A Tale of Two Conferences

Many consultees ask me how to get speaking engagements, and certainly that’s an important question.  But this is also not the most important question.  It is akin in many ways to the conversations around the question, “How do I get a job?”  The focus is often too much on how to make a good impression on the interviewer, how to present as a good fit for the workplace in question.  If you are only asking those questions and wanting to be a successful entrepreneur, I suggest you are barking up the wrong tree.

Because the questions that are equally important, if not more important, are the on the surface the less humble and self-effacing ones:  Do I want to work for this person interviewing me?  Would I enjoy this work environment?  Are these people making a good impression on me?  These are the questions which come from the perspective that you are a valuable commodity, and that perspective to a large extent needs to come from within.  And let me be clear, not all workplaces, even those who purport to be empowering, want you to approach them from that perspective, because it lowers their bargaining potential when money (there he goes again with the money!) questions arise.

So too with public speaking engagements.  There needs to be at least a sense of mutual value, mutual ROI that has to come from the speaker and the speaking engagement.  Let me give you an example:

I am doing in the next year an engagement with conference A and conference B.  Conference A approached me with a request, because they had had a personal referral to me.  I will be speaking to a group of several hundred people at an event where I am one of several presenters.

Conference B sent out a general call for presenters and ideas.  Several years running I have been nudged by some of the folks in charge to apply to present, so this year I did.  Again, the conference will have an attendance of several hundred people and I will be one of several presenters.

Neither conference A nor conference B have an honorarium, but that is acceptable to me for a couple of reasons at this point in my career.  One reason is that I now allot one pro bono presentation per month.  But the other reason is that there is some clear ROI in both conference A and B:  I will get exposure which leads to more paid speaking engagements; I will have a venue to make my book available for sale; and I will get my pro-gaming, pro-tech message out.

So far, so good.  I should add here how both Conference A and B frequently include language in their letters to me about how valuable my contribution is and how much they appreciate me.  But over the past few months I have received communications from both conferences that show how different they are in their attitudinal stance towards speakers.

Conference A sends me a paper letter with the details of registration for the conference.  I am given the name of a specific person who handles presenter registration, told I am welcome to attend the entire conference for free and invited to a special luncheon for presenters on the day.

Conference B sends me a registration form, offers me a discount, and lets me know that they can only “give” me free admission to my presentation.

What?

I am being given free admission to my presentation?  I’m confused.  Is the implication that normally I should be paying for the privilege of presenting my expertise, but as a special gift I get to work for free?  And are they really asking me to pay to attend a conference that I am donating my time and expertise to?

Guess which conference I will continue to work with in upcoming years?

If you guessed Conference A, bingo!  Because they have the right attitude in my opinion.  Their behavior is as valuing as their words.  It costs them virtually nothing to get the group of us presenters in a smaller room for lunch and call it a special lunch, and it costs them virtually nothing for them to give me free attendance to the larger conference.  And by assigning a specific person to handle my registration, they have made things even easier for me.  What’s more they have in a few gestures given me what Chris Brogan calls that VIP Feeling.

Conference B has done none of that for their presenters.  And think of all the value they are losing!  They could have all of us experts in the field adding to the conference beyond our sessions.  Asking questions or making comments at other presentations, networking with others, and being a free resource to other attendees at lunch, breaks and other down times.

Here is where word and deed don’t connect.  What message are you sending when you ask people to work for free and then charge them?  The irony is that Conference B will probably have some organizers who don’t understand why they end up getting a bunch of “hit and run” presenters and resent our not signing up for the conference.  It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone, and it comes from a poverty perspective, not an abundance one.

So if you want to be a presenter, please remember this:  You’re an expert in your field, act like one.  Your time is valuable and limited, and you need to set the tone for that.  Finally, pay attention to how potential presenting clients treat you.  After talking with them, do you feel like a VIP, or do you feel like Oliver Twist?

Some of the old guard have told me that this is the industry standard.  To which I say two things:

1. If that is true, the standard is wrong and needs to be changed.

2. This is one big reason why our profession is consistently undervalued and under-appreciated: Other people take our cue.

Also, someone should tell Conference A that they aren’t keeping lockstep with the industry standard by giving speakers the VIP treatment.

Oh, never mind, I’ll tell Conference A myself: Because they’ve earned my loyalty and I hope to be a presenter and attendee for years to come.

 

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Comments

  1. Hi, Mike. Just stumbled across your post as I was preparing for my own presentations at conferences. Thanks for initiating this discussion.

    It’s true! In the fields of mental health, presenters are often expected to pay for part or all of their own conference registrations. Those presenting at medical or legal events get the VIP treatment that you refer to; however, in mental health . . . it’s a rarity to receive any remuneration.

    Last year, I presented a half day workshop to my state professional association non gratis. This is my “home” group and one that I am very committed to supporting so initially I didn’t think twice about my “donation.”

    The attorney who was presenting the second half of the day did not hesitate to ask for (and received) $2000 for his 3 hours of work. I learned of this fact halfway through the day and it gave me pause . . . .

    What I know is that I consistently get “the highest marks” according to the Governing Council of this organization and that was true last year, too. That’s why I decided to take my own advice this year and, when approached by that same organization, asked for my usual and customary speaking fee. Imagine my delight when they did not hesitate to hire me for the full day.

    I, too, offer public speaking to groups pro bono and support this organization in a variety of way. However, it was a good lesson for me to be reminded of yet again . . . that mental health professionals often fail ourselves by not asking for fair and reasonable compensation for our services. As knowledge workers, it’s easy to dismiss what we know and easy to overlook the contributions that we make to others – both in and outside of our professions.j

    It would behoove you and me and our colleagues to remember that we are responsible for teaching agencies, organizations, and individuals how to treat us. It’s a lesson that I continue to get and one that I apparently need to repeat on occasion. Your post is one more reminder that we can all raise the standard of professionalism in counseling, social work, and psychology.

  2. Oops. Hit “send” before I was finished. I wanted to also add “thank you” for your pro bono speaking and your generous sharing of information and thought provoking posts on your blog. I’ll be referencing your blog in one of my presentations this week. Hope it drives a bit of traffic your way!

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