUT the fact people are reacted the way they are to the article made be think it could be worth publishing this post to inform those in tech of what tech conference speakers experience as it may change the perspective of conference attendees. Lets dive into this rant!

Most Speakers are NOT Paid

All but one event I have presented at did not pay me and the one that did pay didn’t pay nearly enough to cover the time put into the session and the unpaid days off I had to take in order to attend. Money hasn’t been a motivator for me. When I started presenting at conferences, I didn’t have kids or a wife. It was good to try to help build a reputation to increase employment opportunities but my main incentive for speaking at events was simply so I could attend them.

Believe it or not, at the time of writing this article the only event I have ever got to attend on my employer’s dime was E2EVC which by design is one of the cheapest events for attendees to go to. It is also one of my favourites so I’m not complaining too much! You may recall on this site and on my Podcast, one of my reasons for selling advertising is as a means for me to pay for training for myself and to pay my way to conferences so I won’t have to speak at so many events and can just enjoy as an attendee. Unfortunately, the pandemic stopped that! I have been in IT for the better part of 2 decades now and at the time of writing this I have yet to attend a conference as an attendee with no obligation to speak. I came close once! Citrix Synergy 2018 as a CTP but then I got asked to take part in a Fireside Chat session.

Expenses are not Always Covered

Some events don’t pay for the speaker’s flights and accommodation. For some the only expense covered is the ticket to attend the conference itself. Nevermind other expenses like food, rental car, train tickets, bus tickets etc.

I have even incurred extra costs in order to prepare my content e.g. I needed a new machine with a TPM chip to demo a security feature many years ago. That ran me over $1,000 at the time. Recently, I’ve been paying over $40 a month for a Windows 365 Business Desktop for doing demos. I started my own company a couple of years ago so now these expenses are less of a burden but before this year the extra expenses incurred were coming out of my personal income.

Time Drain

I’m not sure about others but I typically put in 10+ hours of work into preparing into my sessions. In some cases, I have put far more than that like my ill fated Citrix App Layering session shortly after Citrix acquired Unidesk. I must have put in 50-60 hours into that. In the past, when working as part of internal IT teams at different companies its not like my manager said go ahead and prepare for that session this week, I’ll clear your workload here for you. All of those hours were in addition to full time hours for my day jobs.

Public Speaking Sucks

As stated above, I don’t get paid for public speaking. Most others in this industry who I have talked to also don’t get paid. So by definition, we are not Professional Public Speakers. I would guess maybe key note speakers do get paid but even then, I’m not sure.

With no formal training for public speaking, no help preparing content and no help practicing we are just doing our best. When I was at Synergy in 2018, I was walking the exhibition floor with a guy who may be the busiest and most active speaker in the EUC community. Lunch was starting, I asked him if he wanted to get something to eat. He told me no, his session was on around 4pm and he didn’t like to eat anything before he presents. I am the exact same. I could be speaking at 6pm or 7pm and I would not eat all day due to what the stress does to my stomach. What is strange is nowadays mentally, I feel ok and don’t have a sense of anxiety. I have presented so many sessions BUT there is always those unknowns and that tension sits in my stomach and the result is physical discomfort and pain. The person you see speaking on stage may not be shaking like Mitch Hedberg but they still be battling themselves to speak to you that day.

Make Feedback Constructive

I have had very useful feedback from sessions like someone after one of my BriForum sessions graded my session low and said there was too much covered in it and that it was hard to take in. I agreed. One other thing that comes with not being a pro at this, is sometimes I ramble on and go over time, or sometimes I lose my place and speed through things too quickly. As I gain more experience doing it, the better I get at it and that feedback helped. I updated that session to do the topic again at a different event many years later and cut out some of the products that I talked about.

What is not helpful is the Yelp review like feedback. Some use session feedback to make things personal, which just smacks of jealousy and insecurity on the part of that attendee. When I was young, that kind of thing really bothered me when I read it. These days, I try to let it go because experience has taught me the reality is the comments reflect more on that person than me. What does still bother me about it is thinking that young people who stick their neck out to present may also be bothered by it like I was and it may be enough for them to not do it again.

I mentioned it on the ThriveIT Podcast but there is a massive void in EUC bloggers and speakers compared to just a few years ago. Will others fill that void?. What if people do try to fill it and got put off by jealous insecure assholes? It leaves our industry worse off, in my opinion.

Be Kind

Kindness doesn’t cost anything. While I love interactive sessions where people genuinely want to discuss a topic and add to the topic, unfortunately often those who speak up to say something during my sessions don’t help the content, they hurt it. I remember one of our rules for a user group I was involved with was no sales people allowed. They wouldn’t bring content geared toward a technical audience and they were likely to interject with something to try to derail another session if it involved one of their competitor’s products. It is not unique to sales or even vendors though. The bigger conferences in particular seem to attract arseholes who don’t want to put forth the time and effort to do their own session but will gladly use your session as a platform for whatever agenda they have.

Other Consultants are just as guilty of this. There a certain technologies that consultancy companies jump on and because it becomes a potentially big money making opportunity, an echo-chamber forms where people will ensure no one calls their baby ugly. Anyone who runs counter to the narrative needs to be taken down. Which is not good for customers or the community in the long run. It gives people not working with the tech in question falsely believe that said product must be the best because so many people are praising it. Don’t believe the hype. Do your own testing. As always in IT, it depends! It depends on your environment, your requirements etc.

Conclusion

I am finally in a position where I don’t need to speak at events just to attend them. Speaking at events is now actually part of my job so the time I put in doing personal sessions over the years has worked out in that regard as it clearly helped me gain skills to use in different roles. I don’t regret speaking at conferences and the juice was worth the squeeze, even if it did cause actual physical pain and discomfort! I got to be a Citrix CTP, Microsoft MVP and a VMware vExpert which has been an incredible experience.

I encourage those who would like to grow their own personal brand and to gain new skills to throw yourself at the opportunities when you see a conference do a call for speakers. In fact, if you have not presented at a conference before and you work in EUC specifically and it is something you would like to try, let me know! In future, I would love to co-present with others rather than do sessions alone.  I got to speak with my buddy Trentent Tye at HIMSS last year and it was such a better experience being a co-presenter than flying solo. If you want a co-presenter, let me know! It would help me out as it reduces the workload for me and I would be happy to help a first time speaker out by supporting and working with you!

Finally, with conferences back with in-person events be sure to support not just the large tech conferences, support the smaller conferences too. Those tend to be the most valuable as a learning opportunity. The bigger more grandiose conferences can be image driven and more of a networking opportunity for executives and sales people.

Photos used for this post were by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash
and
by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

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