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Speaking of Speaking

Over at Liminal Librarian, Rachel has posted the results of her speakers’ survey (this post includes the comments and links to the results). I took the survey, but also wrote Rachel “off-survey” to share additional thoughts.

I had tried earlier to write a post with tips about speaking engagements, but scrapped it each time. Let me give ‘er a go with a handful of observations and suggestions from my decade-plus of speaking engagements. The guidelines below apply primarily to personal speaking engagements–the sort which, ironically, I’m probably not going to be doing for a very long time, as My New Job will keep me very busy both on the work and conference front, and my home life is precious to me. But some of my points are universal. (Whuffies–free talks at professional conferences–will be addressed in another post; though one woman’s whuffie is another’s personal engagement, depending on the situation.)

If I’m speaking on personal time, I nearly always charge something, because it’s consuming my personal time and effort. How much depends on how much personal time I lose, how many time zones I cross, and a host of other factors, such as whether I’m preparing a complex talk on a new subject. Not long ago I turned down a talk that was going to be “in Boston” and then was “near Boston”–but was really an hour away. I have relatives in Boston, but I don’t have relatives an hour from Boston.

The prep time for a talk can consume many hours; it’s not “cheating” to give the same talk to different groups, and can actually be good all around because you get better at it each time. (I downloaded two recent speeches by Clifford Lynch and realized they were nearly identical, yet the second time the delivery was even more dynamic.)

I usually check in with a handful of friends before accepting a speaking engagement (whether work-related or personal). That’s a good way to get real-world input on what’s reasonable to charge, how they will treat you, and in general whether it’s a good use of your time. If you’re a really hot commodity, you can charge more money. I’m not saying you should try to go for the max–I am not a top-dollar speaker–but the reality is that it is a market and you are “for sale.” Even if you’re fine with being the bargain speaker, it staunches resentment if you know ahead of time that someone else filled the same slot for a couple thou more than you even dreamed of asking–and it could have you rethinking what you charge.

On arrangements, I have preferences, though nothing hard and fast. Generally I want to stay in a motel, not in someone’s home. Speaking engagements are rarely vacations; I’m either getting ready for the talk I’m going to give or catching up on professional work or simply decompressing with a good book. But as a single traveler in South Africa it made sense to stay with a local family, and they were gracious hosts who also gave me plenty of “chill time.”

You do not have to suffer. I am not picky; a clean Super 8 with a decent diner nearby and free wifi will make me just as happy as a night in the Palmer House. But I was once put in a motel that looked over a train switching yard. After a sleepless night of listening to very large metal objects squealing and scraping, I switched motels and let the host know what I had done. The price difference was negligible (about $50 total) and with two more nights in a motel, I simply couldn’t stay in the first place. I would have paid the difference on my own–I was that desperate–but the host agreed I shouldn’t be miserable. (It helps to check in with speakers to make sure they are comfortable.)

That brings up something else: ten years ago I was much more willing to extend my travel a day or two in order for the organization to save money on my airline ticket. Back then, a Saturday stay-over could make a huge difference in the price of a ticket. These days, I’d do that if the trip combined visiting friends or relatives, but if not, I want to get home to my little grass shack. Then again, one of the joys of the MetroNet talk I ended up not giving would have been some quality time with Christine Hage and Larry Neal, both personal and professional, with one of Christine’s whirlwind library tours to frost the cake. (I have a photo album with pictures from the last tour a few years back.) Again, every talk is different.

When I talk, I want a good crowd. If I’m talking at a conference, I don’t want to find myself like Father McKenzie, speaking to a near-empty room. I try to avoid the last day of a conference, or going up against someone famous, like Roy Tennant or Stephen Colbert. (That said, I’ve taken a less-than-optimal spot and I’ll do it again; no hard and fast rules apply.)

The question of personal attention is also very fluid; sometimes I’m happy zipping into a motel and doing my own thing, and sometimes I’m happy when I get squired around–it all depends on the setting. But when I’m in a strange venue, I expect hand-holding for the actual presentation. That means either knowledgable tech support standing there in living, breathing flesh, or someone who can take off on winged feet to bring tech support to you, pronto. It’s all right when I plug in my laptop and everything works fine; but it’s far better if there’s someone on hand I can turn to so I am not wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do if things go south.

I still gruntle over my llast memory of speaking at the California Library Association conference, in 2005, when I had to chase down the conference center AV support for the equipment that was supposed to be in the room, introduce myself, and ask members in the thin audience (it was a gruesome early morning slot) to help with the lights. I didn’t need a guru–just TLC from someone willing to chase down a guru for me. I nearly always get that level of attention when I give talks, and it makes sense: the conference attendees are paying for a really-good-shoe, and TLC for the speaker ensures they get it.

Speaking of tech support…in this day, there is no excuse for anything but absolutely solid service in this area. A speaker should not spend hours and hours creating a talk, use up days of his or her life flying cross-country only to have the talk be anything less than optimal. I once flew several states away to give a talk to public library directors where I had been assured by someone who should have known better that the setup was just fine, so I relaxed my usual anal-retentive enquiries (what kind of projector? What kind of connection? Who is the tech support person who will be there when I’m speaking? Is there sound support? What speed is the connection? What kind of microphone?).

After a day of travel, I walked into a lion’s den with no tech support–no screen, projector, electricity, Internet connection; no nothing–where I tried to explain a concept that was excruciatingly clear through my slideshow but was a muddled mess as I improvised a talk.

