Last week I was invited to speak at a TEDx event, and today I turned that offer down. It’s not that I don’t like TED — I think the organisers have done a great service to popularise thought-provoking ideas in an easily-digestible format. And the subject of the TEDx event, centring on science and society, is definitely close to my heart. But the problem I discovered is this: TED doesn’t pay its speakers.
Not that the person who approached me is a skinflint. I like to think they’d pay me if they could. But they are bound by the rules of TED, which asks that they don’t pay me. None of the speakers — at TED or its little sister TEDx — get paid. This is despite the fact that tickets to a full-scale TED event cost something in the realms of $6,000.
TEDx events are much smaller affairs, which are limited to audiences of a hundred (*sometimes: see attached comments). The official line from TED is that these satellite events are there for individuals and organisations to run their own “TED-style” events, and “release TED free to the world”, as if the concept of standing on a stage delivering talks was some kind of incredible innovation that the TED organisers themselves invented. (Guys, trust me, it’s been around a little longer than that. I’m pretty sure the Ancient Greeks were into it.)
I think this makes TEDx quite an insidious effort. They’ve developed a strong brand, strong enough to get away with bullish ideas that “TED-style” events are somehow better and more worthy than unbranded conferences. And within that manifesto, TED pushes the philosophy that there is value in ideas, but not value in delivering them. What’s wrong with paying for speakers? Why not leave it up to the individual organiser to decide if they want to pay?
The defence that TED is a non-profit organisation doesn’t fly with me. I doubt this excuses them from paying the lighting guys, the camera operators, the venue hire, the catering. Why pay those staff but not the speakers? Just because you’re a non-profit organisation, doesn’t mean I have to be.
I’m not averse to speaking for nothing. I’ve done Cafe Scientifique, SciBar, Skeptics In The Pub. I’ve spoken at schools, colleges, universities. None of these were satellite events for a $6,000-a-plate conference. None of them wanted to brand my talk as theirs.
I know I’m supposed to swoon a little at the idea of being an Official TEDx Speaker, that doing this will rain down confetti and job offers and fame on me. But in the end it boils down to this: TEDx is just another organisation asking me to work for free.
Do I sound grouchy and cynical? Well, I suppose I am. I’m tired of being asked to work for free. I’m tired of the bullshit idea that exposure is somehow its own reward. I’m tired of the people who can afford to do it justifying this malignant trend.
I can’t pay my rent with exposure and goodwill. So farewell, TEDx, I won’t be speaking at your event until TED starts paying its speakers. Now there’s an idea worth spreading.
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