TL;DR – if you are producing a conference, please offer your speakers a ‘creativity budget’ to make their presentations better.
I’m been a public speaker for a while. I derive great pleasure from speaking to a live audience, big or small. While preparing for and then delivering a talk takes huge amount of my time and energy, I keep accepting more speaking opportunities because it forces me to push the envelope on my craft. That is, my engineering, creative craft.
I set very high standard for myself (which I usually fall short of, but isn’t that the point?) which include:
- Talks should be entertaining first, educating second
- Slides and props are meant to delight and excite, not document or narrate
- Never repeat a talk (training sessions excluded)
For the same reason I believe most developers should not do design, I contract the artwork for my presentations. Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed a fantastic artistic collaboration with Chris Carrasco who has created all the artwork used in my presentations. I have also learned to rely on props and other costly production elements. These all play a significant role in enhancing my talks.
They also cost money.
Most of my talks this year cost around $500 to produce. Some much more.
My ReatimeFood presentation cost over $5000 (which was paid for jointly by &yet, me, and the 24 participants who sat the special tables where food was served). My Fuck OAuth talk cost $1200 on artwork and shirts (and it would not have been as good without the shirts – it was absolutely an essential element). The Leek Seed bedtime story at NodeSummit cost $450 to produce (and it will be the main thing anyone will remember from that talk).
Creativity is expensive and I’ve been fortunate enough to have the means to cover these costs out of my own pocket (I rarely ask my employer to cover these costs since they don’t really benefit from them). You can see a sample of my slides on the right and can find some of my decks here.
Quality conferences like NodeConf and RealtimeConf have long offered to cover speakers’ travel costs. They are produced by people who care deeply about quality and they recognize that top speaking talent demands top treatment. Conferences are business after all. But I think we need to go one step further.
I’d like to propose a new speaker benefit: a creativity budget.
This is pretty simple. Each conference will make available a budget to reimburse speakers for costs such as artwork, props, hardware, or other materials that will enhance and elevate their presentations. For most conferences, I would set this at $300-500.
This will work similarly to how travel is covered today, by reimbursing speakers for submitted invoices, or by the event produce paying the costs directly. I would also encourage the organizers to promote and push speakers to spend the money. Almost every presentation can benefit from higher production value and the conference as a whole will be elevated. There is a reason so many people attend conferences these days, just to stare at their laptop all day.
As for how to fund it, there are many creative ways. Asking for talk sponsorship, selling premium experiences, asking those with means to crowdfund it, or simply charging a bit more for tickets in exchange for a better conference experience. We’ve seen conferences with incredible production values over the last couple of years, but we have not seen any noticeable improvement in the quality of the talks. Let’s fix it.