Why I have a speaker rider

December 31, 2021. 1,153 words and a 6 min read.

I've been very lucky and very privileged in my professional life. One of the privileges that's had the biggest impact on my career is speaking at events, it's allowed to build a (frankly, very limited) reputation in certain communities as well as make friends and find jobs.

At this point in my career, I'm often in the position of being invited to speak at events. When I get these invites, my "Speaker Rider" gives me the opportunity to have a conversation with the organisers about topics I care about.

The Rider

You can read my up-to-date rider, but the thing you'll notice is that I try to make things that might be quite amorphous (like attendee safety) as tangible as possible. I started doing this because I found it hard to have tangible, productive conversations with organisers about something as intangible as "you should prioritise attendee safety".

The concrete things listed in the rider are those I've found provide the best link between what I want to achieve with the rider and what I can "demand" up front. This rider is far from perfect, but it's severed me well over the last few years and hopefully has driven some good change and outcomes.

If you have comments or feedback, I would love to hear it!

1. A code of conduct

To quote from the rider:

Code of Conduct: There is a public Code of Conduct available on your event website and a documented enforcement mechanism.

Both parts of this are important to me, but the enforcement part was added in 2019.

The first part (that you must have a Code of Conduct [CoC]) is now pretty standard for events, but when it was first written, it wasn't (only ~50% of the events I was invited to in 2016 had one).

The second part (that you must document enforcement mechanisms) is really significant, and in some cases, still controversial. Too many conferences publish a CoC and think they're done, without describing or providing a mechanism for its enforcement during the event. This leads to bad outcomes, where attendees or speakers can experience something that goes against the CoC, but have no way of having action taken.

I don't describe the mechanism for how it should be enforced (I'm not the expert and there are much more experienced people you can pay to do that) but the fact that it's published and documented is the best leading indicator I've found for a good enforcement process at an event.

It's 'controversial' as a few organisers still push back against describing enforcement processes in detail. This seems to come from ignorance (e.g. they don't know how to enforce a CoC) or perceived 'cost' (e.g. they want to avoid paying people to enforce it). Both of these are signals I want to avoid being associated with an event.

2. Speaker diversity

To quote from the rider

Speaker Diversity: as a white cis man, I count as "another white dude" at your event, and I want to see less people like me and more that represent the reality of the world we live in. The event will have at least 50% non white-cis-men speaking.

This is the one that has resulted in me turning down most speaker requests. I've seen it get better since 2016, but I still turn down 20-25% of the speaking opportunities offered to me because of it.

I want to see events represent more of what the world (and hopefully, our communities) look like. So, this rider item is a pretty hard line for me. I sometimes get push back that I've picked an arbitrary number (50%) but I feel that percentage represents the diversity at an event I'm comfortable associating with. The percentage I ask for has increased over the years, in 2016 it was 30%, in 2019 it was 40%, and now it's 50%.

It's interesting how different the efforts to have diverse speakers are in different communities. For example, In most "front-end" tech events I'm invited to I haven't needed to push back on this topic since 2019 in fact, they often have gone way beyond any "demand" I make; on the other hand, I turn down more than 50% of the niche 'business' or vertical focused events because of this issue.

3. Costs covered

To quote from the rider:

Costs covered: travel and lodging for all speakers is covered. Please note that I will not fly economy for long haul flights.

This is a more pragmatic request. It originally started, I'm a little ashamed to say, focused just on me (I won't pay for expenses and I won't fly long-haul economy) but as I spoke at more events I realised that the cost of speaking was often a barrier to first time speakers and the particularly those for marginalised groups. I updated this in 2018 to make it clear I won't speak at events where travel isn't covered for all speakers.

This is also the one I both get most push back on from organisers and the one I most flexible on. As such, I've developed a basic system: if you're a for-profit conference, it's a hard line; if you're not for profit, I can try and be flexible. Even then, however, I've become less flexible over time.

This one feels the most 'entitled' whenever I share it, especially with non-profit conferences. It can feel very JLo in 2003 demanding her dressing room be painted white, but as I've got older I've learned to live with it more and came to realise that it shouldn't be my (or any other speakers) role to subsidise the organisation of an event; we're there to add value, and we shouldn't have to pay to do it.

How's it gone?

Broadly, pretty good. There was a lot more push back in 2016 when I started sharing my rider, but now I'm thankful that most of the things on the rider are common place.

Sharing the rider with an organiser when they invite me has also turned out to be an incredible barometer for the conference's overall quality and my enjoyment of it. Every single time I've compromised on things in it, I've regretted it and had a bad time.

I suspect it also means I get invited to fewer events that the organisers know I won't accept, so there could be a lot of confirmation bias in my saying things have improved.

Should you do it?

If you have the power to make "demands" like these, then yes, I think you should. However, most people speaking at events will not be able to "demand" things from organisers.

I would say that if you're thinking of submitting a proposal for a talk and the answer to any of these three points is "no" then think again about if it's an event you want to be associated with.

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