What to Include in Your Academic Speaker Contract (for online or in-person events)

Apr 8, 2021Publications

Originally published at Ideas on Fire, April 8, 2021

Recently, I had a conversation with some faculty about the many Zoom-based invited lectures and keynotes they have given over the past year as part of the pandemic-spurred shift to online academic events.

One professor noted that the shift online means that many more people attend her talks now than when they were in person. Although grateful for the improved event accessibility, as someone who has experienced online harassment, she worries about increased visibility when event organizers post the video recordings online without any of the Zoom-based protections they provide in the live events.

Another professor wondered how a university would be using the recording of her recent talk as part of their branding, as event organizers had not explained this in any of the event planning.

When I asked how they negotiated recording and copyright for their talks, these faculty and others I have talked to since were surprised that was even a possibility.

Academia does not teach us about speaker contract negotiations, much less what should go in an agreement to ensure everyone is on the same page. Often speakers are sent boilerplate university contracts that include little in the way of speaker protection or are presented with recording consent forms right before an event starts, leaving them no time to review and little recourse if they want to say no.

Usually there is no malicious intent, just a series of rushed decisions and a system that assumes speakers wouldn’t care about such things. On the occasions when speakers do insist on contract terms, for instance including access riders or payment terms, many academic event organizers are surprised and confused, even suspicious.

There are a lot of problems with this situation, not least of which is that both speakers and organizers alike are encouraged to devalue the labor of speaking while speakers feel disempowered to intervene.

So in an attempt encourage more equitable academic speaking events, I offer this outline of elements that scholars might consider when negotiating a speaking gig with a university or organization. What you need or want in your contract may differ from what another speaker does, so this isn’t a list of must-haves (well, except for having the contract itself). Instead, you can think of this a guide for points to ponder as they may or may not be relevant to your situation.

I also hope it aids organizers—many of whom are speakers themselves—in planning events that meet everyone’s needs. It’s certainly not exhaustive and I encourage you to talk with your colleagues and friends about their experiences with speaker contracts as well.

Although the impetus for this article was online events taking place during the pandemic, these considerations apply to both online and in-person events.

Finally, an important disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this is NOT legal advice. For any legal questions, please consult a licensed attorney.

You need a contract

Always. Always. Always. Even if your speaking gig is short or unpaid, even if you think it’s too big a hassle, and even if you aren’t the only speaker, I implore you to insist on a signed contract with the entity hiring you to speak.

Just like a syllabus, a contract ensures that everyone is clear on what is expected of them and what they are and are not responsible for. But unlike most syllabi, a speaking contract is negotiable, even when it is being written by a university or organization. As a speaker, you get to have your needs included in there as well. You can also present your own contract to event organizers. Sometimes universities are willing to use your version (with or without modifications—usually with) while others require their boilerplate contract to be the base but can work with you on modifications.

Keep in mind that with large organizations like universities, often the person organizing an event is different than the person handling logistics and payment. For instance, most university contracts will involve department coordinators, legal administrators, and vendor managers, who may be different than the department chair who booked you to speak. Keep everyone in the loop so they know what’s happening with the event. You don’t want a situation where the contract clearly states no recording will happen but the Zoom moderator who didn’t know about the contract starts recording the event anyway. CC everyone involved on all relevant correspondence to avoid problems later.

So what should you consider for your speaker contract?


The contract should clearly state the date, time, length, and location of the event. If the event will be online, the specific streaming platform(s) should be named.

Also include the structure of the event. For instance, will it be an online 45-minute lecture followed by a 15-minute question and answer session, or an in-person 90-minute workshop where you will provide personalized feedback on participants’ work? Are you expected to present on specific questions, moderate a panel, or have a roundtable discussion with co-presenters?

You would think these things are obvious. However, I’ve known folks who show up to deliver a talk and are surprised when the event organizer assumes they can also moderate the panel, on the fly. Nobody wants surprises like that—and “Oh crap, we forgot to get a moderator” isn’t a good excuse.

If participant numbers are relevant, you can also include this in the contract. Often this isn’t an issue, as you usually can’t predict how many people will register for or attend a talk. But for events where you are being asked to provide more in-depth labor or personalized feedback, it can be useful to clarify the number of attendees and spell that out in the speaker contract. For instance, agreeing to provide detailed editorial feedback for 10 workshop participants is very different than agreeing to do that for 50 participants (think about how this works with grading!).


Paying speakers should be non-negotiable, even though many speakers feel pressured to accept unpaid gigs in exchange for “exposure” or a CV line. Event speakers deserve to be paid, whether the event is online or in person and whether it reaches 3 people or 3000.

Speaking and writing are both labor, and labor deserves to be paid. This means that when you’re an event organizer, budget for speaker payments and make clear in your first contact that the event is paid, even if you can only offer a small honorarium. This also means that when you’re an event speaker, ask what the event pays and negotiate a payment that you’re comfortable with and that reflects your work’s value to the audience.

Your speaker contract should specify whether payment will be provided—even if the gig is unpaid, that should be stated clearly. For paid speaking events, will you need to submit an invoice before payment can be issued and, if so, what is that process? When is payment due and how will it be made (credit/debit card, paper check, ACH bank transfer, PayPal, etc.)? How will late payment be handled?

