E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

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Work Stream #3 – Public Speaking and the Exposure Economy

Gran Canaria - Ayacata in the winterNow that work streams #1 and #2 are out there, available to everyone interested who may be reading this blog, it’s a good time to talk about what has been, perhaps, one of the most profound transformations I have gone through myself when transitioning from big corporate world (while I was a salaried employee at IBM for 17 years) into the so-called gig economy of freelancing as an independent adviser on Social Business and Digital Transformation. Of all of the different work streams I have been involved with, and working on in the last three years, it’s perhaps the only one that, so far, has provided the most surprising of unexpected results I could never possibly anticipate, specially, since it’s turned out to be completely different than what I initially expected and you will see why shortly. Of course, I’m talking about public speaking, and inherently, about the exposure economy.

While I was at IBM, and over the course of the years, I was given the unique and rather exciting opportunity to speak at several hundreds of events, either as keynotes, breakout sessions, webinars, workshops, masterclasses, remote presentations, and what not, reaching to the point in 2008 where I got to travel 33 weeks out of the 52 to speak at a certain event whatever it was. I knew, back then, that was just too much, I just couldn’t scale as a human being and still have a life, so I decided to start cutting down, gradually, on my public speaking engagements in order to try to cope with it all in an easier, but equally effective manner. Nonetheless, the public speaking continued at a comfortable pace of between 40 to 50 different speaking engagements per year and I surely enjoyed that, because it gave me a huge opportunity to be able to carry out my daily job as a Social Business Lead Enabler from a completely different and unexpected perspective: the outside world. 

Little did I know though that was all going to come to a standstill, shortly afterwards, as I was making my way into becoming an independent freelancer, beginning of 2014, more than anything else, because, all of a sudden, I was subject to be confronted with an ugly truth that seems to haunt down freelancers all over the place nowadays and that is, if anything, as ugly as it can get: the exposure economy.

That’s where the real personal transformation journey began for me, because, out of the blue, pun intended, you realise, back then, you were just a tag, in my case, the IBM tag, which was always really nice to have around at any kind of Social Business or Digital Transformation event or gathering, because, you know, IBM was there as well, never mind who may have been speaking on her behalf or what ideas, insights and experiences would be coming across. That might not be important, the tag is, though. 

Once you realise you have, inadvertently, shaken off your shoulders such tag(s), that’s where the fun begins, because right then you will be part of that so-called exposure economy where, if you get the potential invite to speak at whatever the event, the first phrase that will penetrate your brain like a painful needle is this one: ‘Will you be able to speak for free? You know, it’ll be good for your exposure (as a starting freelancer)’ [never mind your 20+ years of extended work in the IT industry. Those never existed in the first place, apparently]. Or this other one: ‘We currently don’t have any budget left to pay the speakers, so we were wondering whether you could speak for free’. Does it sound familiar? I bet it does, sadly. 

Public speaking is broken. Very broken. The moment you are inviting a potential speaker to present at your event and kindly ask them whether they can speak for free, therefore making them become part of that exposure economy, that’s the moment where you know conference events are totally screwed up. Abusing the trust, the good will, the time, the effort and energy of those potential speakers you kindly invite to be present at your event is the very last thing you’d want to do to your business as an events organiser. It’s aiming for the cheap, so you can profit while they won’t! And we all know that cheap comes at a huge price, i.e. your own reputation as a business, more than anything else, because you are sending out a very loud and clear message you are enslaving those who you would want to wow and inspire your audience with their own ideas and in-depth knowledge and experiences in a particular subject matter. What kind of business message does it send out there about you? Not a really good one, I am afraid, on all grounds, specially, in this Social Age. 

All along, for the last 20 years in total, I have always been very grateful to the company (IBM) that gave me the unique and unprecedented opportunity to cultivate, nurture and develop my own expertise around the subject matters I truly love and that I am very passionate about. It’s a luxury that’s helped build who I am today, but I knew that, one day, once I’d need to shake off that brand tag, upon moving on to other adventures, things would be completely different, because it would be only me, my ideas and work experiences, that people might, remotely, be interested in learning more about, or not, should I get invited to speak at a conference event. 

