Behind-the-Scenes: Conference Speaking
A short time ago I shared a behind-the-scenes look at book endorsements—why publishers and readers demand them and how they come to be. I did this to simply tell people how they work and to address some of the critiques of the system. Today I’d like to do something similar with conferences—to tell what comes with being a speaker at Christian events.
Before I do anything else, let me say that it’s a tremendous honor to be invited to speak at a conference and, even more so, to speak at a local church. I do not take lightly the privilege of being able to stand in the pulpit or podium at a church or event. And I’m certain I’m not alone in this.
Preparing for a Conference
Some conference speakers are chosen because of their experience or expertise on a specific topic. Others are generalists who are capable of speaking on a wider variety of topics. Often at least one or two speakers at each event are chosen more for their popularity and their likelihood of drawing a crowd than for any other factor. There, are, after all, costs involved in hosting an event and conferences tend to draw people more on the strength of the list of speakers than the actual topic they will cover. (A large convention center will charge hundreds of thousands of dollars per day for the use of its facility so the costs can be astronomical!) Wise speakers will know when they are in over their heads with certain topics and decline events for which they would have nothing helpful to say.
At the majority of events, the speakers are assigned a topic. Less commonly they are assigned a specific biblical text they are meant to exposit. Occasionally they are told they can speak on anything they like—especially for Sunday morning sermons.
It is not unusual for speakers to bring the same message to a number of events, perhaps especially when the speaker tends to lead seminars more than preach sermons. Sometimes there will even be a specific request to deliver a talk that the conference organizers heard at a previous event. I believe, though, that this has become a bit less common now that most events are recorded and uploaded to YouTube.
I expect I am not alone in that I prefer to prepare messages for my own church before delivering them elsewhere so that my speaking ministry essentially flows out of my ministry within the local church. This ensures that every message is prepared with real people in mind rather than with not-yet-known strangers.
Traveling to a Conference
In my experience, travel to conferences is comfortable and economical but never luxurious. I have never had a conference or event pay for more than economy-class flights or put me up in more than a standard mid-range hotel—and that’s true even when the events are overseas and require hours or days of travel. Most of the time the speakers book their own flights and send a receipt for reimbursement. I have long since learned that it’s best to book my own travel to ensure that I avoid flights departing too early or arriving too late. When I travel several time zones to the east I ask not to speak early in the day and when I travel several time zones to the west I ask not to speak late in the day—my way of compensating for jet lag. (An 8 PM speaking time in California is the equivalent of 11 PM at home—well after my prime time!)
Some events offer billeting with the pastor or a family from the church, though I and most other speakers generally prefer a hotel where there is the highest likelihood of getting a good night’s rest. Also, most of us have had one or two negative or uncomfortable experiences with billeting and realized that hotels are generally the best option. It would be uncharitable to recount those experiences, but certainly most speakers have had them.
Some conferences are glad to have the speakers present for only the sessions they will be involved in while others ask the speakers to be present for the entire duration of the event. Hence some events are a commitment of several days while others are no more than a few hours. I tend to prefer events where I stick around and get to know those who are attending.
Some conferences will pay for a companion to accompany a speaker (e.g. a spouse or colleague) and others will not. Some speakers have a ministry budget that will cover that additional expense if the event doesn’t while others do not. Some conference speakers prefer to travel alone and some only ever have people with them.
Some conferences try to build a bit of camaraderie between the speakers, but far more commonly they see little of one another. It is not unusual to routinely cross paths with another speaker, yet to barely know that individual. There are a good number of men and women who have spoken at many conferences with me, but whom I barely know at all. And all of that is to say that if you imagine there is some community of conference speakers who know one another well and coordinate efforts in big ways, that may be true in some circumstances, but certainly not all.
I think I can speak for most conference speakers when I say that conferences are usually very good experiences. I am sure that most, like me, have had the occasional event where they were treated poorly or taken advantage of, but far more often than not we are well taken care of and return home blessed and encouraged. Perhaps the foremost blessing, apart from being able to preach or teach truth, is being able to meet other Christians who have been impacted by our books, articles, or other resources. Mutual encouragement is a sweet blessing.
Speakers are sometimes asked to do book signings at conferences. From what I can tell, most speakers dislike doing them but will cede to the organizer’s wishes. There are few things that make an author feel dumber than sitting alone at a book-signing table—especially when another author has a massive line of people waiting for him or her. And yes, I speak from personal experience here! I guess the Lord has his ways of humbling us.
At some major conferences, the breakout or pre-conference speakers actually pay for the right to be there. This is because the conference offers a large audience and speaking there is more beneficial to the speaker than the event. This breakout or pre-conference session may be part of a larger advertising package purchased by the publisher or ministry. That said, most major conferences are also very generous in giving free or heavily-discounted exhibition space to smaller ministries that would otherwise not be able to afford it.
Most events offer the speakers a “green room.” I have often heard people speak of a green room as if it is a luxury, but usually it will simply be a quiet room with a few drinks and snacks where speakers can pray, prepare, rest, or chat. I have yet to encounter one that is the least bit posh. Most conferences provide meals for their speakers on-site, though some have them buy their own meals and later reimburse the expense. Very large conferences may invite their speakers to take advantage of a hotel’s room service, but this is rare. Most often conference speakers are eating your standard catered or church-cooked conference meals. If the event is in the South, they will be served barbecue at least once, not to mention a daily helping of biscuits and gravy.
Just about every conference offers some kind of honorarium (i.e. payment) to its speakers. I don’t think I have ever asked or known the amount before getting home and opening the envelope I was handed on my way out. This is occasionally a “love offering” but more often an amount set in advance by the church or conference. I have never been given an honorarium that was embarrassingly high or discouragingly low. Thinking back to an event from some time ago, I spent roughly 8 days preparing two sermons to deliver there. The conference had me away from home for a further 4 days. In the end, I received $1500–an amount that seems quite typical. That’s the economics of a conference from a speaker’s perspective. Some conference speakers have these honoraria paid out to the ministry they represent while others, especially those who do not draw a salary from a ministry, count them as personal income.
Again, I consider it a privilege to speak at a conference. Yet the privilege is not in special treatment or luxurious perks. The privilege is simply being able to be with the Lord’s people and speak the Lord’s Word to them. And that, I think, is as it ought to be.