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Why Is It Important to Pay Event Speakers?

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Press the Issue
Why Is It Important to Pay Event Speakers?
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Press the Issue is a production of MasterWP. It was produced by Allie Nimmons. It was hosted and edited by Monet Davenport and mixed and mastered by Teron Bullock. Please visit masterwp.com/presstheissue to find more episodes. Subscribe to our newsletter for more WordPress news at masterwp.com 

Episode Transcript:

Monet Davenport:
Welcome to Press The Issue, a podcast for Master WP, your source for industry insights for WordPress professionals. Get show notes, transcripts, and more information about the show at masterwp.com/presstheissue.

Monet Davenport:
For years, WordCamps have been run by volunteers, and all the content has been produced by volunteer speakers. Lately, there have been more and more conversations around compensating speakers for their time and expertise. In this episode, Allie and Devin break down the details of what paying event speakers could look like.

Devin Egger:
Today, we’re here with Allie Nimmons talking about why speakers at WordCamps need to get paid. Hey Allie, how are you doing?

Allie Nimmons:
Hey, Devin. I’m really good. How are you?

Devin Egger:
I’m doing great. Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me.

Allie Nimmons:
Of course.

Devin Egger:
So this is definitely a topic that we’ve talked about a little bit here at Master WP, and I’m really glad you’re coming to talk a little bit more about the idea of speakers getting paid at WordCamps, and that’s definitely something that’s been quite a hot button topic. So I guess just kind of starting out, just in general, what are your kind of thoughts on this whole issue and where do you stand on it? I mean, obviously we probably think that people need to get paid, but what do you think?

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. I definitely think that speakers should be paid. I think that anyone who is providing a service based off of their knowledge, their expertise, their experience, there needs to be adequate compensation for that. I understand the model that we have that exists right now, which is super community-based. It’s very volunteer-oriented. It’s very education for the sake of education and learning for the sake of learning.

Allie Nimmons:
And I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with people speaking for free. It’s a choice. And I think that in a lot of ways, it destresses the situation in terms of, you can decide to speak at a WordCamp for free and not have kind of additional pressures of, okay, well they’re paying me this much, so everything has to be super duper perfect. Right? I think as a speaker, if you’re doing it for free, you can feel a little bit more comfortable, maybe making mistakes here or there, or maybe speaking for the first time. There’s not as much pressure if you’re doing it on a volunteer basis.

Allie Nimmons:
But we start to get into issues where people can’t speak as readily without being compensated, or people are trying or speaking a lot and they’re not being compensated, or at a certain point, the payoff of having that exposure is not worthwhile anymore. And so people are, what’s the word, de-encouraged. It’s not the right word. I’ll think of it later. But it’s not as attractive to speak, especially because there are so many other tech conferences and other types of business conferences out there that do pay.

Allie Nimmons:
So if you’re approaching somebody from maybe the fringes or outside of the WordPress community and you’re asking them to come in and to speak and to share their knowledge, a lot of people do expect some sort of compensation for that time because it’s been a standard in other communities. Like I’ve spoken at tons of WordCamps for free, and I love doing that, but I’ve also been offered speaking engagements for other events. I’ve been paid up to $1,500 to just speak. Not anything crazy, not anything more than a WordCamp speaker would be expected to do, and it was just, “Hey, we’d like you to speak. Here’s how much you get paid.” No beating around the bush.

Allie Nimmons:
So I think that there’s value to paying people. I understand right now why we don’t, but I understand also coming out of the pandemic, people are very precious with their time and their energy. And I think we’re seeing this really interesting shift right now in companies really appreciating the fact that it’s hard to just speak for free even virtually, and that we need to put our money where our mouths are when it comes to actually paying people to speak.

