It's not about speaker expenses – FOWD Rising Stars: a noble cause misunderstood.
Disclaimer: Keep in mind while reading this that I am presenting the second day opening keynote at FOWD New York and I'm also teaching a new one-day iPhone design/development workshop during the conference. And Anna is a very good friend. Right, let's get on with it then…
If you were following some of the tweets this morning, you may have noticed a spirited discussion on speaker expenses following Anna Debenham's announcement that she couldn't afford to speak at Future of Web Design New York and had to pull out of speaking:
Gutted to have to pull out of speaking at FOWDNY. Just can't afford the flights and accomodation. I'm sorry. It would have been amazing.
My initial reaction – and that of quite a few other people – was that of disappointment. I know what a great speaker Anna is, having seen first-hand the wonderfully-received talk she gave at FOWD London this year. I summed up my initial frustration at the news (as one does, these days), in a tweet:
So what's the story here? Is Carsonified and FOWD evil for not paying Anna's expenses? Does Ryan wear his hats to hide his devil horns? Or is it all good intentions gone wrong?
The Evil FOWD theory
Some of the initial reactions framed the issue as a conference that charges quite a bit for its tickets (~$600 - ~$1,000, depending on whether you attend a workshop) not paying expenses for its speakers. This led a couple of people, including Andy, to denounce conferences that don't pay speaker expenses and to encourage speakers to not speak at such conferences if they don't want to support the practice:
There are two problems with this, though. First of all, nearly all of us in the industry support this practice by speaking at and/or attending what is probably the largest for-profit conference that doesn't pay speaker expenses: SxSW. Remy pointed this out and I followed up with my own tweet on the matter:
.@andybudd so how would you explain speaking at SxSW? They hardly look after you. They don't pay you. And "it's different" isn't a reason.
Litmus test: Have you spoken at/attended SxSW? Yes: by your actions, you support conferences that don't pay speaker expenses. #perspective
Basically, none of us who speak at and/or attend SxSW really have the right to criticise conferences that don't pay speaker expenses or criticise other speakers for speaking at such conferences without appearing somewhat hypocritical. And, as far as conferences go, they're not even the worst offenders: there are some conferences – which charge thousands for entrance – where speakers actually pay the conference to speak. Some conferences are entirely comprised of such so-called "sponsored sessions" and many don't even label them as such. This, IMHO, is a much bigger problem to tackle initially.
The second issue I have with this criticism toward FOWD is that it is actually factually imprecise: FOWD is a two-track conference and Carsonified does pay all expenses (and an honorarium) for 1st track speakers. 2nd track speakers do not get their expenses paid nor do they get an honorarium. Put like that it sounds like there are two classes of speakers.
However, Cat from Carsonified was kind enough to call me up and explain to me their intentions for the second track and – having heard their side – I tend to believe that this whole incident was mostly good intentions gone wrong.
The Benevolent FOWD theory
The 2nd track – dubbed the Rising Stars track – has a very specific purpose: to provide a platform to showcase local speakers at an international conference and thereby give them the sort of exposure – on a global scale – that they would otherwise not have. FOWD tweeted as much themselves:
To clarify the situation: FOWD Track 02 is meant as an opportunity for new, talented local speakers. Therefore no / low travel expenses.
Given that the speakers are local, expenses do not factor into the equation. My personal opinion is that this is a noble cause that should be applauded (and, in some ways, quite a risk to Carsonified who are giving new speakers a chance and shouldering the risk).
So what happened?
Of course, things are usually never black or white but some shade of grey: In this case, I do believe Carsonified made a mistake but it wasn't, as some have stated, to have a Rising Stars track. And it's not even that they do not pay speaker expenses for their Rising Stars track. Their mistake was to not stick to the mandate of the Rising Stars track, which is to foster and showcase new local talent. In other words, if they didn't have space for Anna in the 1st track, they should have not invited her to speak on the Rising Stars track – if for no other reason other than the fact that Anna isn't local to New York.
(A similar thing happened with me at FOWD London: they didn't have space on the 1st track but really wanted me to speak so I appeared on the 2nd track even though I wasn't technically a "Rising Star" – even though I was local so travel expenses weren't an issue. Denise Jacobs, however, had to publicly raise funds to fly over to London to speak on the Rising Stars track and, regardless of anything else, it just doesn't look good on the conference for a speaker to have to do that.)
That said, I do believe that they invited Anna because they really didn't want to turn her down and Anna did know the terms she'd be speaking under from the start and was all right with it:
To be clear, I was told from start FOWD would be unpaid. Just not been able to save as much money as planned, and underestimated the costs.
Thoughts for the future
My personal opinion on the matter is that giving local, undiscovered talent a voice on an international platform is a noble cause and deserves applause not scorn. It appears that Anna would also agree with this:
Still incredibly grateful for being asked to speak. If they didn't have a second track, people like me wouldn't have a chance.
Here are a couple of ideas that might help Carsonified not only avoid such misunderstandings in the future but, quite on the contrary, get some rightfully-deserved praise for giving undiscovered local talent a chance to break into the international arena:
- Make it clear and be entirely transparent about the fact that the Rising Stars track is an attempt to foster local, undiscovered talent. This is a noble cause. You should be proud of it and make it a USP of your conferences.
- Does Rising Stars have to be a track? Why not mix in the Rising Stars talks into both tracks? This will remove any stigma attached to there being a 2nd track – instead, there will simply be two concurrent tracks of talks; equal in stature and with a mix of professional speakers/industry veterans and rising stars.
- Stick to your mandate and criteria for the Rising Stars tracks. Namely, get local talent. It's hard to say "no" to people you know – especially if they're awesome like Anna – but say "no" if you have to.
Oh and about the conference…
I have to say that I'm hugely excited about FOWD New York. Not only is there a rather awesome line-up of speakers (both Rising Stars and Industry Vets) but a little bird told me that there might be a surprise at the start of the second day. Personally, I don't believe little birds (they're notorious for being cheeky little fibbers) but who knows!
Here's to seeing you all on Broadway in November…