Aisha Blake

Asking for Compensation as a Speaker

October 03, 2020

A while back, I published a post about getting paid as a speaker. In that post, I outline how and why you might expect to be paid but not how to ask for said pay. The bottom line is that you should be compensated for the value you bring to any event.

You don’t need to agonize over crafting the perfect phrasing. It pays (heh) to be straightforward and direct. My goal is to help you feel more confident when approaching event organizers about money. Take these snippets and adjust them to fit your own situation!

Let’s break this down into a few different scenarios…

Clarifying the CFP

Usually, if you’re responding to a call for proposals (CFP), you already know what the conference is offering its speakers. That information should be listed somewhere in the CFP, which you should always read carefully before submitting. If the CFP does not outline speaker pay and/or benefits clearly, it’s time to ask for more details!

There’s likely contact information somewhere in the CFP. Use that to reach out to the organizers with your questions. Feel free to include anything else you’re unsure of after reading the CFP. The organizers will probably be happy to update it so that others looking to submit don’t stumble over the same things.

Hi! I’m interested in applying to speak at your event but I’d like to understand how speakers will be compensated for their work. Could you outline your plans for paying speakers, please? I want to make sure they’re aligned with my own expectations.

Responding to an invitation

Someone has asked you to speak at their event. Clearly, you are fancy and sought after. And you should be paid! Often, organizers don’t include much information in an initial ask like this. The message is likely to be informal, possibly via social media. You’ll probably have a number of questions for them to answer before you’ll agree to speak. You may also want to include something like the following:

I generally don’t take on unpaid speaking engagements. Please let me know how/if you’re paying your speakers.

Asking on behalf of others

Particularly if you’re more well known, you may receive compensation above and beyond what other speakers are paid. It won’t always be obvious when this happens. If you’re unsure, try to talk with another speaker. Not everyone will be comfortable talking openly about money but transparency can help everyone get the compensation they deserve.

Please feel free to ignore this question if it’s too personal. Did the organizers offer to pay you for speaking?

If you do find that other speakers aren’t being paid fairly, consider asking for compensation on their behalf. Most conferences have pretty strictly limited budgets but many, especially among the virtual conferences necessitated by the pandemic, are backed by for profit companies. Even if the event itself doesn’t charge a registration fee, there is a budget.

There will be variations in pay if the conference includes professional and/or celebrity speakers. The following assumes that there’s a mix of folks outside these categories and that some are being paid far less than others or not at all.

I feel strongly that speakers should be paid equally. How might your team be able to make that happen?

Note that this doesn’t include a yes or no question. It’s not “Is this possible?” or “Could you change this?” You’re asking for suggestions, which will hopefully prompt the other person to actually consider the possibilities. Maybe they can still contact paid speakers about lowering their fees so that everyone can be paid. Perhaps they can get creative about seeking additional sponsorships.

Dealing with pushback

Whether no one is being paid or compensation is uneven between speakers, at least one person decided things would be that way. They had reasons for making that decision which you may or may not agree with. The organizer(s) may push back or even get defensive when you propose policy changes. Try not to take it personally, stand firm, and also understand that those changes may not happen.

I understand that [this is your policy / the budget is tight / whatever the situation is] and I appreciate your consideration. That said, I believe that paying speakers should be a high priority for any event like this.

Knowing when to walk away

You won’t always get the result you want. At that point, it’s your turn to make a decision, to decide what’s most important to you. What’s a deal breaker? At what point do you withdraw from an event over speaker pay?

This is going to be different for everyone. You may decide you have different expectations for small community events versus larger conferences run by companies. Your reaction might change based on how the organizer(s) field your questions.

Get as much information as you need and make this decision as early as possible. The closer you are to an event, the more stressful it is for everyone involved when a speaker drops out.

Thank you for clarifying your policies and considering my request. Given what you’ve shared with me, I won’t be able to participate in this event. I’d love to suggest [speaker you’d recommend] as an alternative speaker.

Of course, only recommend others if you feel comfortable doing so. If you know a speaker who won’t have a problem with the event’s policies and you have their consent, this can be an excellent way to share the spotlight with new and/or underrepresented folks. Be sure to include any reasons why you’d recommend them and suggest a particular talk if you have one in mind.

Next steps

What would you add or change to these snippets? What other tough conversations have you had as a speaker? If you’re an organizer, how do you approach speaker compensation? Hit me up on Twitter with your thoughts and experiences!


Aisha Blake

Blog by Aisha Blake, a speaker, teacher, and Staff Software Engineer at Gatsby. Say hi on Twitter!