Devin Egger:
Right. Yeah, totally. And that also brings about… You touched on it, but the idea that because we gain so much benefit from WordPress being free and open source, I think that’s kind of the central idea behind it, right, is that we are giving back to that and we provide some additional benefit from our end for being able to use WordPress and benefiting from the open source community. But like you said, that makes it really difficult for someone that maybe is in the tech industry, but not in WordPress, or in the design industry, but not in the WordPress industry. They don’t really have as much incentive to come and speak at a WordCamp as someone that’s actively using WordPress every day.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah, exactly. And I don’t think that there is a one single amount that we need to start paying people. I think that that vastly depends on… So we’re talking about WordCamps right now, but there’s lots of other WordPress events that I kind of think of as indie events, like DE{CODE} that’s put on by WP Engine and WordFest and WooSesh and all of these kind of independently run events that some of them pay, some of them don’t.

Allie Nimmons:
And for people listening, you may not know that WordCamp tickets have a cap. WordCamp can’t charge more than a certain amount of money for a ticket, and that’s designed to keep the event accessible to people. That also limits the amount of money that the event can make and thereby limits the amount that people could be paid. If you’re charging for your indie WordPress event $50 ahead or $100 ahead, yes, you should be paying your speakers appropriately based on how much that event is pulling in. So it would vastly vary depending on how much that event would cost as far as how much that person is paid.

Devin Egger:
Totally. I think that you’re right there. We are kind of in the midst of a shift, and fortunately or unfortunately, fortunately, that shift is happening. Unfortunately, it does seem as though there are some rules there that need to change in order to get that shift to happen, those rules such as how much a WordCamp can charge, whether or not speakers can get paid for WordCamps and all of that. But I think that having these talks like this and opening that conversation and that dialogue up is definitely the way to start creating that change, and I’m glad we’re talking about it.

Devin Egger:
So I guess in light of that, so yeah, I mean, obviously figuring out how much speakers should get paid definitely depends on how much the WordCamp should bring in. And kind of along with that, do you think that if it’s an in-person WordCamp, that we should be paying for the cost of travel and travel expenses like hotel and food and all that? Should it just be an honorarium for speaking? Or how do you think that should go?

Allie Nimmons:
That’s a really good question, and it’s difficult because that’s really expensive, all of that. It’s one thing to pay a speaker, a stipend of 150, $200 or something like that. Once you get into the travel and the hotel, you might have somebody coming to a WordCamp in Florida and they’re coming from France, right? Do you then say, “Okay, well we’re not covering international trips.” Maybe does that person need some sort of special accommodation in terms of a wheelchair? Does that cost extra? Do they need to bring a child? Is that going to cost extra? There’s so many factors and details covered within that that I think would make it really difficult.

Allie Nimmons:
Ideally, the answer is yes. Ideally, we would be able to cover all of those things. And a lot of times, it seems unfair because you do have people… And I’ve been one of these people, so I’m not knocking or criticizing this system, but you have people who go to a WordCamp on the dime of the company that they work for. Right? So I believe you and I are both going to WordCamp US on Master WP’s dime. Our company that we work for is paying for the ticket, for the hotel and for the flight.

Allie Nimmons:
And say, you, Devin had applied to speak and got accepted. That means that you, as a speaker, are getting an all-expenses-paid trip to be able to go and speak. And the only thing, the only difference between you as this hypothetical speaker and a freelancer who applied to speak is just where you work. Right? So I remember always feeling a little bit guilty when I would go to WordCamps and thinking there’s so many people here who maybe saved and saved or spent so much money to be able to get here, and I have not spent a single dime, and it’s just because I happen to be working with this company. And all of that is really complicated.

Allie Nimmons:
So yes, I mean, ideally, I think it should include the cost of all of those things. Maybe that will be an incremental thing. Maybe that will be… As of right now, we have all of these companies, including Master WP, which I know you and I are both really proud of. We have all of these companies who are offering to help folks with those expenses. So maybe in the future, we have a sponsorship option where that company drops in $8,000 and that covers a chunk of travel and hotel accommodation or something like that. But yeah, I think that that might be an incremental thing that happens over time as we sort figure out how to handle those things, but I don’t think that it’s something that can just happen at the turn of a dime.

Monet Davenport:
Thank you for listening up to this point. Press The Issue by Master WP is sponsored by LearnDash. Your expertise makes you money doing what you do. Now, let it make you money teaching what you do. To create a course with LearnDash, visit learndash.com. Now, back to the podcast.