I have given talks without any tech support that went great–sometimes on the spot, due to tech issues–but this was not the time or place for going analog. The directors (not a techy bunch to begin with) furrowed their brows; then the knives came out. I kept trying to explain the project; I began praying for a distraction–a tsunami or earthquake–to get me out of that pickle. One director simply began hectoring me. Time gummed the clock’s hands; I kept talking, dripping with flop sweat while I prayed for the Rapture. (The experience turned out to be prescient for the entire project. You can tell a lot about organizations by how they handle presentations.)

Speaking of projects… try thinking about your speaking engagement as a project between two vendors. (This analogy doesn’t work well for professional association talks, but that’s another story.) If you do that, you’ll come up with good questions to ask. Is it in my interests to include travel costs in the total fee, or will I be able to take a deduction if they are separate? What happens if I get sick or something else happens and I can’t do this talk? Who is responsible? What support will I have? How do we assure a quality project? Again–there are times when I trust the situation, and only rarely am I let down on my instincts, but if you’re new to speaking, the more literal and precise you can be about your needs, the better.

You also need to think carefully before committing to a talk. Far in advance, it sounds fun and glamorous; when the departure day approaches, you may find yourself juggling presentation preparation amid work and life activities and wondering why the heck you thought you could just vanish for three days THIS week. The MetroNet debacle–where I ended up cancelling the day before my talk, when my flight plans melted after I missed a flight through sheer human error–could have been prevented if I had asked myself how realistic it was to get on a plane on a three-day trip the day after my last day at a job that had required many long hours for many long weeks.

Then again, stuff happens. I remember having to cancel a speaking gig in Hawaii a couple months prior to the talk because I had accepted the gig for My Former Place Of Work where I was expected to staff a booth at the state association conference. Sacramento or Hawaii? You decide. The state association conference was lethal–it was just a couple months after September 11, so the exhibit floor was empty, plus I was getting my first acquaintance with the pecking order of California library politicos at what was at best a tepid conference in an unremarkable location–and I kept thinking, for this I gave up Hawaii…

Add-ons are another ticklish issue. If you agree to a talk, should you then later agree to another session? Whether you’re willing to do this as a speaker is one thing, but my advice here is to the inviting organization: though it can be tempting to double up a speaker, you’ll get a better bang for your buck by letting that person concentrate on the talk in the original agreement. I find when I give two talks, one of them suffers, and if it’s an unplanned talk, even more so. Before a talk, I want to concentrate; after a talk, I want to rest, work, play, or otherwise decompress. Again, I’ve done two-ups at conferences such as Ontario Library Association that I think went fine, so it’s all fluid.

Finally, I also recommend you get it in writing (even if “writing” means email). NASIG provided a memorandum of understanding for a talk I’m doing next spring that was so clear-cut I asked if I could share it, and was granted permission. I’ve copied it below. Whether you are a speaker or inviter, think about a similar agreement. (Oh, and this talk is a whuffie–a freebie done on professional time–but I get a break on registration and support with travel, unlike Some Associations I Could Mention that don’t make it easy to be a speaker.)

North American Serials Interest Group (NASIG)
The North American Serials Interest Group (NASIG)
This memorandum provides basic information to you concerning the date, time, and nature of
your presentation. It includes information about NASIG’s reimbursement policies, transportation
and payment, the services you can expect from NASIG, cancellation and other miscellaneous
PLACE OF PRESENTATION – Galt House Hotel, Louisville, KY.
DATE AND TIME OF PRESENTATION – Saturday, June 2, 2007 8:00 AM
NATURE OF PRESENTATION – One (1) hour Vision session (45 minute speech, 15
minutes discussion) and a short paper based on your presentation for inclusion in the
conference proceedings
COMPENSATION – Reimbursement for travel and expenses will be contingent upon the
delivery of the presentation. The payment will be by NASIG check at the conclusion of your
You must arrange transportation to the conference site. NASIG will reimburse you for economy
class travel on a ticket purchased at least 30 days prior to the conference. Allowance for
mileage in lieu of public carrier travel can also be arranged. All travel expenses must be
compliant with the NASIG reimbursement policy.
A member of the Program Planning Committee will ask for your audio-visual requirements early
next year. This information is time-sensitive and NASIG deadlines must be met in order to make
local arrangements at the conference site.
There will be no obligation on your part or NASIG’s if a notice of cancellation is received in
writing at least 90 days before the appearance date. If cancellation is necessary due to illness,
accident, or Acts of God, neither party will be liable for payment.
Anticipated starting times of your session may be subject to minor modifications because of
unanticipated occurrences. NASIG will notify you via telephone and/or e-mail as soon as is
possible in this event.
Copyright of your presentation is yours. However, NASIG has the royalty-free option to
simulcast or to produce and show a tape-delayed broadcast of the speaker’s presentation
through closed circuit or public television/radio, or commercial cable television. Should NASIG
choose to record your presentation, a copy of the recording will be provided to you. Copies of
any audio/video tapes of your presentation may be maintained by the NASIG Archives for the
use and benefit of its membership.
This Memorandum of Understanding is accepted once signed and dated by both parties.
Speaker’s signature (or speaker’s representative)
Title: ____________________________
Date: ____________________________
North American Serials Interest Group
By: ________________________
Denise Novak
Title: President, NASIG
Date: _______________________

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