What a survey of 100 conference speakers told me

Mark Dalgarno
9 min readJan 4, 2017

In November 2016 I did a survey of conference speakers. As a conference organiser I wanted to understand better what the experiences, needs and expectations of speakers are. I’ve also hired a user researcher and the survey was also intended to help identify speakers who would be interested in follow-up interviews with the user researcher to understand speaker needs more deeply. Those follow-ups will take place in the next few months.

At the time I ran the survey I promised to publish the main findings from the survey, so here we go…

The survey

I actually developed two versions of the survey. Version 1 was sent to a handful of user experience (UX) professionals who have also spoken at one or more of the UX conferences I run. I sent it to them to get their feedback on the survey design and they helped improve it for version 2, which was the one I used to collect the data below. At this stage I should also say that I designed and ran the survey using the excellent Typeform service.

I promoted the final survey quite lightly — to my Twitter followers and through LinkedIn profile updates, and retweeted my own personal tweets from a small number of our conference Twitter accounts. Having run about 70 conferences in 10 years, volunteered at about 15 others and spoken at I don’t know how many other events I do know quite a few speakers. However, many other people also graciously retweeted me and the survey results show that it definitely spread beyond my own speaker network.

I’m not a regular survey designer, but I tried to keep the survey short and clear while collecting the data I felt I needed. Here are the questions I asked:

  1. How would you describe your job role when conference speaking — e.g. freelancer/consultant, event sponsor, employee of non-sponsor company, other
  2. What year did you start speaking at conferences?
  3. Roughly how many times have you spoken at conferences?
  4. What is your main motivation for speaking at conferences?
  5. What other reasons have you had for speaking at conferences?
  6. If a free conference ticket was offered to you in return for speaking would that be of value to you?
  7. What factors do you consider when deciding which conferences to speak at?
  8. How much time is involved for you in preparing a new conference session?
  9. If you have spoken at more than one conference, do you reuse material from earlier conferences?
  10. If you do reuse material, how much time do you typically spend adapting or tailoring your session for each conference?
  11. Have the conference organisers paid expenses when you speak at their conference? If so, what expenses have been covered?
  12. Have you ever been offered or requested a speaker fee? If so, how close was it to what you would typically be paid for the time you spent preparing and delivering the session?
  13. Have you been offered any other benefits? E.g. buying copies of your book, invitation to a speakers dinner, promotional interviews/articles
  14. Has speaking at a conference ever resulted in you getting work or other business benefits or has it helped your career?
  15. How likely are you to recommend conference speaking to others? 1 (not at all likely) - 10 (extremely likely)

Participants could also leave comments and their name, if they were willing to be contacted for further user research. That’s how I know it reached beyond my personal speaker network.

This still felt like quite a lot of questions to me but due to pressure of other work and an imminent overseas trip I was quite keen to push the survey out rather than spend further time improving it. That seems like an OK call because it took only 8 days to get the 100 responses I was aiming for. The survey completion rate was 48%.

The Results

Q1. How would you describe your job role when conference speaking — e.g. freelancer/consultant, event sponsor, employee of non-sponsor company, other

Consultant / Freelancer — 54

Employee of non-sponsor company — 31

Multiple roles — 8

Other — 6

Sponsor — 1

Q2. What year did you start speaking at conferences?

1985: 1

1993–1999: 6

2000–2009: 33

2010–2013: 28

2014–2016: 27

A few people didn’t reply. Note — I started conference speaking in 1991 but didn’t complete the survey.

Q3. Roughly how many times have you spoken at conferences?

  • 3 or less times: 14
  • 4–10 times: 29
  • 11–20 times: 20
  • More than 20 times: 36

The large number of regular conference speakers may be an effect of promoting the survey mainly through my own social media channels?

Q4. What is your main motivation for speaking at conferences?

Most people listed more than one main motivation…

Main motivations:

  • Sharing / spreading knowledge / showing how things have been or could be done, advancing the state of the art — engaging in dialogue about these things, getting feedback and challenge, influencing others (about 50% of survey participants mentioned this — by far the dominant response)
  • Raising personal profile or brand (about 20% of participants mentioned this), getting recognised as an authority on some topic
  • Learning from others
  • Meeting people — speakers, mentors, colleagues, peers, “finding like-minded people”, possible future clients, people outside the organisation
  • For the challenge and fun of it, for personal development or career progression
  • Giving back — to the community or their employer
  • To spread the word / evangelize
  • Getting your employer recognised for their good / expert work / a good place to work
  • To get a ticket at a conference I couldn’t otherwise attend
  • For travel
  • Ego gratification, being the best-rated presenter
  • Keeping up with the industry
  • The thrill of it

Q5. What other reasons have you had for speaking at conferences?

Most of the above main motivations were mentioned again, for example travel to interesting places, which was mentioned more frequently in this section.

We also have:

  • To make some money from speaking engagements
  • Promote my book
  • To inspire others
  • Building credibility
  • Lead generation
  • Employer encourages all staff to speak at public events
  • Supporting conference organisers who are friends, support volunteer group
  • Getting good feedback makes me feel useful
  • Being a speaker makes meeting other people at the conference easier
  • Improving self-confidence, speaking skills
  • Meeting people from around the world
  • Promoting my team (in a non-in your face way)
  • Helping out friends
  • Challenging my own assumptions

Q6. If a free conference ticket was offered to you in return for speaking would that be of value to you?

There were many comments about expecting a free ticket to be included as part of the deal for being a speaker. Most, but not all, of the conferences I know do this, but I explicitly wanted to understand whether a free ticket was valued by speakers. It turned out that a free ticket is valued by many but not by all speakers.

Q7. What factors do you consider when deciding which conferences to speak at?

I’ve just recorded these as they appeared, not by frequency of response.