Devin Egger:
We’re definitely very lucky to be provided with the opportunity to basically get paid to go to this and have our travel paid for and all of that. And you’re right. It’s definitely a different situation for those people that have saved up and spent a whole bunch of their own money to go. And we’ve talked also before about how that being able to come to a WordCamp or speak at a WordCamp kind of creates a bit of a privilege issue, and I know that we’ve also talked about before how that being able to pay speakers would also help with creating more diversity in WordPress in general. So how does that work out? By doing a good thing of paying speakers, do we also increase the diversity of the WordPress community in general?

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. I see that as a very direct kind of thoroughfare. Statistically speaking, right, and we’re getting into some generalizations, statistically speaking, in the United States of America, underrepresented people make less money. There’s statistics to back that up. There’s numbers to back that up. Women are paid less. Black people are paid less. People of Hispanic origin are paid less. Disabled people are typically paid less and/or have more expenses that need to be covered. So I’ve worked at WordPress companies with people who have had to use wheelchairs. I’ve worked with people who have chronic pain, and all of those things are money sucks, as well as time and energy sucks.

Allie Nimmons:
And so when you’re looking at all of these different obstacles and all of these different challenges, the idea of, “Okay, let me drop two grand to go to this event on the potentiality that it might be a good networking opportunity or that I might learn something,” that’s so unreasonable to ask people to do. And that’s not to say that straight white men don’t have challenges and economic struggles. That’s always true, but statistically speaking, the straight white men in our society are more economically available to be able to go and do these sorts of things.

Devin Egger:
Absolutely.

Allie Nimmons:
And it’s-

Devin Egger:
It’s hard.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah, it’s really hard. And that means that within our community, there is sort a bit of almost like an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing, but in reverse. Right? So if you’re that person who’s at every single WordCamp and you’re able to be tweeting about things and you’re able to meet all of these other people, make all of these connections, learn all of these skills, it’s going to help you. Right? You’re going to be able to move forward with your career in WordPress. That’s just how it happens. And I’m a perfect example of that. In 2019, I attended, I don’t know, eight different WordCamps or something like that. Yeah. I was so lucky to have the opportunity to travel and to go to all of these things. And most people that I know in the community right now know me or have met me at an event. That’s how my career in WordPress took off, was going to these events.

Allie Nimmons:
But I would not have been able to do that if it was not for a company sponsoring me and paying for me to be able to do those things. And so because that was able to happen, I, as a queer, black woman, have been able to insert myself into the community. And without that, there would be one fewer diverse person active in the community right now. So I do think that there is a direct line between sending these people to camps and allowing them to build out whatever it is they want to build in terms of their professional goals and careers and so on and so forth.

Allie Nimmons:
Not only that, but speaking at an event, learning to speak publicly and getting these experiences under your belt is such a huge confidence booster. And I feel like once you’re able to start speaking at these events and establish yourself as a knowledgeable person within this community, mentally that opens up so many other doors. That erases so much of the imposter syndrome that is forced upon us. So it has so many different repercussions and amazing consequences that a lot of times just don’t come to pass because people just literally can’t afford the trip or can’t afford to take the time off or can’t afford to be away from their families or so on and so forth.

Devin Egger:
Yeah. There’s a lot of barriers there. And I guess I hadn’t even really thought about that. It’s just how much being in these arenas, especially putting yourself out there, can really impact your career. And again, that’s why we have these talks so that we can start to realize just how much benefit people can get from coming to a WordCamp and from speaking at a WordCamp. And it’s kind far-fetched to think that we’re going to be able to change the rules of how the WordPress world works right away. So I guess at the start of it, it seems like kind of the burden is on companies, like ourselves at Master WP, that are sponsoring people to go. Does that seem fair to say to you?

