TL;DR – if you are producing a conference, please offer your speakers a ‘creativity budget’ to make their presentations better.
I’m been a public speaker for a while. I derive great pleasure from speaking to a live audience, big or small. While preparing for and then delivering a talk takes huge amount of my time and energy, I keep accepting more speaking opportunities because it forces me to push the envelope on my craft. That is, my engineering, creative craft.
I set very high standard for myself (which I usually fall short of, but isn’t that the point?) which include:
- Talks should be entertaining first, educating second
- Slides and props are meant to delight and excite, not document or narrate
- Never repeat a talk (training sessions excluded)
For the same reason I believe most developers should not do design, I contract the artwork for my presentations. Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed a fantastic artistic collaboration with Chris Carrasco who has created all the artwork used in my presentations. I have also learned to rely on props and other costly production elements. These all play a significant role in enhancing my talks.
They also cost money.
Most of my talks this year cost around $500 to produce. Some much more.
My ReatimeFood presentation cost over $5000 (which was paid for jointly by &yet, me, and the 24 participants who sat the special tables where food was served). My Fuck OAuth talk cost $1200 on artwork and shirts (and it would not have been as good without the shirts – it was absolutely an essential element). The Leek Seed bedtime story at NodeSummit cost $450 to produce (and it will be the main thing anyone will remember from that talk).
Creativity is expensive and I’ve been fortunate enough to have the means to cover these costs out of my own pocket (I rarely ask my employer to cover these costs since they don’t really benefit from them). You can see a sample of my slides on the right and can find some of my decks here.
Quality conferences like NodeConf and RealtimeConf have long offered to cover speakers’ travel costs. They are produced by people who care deeply about quality and they recognize that top speaking talent demands top treatment. Conferences are business after all. But I think we need to go one step further.
I’d like to propose a new speaker benefit: a creativity budget.
This is pretty simple. Each conference will make available a budget to reimburse speakers for costs such as artwork, props, hardware, or other materials that will enhance and elevate their presentations. For most conferences, I would set this at $300-500.
This will work similarly to how travel is covered today, by reimbursing speakers for submitted invoices, or by the event produce paying the costs directly. I would also encourage the organizers to promote and push speakers to spend the money. Almost every presentation can benefit from higher production value and the conference as a whole will be elevated. There is a reason so many people attend conferences these days, just to stare at their laptop all day.
As for how to fund it, there are many creative ways. Asking for talk sponsorship, selling premium experiences, asking those with means to crowdfund it, or simply charging a bit more for tickets in exchange for a better conference experience. We’ve seen conferences with incredible production values over the last couple of years, but we have not seen any noticeable improvement in the quality of the talks. Let’s fix it.
I’ve been asked by a few people for my thoughts regarding the ‘gendered pronoun’ incident that’s occupying the node community this week. I am purposely not linking to that thread. I appreciate Ben Noordhuis contribution to node, and I think that contribution merits a more nuanced response from me than a Twitter one-liner.
First, because it is worth saying, there is no argument that Ben is a very smart guy, has made a significant contribution to node and libuv, and has been tremendously generous with his time and talent. I do not believe the node community is “better off without him”. I hope he comes back.
To me, this is the core of the issue: Ben has an established history of dickishness. This attitude has been tolerated by the node community longer than anyone else’s inappropriate behavior because of Ben’s clear talent and contribution. But this is never sustainable and at some point, one more slip is enough to cause an uproar, and this is what happened here.
If the response from individuals and companies feel exaggerated and over the top, it is because for many insiders, this is not a single incident but the last straw. Whether that is fair or not is a matter of opinion.
I witnessed this behavior in a response to a node issue a member of my team opened a few months ago. I sent a private letter to Ben’s company explaining why I felt it was inappropriate and offensive. The response I received suggested that this was simply a result of Ben’s work load and his need to sort through many issues quickly. I was unsatisfied and expressed that. Shortly after, Ben corrected his behavior on that particular issue and provided thoughtful and patient feedback.
There wasn’t an apology or an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and that stuck with me. Ignoring all the ‘gendered pronoun’ debate, what is really at the core of this incident is lack of empathy. It’s failing to say a simple ‘sorry’. It might sound trivial or petty but the incident a few months ago left enough bad taste in my mouth not to want to engage Ben further. I’ve actively directed my inquiries to other members of the node core team.
Ben is by no means unique in his attitude. I am sure half the people I interacted with when I was working on that “awful 2.0 security protocol” feel the same way about me. But when I offend people unintentionally, I immediately apologize publicly and privately, and when I choose not to, it is done with the clear understanding of the repercussions. When I quit that working group, the negative reaction I received was very much earned by my actions.
Every community has to decide what is acceptable behavior within its boundaries and especially what it allows its leaders to do. Whether it is an open source project or the workplace, there is always a balance between someone’s attitude and contribution. One often does counter-balance the other, but only to a point.
My behavior within the node community is in sharp contrast to that of my behavior in other communities. It’s not because I’ve changed, matured, or evolved. It is simply because it is the only acceptable behavior within the node community. Context matters.
Ben had multiple opportunities to back out of the corner he put himself in – and he still does. It really doesn’t take much. At least not in word count. People are just looking for some empathy, for acknowledgement that their feelings were hurt, and that the offender understands and regrets their actions, especially now that they know how offensive it was to people.
I hope Ben comes back from his break and continues to contribute. And when he does, it will be our turn to show empathy and move on.
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Download the slides as a PDF document.
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