In addition to payment for speaking, will any other payment be made for travel to or lodging for in-person events? Spell all that out in the contract.

If the event recording or materials will be available for purchase afterwards, who will receive that payment and how will it be handled?


Speaker contracts should address both speaker accessibility (your own accessibility needs) and participant accessibility (the accessibility needs of attendees, including event organizers).

I approach event accessibility in broad terms, using the term to refer to who is made able to participate in the event and how they do so. Considering accessibility in this way means thinking about how people with various abilities and disabilities can participate in the event but also thinking about how language, gender, race, age, and class shape participation as well.

This means that elements like event time and length, food and childcare (for in-person events), equipment, ID requirements, and online event password protection are accessibility issues, as are captions, ramps, transcripts, and scent policies. Depending on your situation, you may want some or all of these accessibility elements explicitly included in a contract access rider and/or confirmed with organizers ahead of time.

Some accessibility elements to consider:

  • Will the event be free or will there be an admission fee? How will that fee be collected and distributed?
  • Will registration be required and, if so, what is that process?
  • Where will the event be held and what do participants need to enter the space? For online events, will they need to download software or use a personally identifiable account (like a Facebook account) to log in? For in-person events, is ID required to enter the space? (Keep in mind that many folks are denied ID documents that accurately reflect their gender identity and name.)
  • How will security be handled and what is the plan if there is a disruption that makes people unsafe—either speakers, organizers, or participants? If the event will be held online, think about password protecting the event, setting up a waiting room, and designating a person who is responsible for removing disruptive attendees. Ensuring the event is a safe space is part of making it accessible.
  • For in-person events, will the event have a scent-free policy? What will be done to ensure the room is as scent-free as possible?
  • Are there specific types of equipment that should or should not be used? For instance, overhead LED projectors often emit high-pitched sounds that can make rooms inaccessible to folks with sensory disabilities (thank you to Aimi Hamraie for teaching me about this!). Microphones are another key example, as they greatly increase accessibility for hard-of-hearing participants and speakers.
  • For recorded events, how will captions or live transcription be used? Will a text transcript be provided afterward and made available to event participants? If so, who is responsible for providing these things?
  • For in-person events, are there specific movement elements that need to be addressed? For example, does the stage need to be have a ramp or do you need to sit while delivering your talk instead of standing at a lectern?
  • Will there be sign language interpretation? If so, which form of sign language will be provided, how will the interpreter be booked, and how will participants and/or speakers access this interpretation?

See How to Make Your Academic Event Accessible for more on ensuring accessible events.


The contract should clearly state whether the event will be recorded and, if so, by whom. Take care to outline who will own copyright of that recording and what that party is allowed to do with it, including whether and how they are allowed to share it with others for commercial and/or noncommercial purposes.

How will the recording be made available to the speaker(s) and event organizers, as well as any other relevant parties? Are non-copyright owners allowed to share the recording for commercial and/or noncommercial purposes? For instance, if the university owns the copyright, are you the speaker allowed to post the video on your website or vice versa?

Some more things to consider: Will there be any time limits to how long the recording will be made available? What happens if one party wants the recording removed (for instance, if you want the video taken down from a university website)?

Copyright plays a particularly big role in online events because of their easy circulation, but it is also important to sort out for in-person events. Regardless of the type of event you’re speaking at, your speaker contract should state who owns copyright of the event materials and what the copyright owner is allowed to do with them.

Who will own copyright of your presentation content and materials? This includes the title and content of your talk as well as any audio/visual materials like slides that you provide as part of your presentation. It also includes any digital or analog handouts you share as part of the event. If you’re presenting online, you might post a link to a worksheet that participants can download or if you’re presenting in person, you might pass around a stack of access copies of your talk. The contact should spell out copyright for that.

As I mentioned above, copyright also applies to any event recordings. Make sure the contract includes all relevant information about who owns the recording and what they’re allowed (and not allowed) to do with it.

Also consider marketing materials here. For instance, if publicity materials will use trademarked logos or names, the contract should spell out the terms for those. Most universities are vigilant about including trademark protections in their contracts. As a speaker, ensure your own relevant assets are protected by including them in the contract.

Additional considerations

There may be other legal issues your contract needs to address, depending on your situation. In that case, I recommend consulting an attorney to make sure everyone is protected.

In addition to the elements outlined above, there are also important issues that may not necessarily need to be in the contract but should be confirmed with the organizers before the event. For example, who will be introducing you as speaker and what materials do they need to do so? If you need to provide a speaker bio that they will read, clarify that ahead of time. Confirm that everyone involved knows how to pronounce and spell everyone’s name and that everyone is clear on everyone’s pronouns.

Negotiating a speaker contract may not seem like fun but it is crucial to a successful event that meets everyone’s needs. Talking with other speakers about how they do this (or how they wish they had) can highlight the range of options and often illuminate negotiable elements you didn’t think to ask about. Ultimately, clear and supportive speaker contracts make for better events and more equitable knowledge sharing, for both speakers and event organizers alike.

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