Thoughts on the WordPress Speaker Circuit

Today I want to talk about the WordPress speaker circuit.

Wait! There is no speaker circuit.
Wait! There is a speaker circuit.
Wait! Isn’t Chris Lema the worst at this? Speaking everywhere?

If you’re not in the WordPress community, I promise tomorrow’s article will be more practical.

Early Motivations

I visited two WordCamps (2010) before ever applying to speak at one. At each I noticed the same thing that I saw at other technical conferences.

  • There was low contrast on the slides
  • The fonts were too small
  • The material was overwhelming (too much, or too deep)
  • Some presenters were reading their slides

My earliest motivation to get involved was simply to help regular folks (read: newbies) feel less overwhelmed and make a presentation that they could learn from and leverage.

I gave the same talk at WordCamp Orange Country, San Diego, and Los Angeles that year (2011). By all accounts, it was helpful.

But it was the same talk in all three spots.

I didn’t know that was a thing. I didn’t know they were recorded. I didn’t even know that WordCamps are most effective when they’re powered by local resources (that can answer questions later when the event is over).

Let’s be clear. There was a lot I didn’t know.

I was trying to be helpful, but creating and delivering a talk that new users to WordPress could embrace, learn from, and walk away more confident (rather than overwhelmed).

My goal was to further the use of WordPress.

It’s still the same motivation that drives me today. That hasn’t changed.

But a lot of things have changed as I learned more about WordCamps and the non-existent speaker circuit.

WordCamps are Local Events

I spoke at 3 WordCamps (same talk) in 2011. In 2012, I only spoke at 2 (San Diego & Los Angeles). Both of these, and Orange County, are all within 2 hours of my home.

So while I was what I would consider a “local,” it was by accident rather than intention.

When people ask me today about the WordCamp speaker circuit and how to get on it, I first explain that WordCamps are best when local presenters make up the majority of the event.

This allows people to connect with others that will be there for them when the event is over. It allows people to connect with others who are “just like them” and who “have been there.”

I go on to explain that for the remaining speakers that may be from out of town, there still is no “circuit” and each event reviews speaker submissions on their own. That’s when I suggest they speak at their local meetups and apply to their local WordCamp.

This never sounds exciting if your goal is to travel the world speaking at events. It sounds slow. And wait until I explain that no one gets paid for these speeches!

Speaking at a WordCamp won’t make you famous, but it may make you poor. If you’re flying across the country, staying in hotels, all for free, you’ll likely run out of money.

This is why they’re best as local events where 80% of the speakers are local. It won’t cost them an arm and a leg to attend and give a talk.

Year Three

After giving 5 talks in two years, a few things happened.

I was invited to apply to speak at several different WordCamps, with specific requests for specific talks. I said yes (because I love public speaking and I love WordPress).

I started traveling to WordCamps (on my own dime). On average, a WordCamp costs me $1000-2,000 for a weekend (between airfare, hotel, meals and taxis). Thank God my website made that in affiliate revenue or I would have had to explain things to my wife.

I realized that I was modeling a behavior that wasn’t all that helpful to others (by repeating talks), even when I was trying to model a behavior that was helpful to others (storytelling, clean PowerPoint designs, one main point).

Just like it took a while for me to understand the constraints and freedoms of the GPL, it took a while for me to figure out the WordCamp talk thing.

After 29 talks, here’s what I know:

  • WordCamps are best when local.
  • WordCamps are best when presenters are helpful.

Notice I didn’t say, “when presenters are good.” It’s what I used to think.

I still want presenters to be awesome.

But I don’t want to put a bar up so high that most local people count themselves out.

Being helpful is the real bar. Telling your story to your local community is the best way to be helpful.

These Days

This year, 2014, I will have spoken at 13 WordCamps when it’s all done. My plan had been to speak at 6.

I really did want to speak less.

But I also love this community and my friends that were coordinating WordCamps.

But here’s where things were different than those first years.

Each WordCamp has been a different talk.

Now you’re not me, but for me, a WordCamp talk takes me about 6 weeks to prepare. That means I’ve prepared 13 different talks this year (plus one for WooConf this Monday).

That’s why I don’t consider myself a circuit speaker. Circuit speakers deliver the same talk over and over.

Do I recommend that many talks in a given year? No.
Not unless you’re a public speaker and that’s your way of giving back.

But if that’s not the case, you’re better off working in your local community. It will save you money and help you build a stronger local presence.

I’ve been speaking publicly since I was 16 and in a couple weeks I’ll turn 44. So my story isn’t your story. But if you’re thinking about turning into a circuit speaker, for the fame and money, let me demystify it for you.

The amount of money I’ve made directly at a WordCamp is $0.

The amount of money I’ve made indirectly from all my WordCamp talks (where people give me a project after a talk) is $3000 (one small project a couple years ago).

The amount of money I’ve spent on WordCamps in the last 4 years is many times that $3,000.

Most people who come up to me after a talk who want coaching are clear that they first met and found me on my blog and have been reading it for a while. It’s how they got to know and trust me.

Cost of blogging – my time.

That’s why I’ll tell you:

If you’re hoping for fame, trying to build a brand, or even get a job, my recommendation is to blog.

If you think you're not ready to blog, make sure you aren't lying to yourself.

If you’re looking to impact a community, plug into your local meet up.

And if you’re going to travel around the world speaking to WordCamp audiences, bring new talks to each event.