And, initially, on my first year as a freelancer, those kind invites to speak at conferences kept coming through like crazy! I could hardly keep up with them to the point where, more often than not, I ended up with multiple conflicts and had to suggest people from my closest networks to fill in for me, something that, over time, has become one of my favourite work related activities in this networked, hyperconnected world. However, towards the end of the year I realised about how each and everyone of those invites was coming up with its own price tag: me / us speaking for free, you know, just to get exposure as we begin our journey as freelancer(s). 

It’s tiring. It’s very tiring and rather exhausting, indeed, to see how broken conference events are nowadays trying to enslave some public speakers, just because they think they would get away with it, aiming for the cheap, abusing people’s good will and good intentions, just so that they could profit themselves, at one’s expense, not matter what, thinking that it’s our own problem then to find some other kinds of revenue, in the mean time, that would allow us to keep on paying for our bills, while they have got you as one of their top-notch speakers for such an exclusive event, or so we are told.

I know that this blog post may well sound a bit too harsh and somewhat negative, and perhaps I’m burying myself with it being banned from all conference events that may be hosted out there from now onwards, as organisers get to read through it, but it’s far from my intention to sound negative about conferences, in general. On the contrary, it’s my outlier and rebellious nature, once again, coming out wanting to protest about something we all know is totally broken, even conference organisers themselves acknowledge how broken they are, yet very little gets done about address AND fixing the core issues, mostly around trust. It’s never been a two-way engagement where everyone benefits, yet, like I said, we just don’t seem to want to do much about it and fight. Well, I am! I need to. I have to. For my own sanity. Even if it means I’d have to sacrifice myself in the process by no longer being able to participate from one of my favourite work related activities by far: learning from different audiences about what gets you excited day in day out and become a better person as a result of it.

Late last year, I took one of my most difficult decisions ever in my 20 years of working experience in the IT industry that, at some point in time, I may regret for good, but either way, here it goes: late last year, indeed, I decided, I would no longer speak for free at any given conference event. I’ll not enslave myself to the cheap, to the free, in return of exposure, just because it’s good for my reputation. No, thanks! I want a fairer deal. I want a system that’s totally broken to heal itself with, or without, our collective help, because every time we, freelancers, agree to speak for free at events, we are perpetuating our very own slavery to the zero-sum game where we are always on the losing end. Always. No exceptions.

Oh, and that perception that we might be just too expensive for a particular conference event, as speakers, is totally false, let me all tell you, very far from reality, I can guarantee you that, based on my first hand experiences when I get asked what my fees are for public speaking and people respond back very much surprised ‘Really?’ Yes, really. That’s why we need to very much fix such a broken system of perceptions, perspectives, needs and wants, and, essentially, trustworthy good will. But we need to start somewhere. And, for me, this would be it: stop sustaining a sickening system that only benefits a few. And you are not one of them… That simple. 


 

Phew! With all of that said, and now that’s, finally, out of my chest, while our collective struggle to fix a broken system continues…, I guess those of you who may still be reading further along this blog post, might be interested in finding out, perhaps, what may well be some of the different topics and themes I do enjoy talking about at conference events. Well, just in case your curiosity kicks in, there are quite a few and all of them have got a lot to do with what I have been doing myself for nearly two decades and counting around Knowledge Management, Collaboration, Learning, Change Management, Online Communities (And Community Building) and Social Business (And Digital Transformation), without, forgetting, of course, A Life Without eMail, which has become one of my favourite topics over the last 8 years and still going strong … 

If you are still reading thus far and would want to know about some of the different conference events I have spoken at and what topics did I cover, here’s a selection of some of my favourite presentations and video recordings, so you can have a glimpse of what you might expect should you decide to reach out and inquire further whether we could work together for your conference event in equal, fair terms for both parties. I can guarantee you it will be worth it, if not judge for yourselves: 

 


PS. Psst, you may have noticed how throughout the article I haven’t mentioned anything about the fees I usually work with for public speaking at conference events, and if you’re wondering about what those would be like, well, it depends… on what you would need and what I could offer, but believe me you may be surprised to find out what it’d entail altogether, so get in touch! 😀👍🏻

[Contact me via Twitter DM at @elsua – got open DMs-, should you have any further questions or queries you would want to discuss in private, or, alternatively, leave a comment below (with your preferred contact method, if you wish) and I’ll reach out to you as soon as I possibly can. Thanks!]

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