Allie Nimmons:
I think so. I think there’s different things that can happen at different levels of the system. Right? So yeah, companies like ours can definitely do that legwork of reaching out and saying, “We have a budget for this. We will set up a system for people to be able to apply for this kind of assistance, and we’re going to facilitate that to make it happen.” Companies like ours and bigger companies as well, I think, should definitely take that on. I think smaller companies can figure out ways to approximate that as much as possible. Whether that’s throughout the year, you’re going to set aside a small fund so that maybe one event a year, you can send your employees to maybe that’s WordCamp US, maybe it’s something else, but it doesn’t have to be… We have a WordCamp every weekend for the most part or we used to. So I think being able to approximate that at scale is really useful.

Allie Nimmons:
And it also comes down to, we talked about the diversity thing, larger companies can do better always to hire more diverse people so that those people could have the opportunities to go to an event that company is sponsoring, and that’s an individual thing. That’s a manager or a hiring manager, whoever who’s making that decision and being aware of the repercussions of that.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. I’m not sure who else that falls on. I mean, I would love to point at the WordPress Foundation and the systems that establish the way that WordCamps work and say, well, they can be doing more. That’s not always true, or I can’t really speak to how that could be true because I think, especially after the pandemic, the people who are organizing these events are doing their absolute darndest to just make sure the events happen in the first place. But the WordCamp US team, for example, has done a great job of connecting with all of these companies and making sure that people who want to get to that event can get the assistance they need to get there.

Allie Nimmons:
So it sounds corny, but it’s very much a team effort of kind realizing this dream of, yeah, we’re very much a mom and pop shop, if you will, in terms of open source communities, but we can get to that level of being able to pay people to speak, which I think people think of as this almost unattainable thing that you need so much money to be able to do, and it’s like, well, yeah, it costs money, but that money exists in this ecosystem, I believe. It’s just not being routed in the proper ways.

Devin Egger:
And I think we kind of touched on it just a tiny bit before, but the idea that there is a stigma against paying people, like it should be a volunteer, I think you’re really just bringing about the idea that regardless of whatever stigma that there is about this, it’s really just important to be able to support people because again, for a lot of people, it’s not even feasible to make the time to take away from work, to pay for the travel, to do all that, to actually come and be a part of an event like this.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah, exactly. But there’s so many nuances to it that need to get figured out. I mean, are you going to pay somebody who’s never spoken at an event before, who just started using WordPress last year? Are you going to pay them the same amount that you’re going to pay Chris Lema if he decides to come speak at an event, right? Are we then going to start having arguments and discussions about, well, this person should get paid more for this reason and blah, blah, blah, blah. And so much of WordPress is decided by committee, and so this is just another one of those things that people are going to disagree about the minutiae of how it works, but I think at the end of the day, this is something that we all want and acknowledge that it’s important. And so it’s worth it to have these conversations to figure out where we all land on the details.

Devin Egger:
And to just get it started too, to just start doing it. And it may not be perfect right away. We may not figure it out exactly right the first time, but kind of like how Master WP did it this year, it’s just, hey, we’re just going to try to do it. We’re just going to start it, and we’re going to throw some money out there and open up an application process for people to apply to do it. And if we find a better way, cool, but at least, we’re making the step, and we’re starting to do something. And there’s a lot of other companies that have done that too. And again, like you said, just having the conversation and keeping that open, I think, is the best way to ensure that the ball keeps falling forward on it.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah, absolutely. I’m trying to find it now, and I can’t, but in the show notes for this show, we’ll make sure to include… There’s a page on the WordCamp US site that includes details about the companies who are supporting people that would like to go to events. So we’ll make sure to include that so people can check that out.

Devin Egger:
All right. Well, thanks for being on with me today, Allie. And again, we were talking about why WordCamp speakers should be getting paid, and this has been Allie Nimmons and Devin Egger at Master WP.

Allie Nimmons:
Awesome. Bye.

Devin Egger:
See you.

Monet Davenport:
Thank you for listening to this episode. Press The Issue is a production of Master WP, produced by Allie Nimmons, hosted, edited, and musically supervised by Monet Davenport, and mixed and mastered by Teron Bullock. Please visit masterwp.com/presstheissue to find more episodes. Subscribe to our newsletter for more WordPress news at masterwp.com.