  • Childcare
  • Travel and accommodation expenses paid (see my later question on expenses)
  • Does the conference have a code of conduct & a good safety record
  • Is there a diverse speaker lineup or a mechanism for creating a diverse line-up
  • Is there a diversity programme, is the event welcoming to women and minorities
  • Diversity of audience
  • Where the conference is being held
  • Reputation of the organisers, how well-organised and friendly are they, are they doing good stuff?
  • Reputation of the event / perceived quality
  • Support they provide speakers e.g. providing a clear itinerary
  • Conference audience — target market, experience level, level of interactivity
  • Relevance to me, relevance of my expertise to the conference audience
  • Opportunity cost — what else could I be doing?
  • What other speakers will be at the conference (e.g. look at past programmes)
  • Time to get there (and back), complexity of travel
  • Whether I am invited or have to write a proposal
  • How community-oriented the conference is
  • Not a sales-oriented event
  • Does the purpose of the conference fit with my own personal values?
  • Commercial vs. not-for-profit conference
  • Will I meet new, interesting people
  • The ticket price (less likely to go to poor value events)
  • Venue (“Some London hotels are claustrophobic”)
  • I avoid huge, vendor-centric conferences”

Q8. How much time is involved for you in preparing a new conference session?

There was a wide variation here depending on the individual and the type of session (talk vs. workshop for example). Several people have a rule of thumb multiplier. This multiplier varied across speakers from 5–60 times the talk duration — spread over days, weeks or months for some speakers. I’ve not done any analysis of length of speaking career vs. time to prepare a session; as an occasional speaker myself I hope it gets easier over time!

Q9. If you have spoken at more than one conference, do you reuse material from earlier conferences?

A very few speakers have a policy of not doing this. Most said they did.

Most people who reuse their talk do adjust it over time and for different conferences. A few give exactly the same talk again.

Q10. If you do reuse material, how much time do you typically spend adapting or tailoring your session for each conference?

From no time at all to several days.

Q11. Have the conference organisers paid expenses when you speak at their conference? If so, what expenses have been covered?

  • Travel and accommodation expense payments is the norm, but some conferences were reported not to cover that.
  • Some pay for meals and / or airport transfers
  • Some pay support costs — e.g. for speakers with a disability

Q12. Have you ever been offered or requested a speaker fee? If so, how close was it to what you would typically be paid for the time you spent preparing and delivering the session?

  • Only a few speakers said their speaker fee covered the time required to prepare their session
  • A speaker fee is expected by keynote speakers
  • A couple of people said they would never request a speaker fee

My talks would only break-even on development costs if I was paid my full day rate for at least five deliveries of the same unmodified talk. Most of my talks are heavily loss-making in raw financial terms.”

If the conference is charging money for tickets, then yes, I will absolutely request a speaker’s fee (if one hasn’t already been offered).”

At large events a fee. Conference organisers are fine with this because they make money from my appearance.” [I didn’t explore what a ‘large’ event meant for this speaker.]

I worry when speakers want X thousands of pounds to do a talk. I don’t think it is what the majority do, so why do the minority expect it?”

I prefer not to take fees so I can support interesting events and also to keep the pressure [on themselves] down “

I don’t want to get paid to share my knowledge. If I’m asked to go to a conference I didn’t want to attend, I would just ask to paid for the expenses of the trip.”

Q13. Have you been offered any other benefits? E.g. buying copies of your book, invitation to a speakers dinner, promotional interviews/articles

  • Speaker dinner
  • Books bought
  • Sometimes a speaker gift or token payment
  • Sometimes revenue sharing for a longer workshop or tutorial
  • [For] big conferences some extra money”
  • Where there’s a lot of travel time or travel is complex, “additional fees apply”
  • Conference goodies e.g. t-shirts
  • Free drinks
  • Boat trip
  • Complimentary tickets to other related conferences are sometimes offered

Q14. Has speaking at a conference ever resulted in you getting work or other business benefits or has it helped your career?

  • 30 people were definite that it had led to consultancy work: Absolutely. It’s one of the key reasons I do it. My work is generated by reference, from my writing, and from conference appearances.
  • 14 people said it had definitely improved their career prospects
  • 9 people were definite that it hadn’t directly led to work
  • 8 people were unsure
  • 5 people said it increased their employer profile
  • 5 people said it had led to business leads (that didn’t subsequently go anywhere though)

Other benefits included:

  • Increased personal profile
  • More speaking requests (!)
  • Increased book sales
  • Job offers / new job
  • Personal satisfaction
  • Helped me do my job better

I haven’t (yet) done any analysis of number of conference talks given vs. likelihood of getting work.

Q15. How likely are you to recommend conference speaking to others? (aka Net Promoter Score)

  1. (Not at all likely) 0 people
  2. 0
  3. 0
  4. 0
  5. 4
  6. 8
  7. 13
  8. 26
  9. 17
  10. (Extremely likely) 30 people

So, 47% of people (a score of 9–10) would strongly promote conference speaking to others, 12% of people (a score of 1–6) would not promote it to others.

Endnote

I hope you found that interesting.

The main surprise for me was that more people than I expected were certain they had got work from a specific conference talk. I cannot personally trace work back to any conference talk I’ve given, although I have had many of the other benefits listed.

It was also very encouraging to see that diversity is at the forefront of some speakers thinking. (You can learn more about promoting diversity and show your support for diversity in conferences by signing the Diversity Charter).

If there is enough interest we’ll ask our user researcher to run another survey. I’d be interested in what a larger, more diverse set of respondents has to say. Any future survey would also be informed by any feedback we get on this post plus the user research we perform this year.

I’d also personally be interested in researching with people who haven’t yet done conference speaking so I can understand better their specific needs.

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