Why I No Longer Speak for Free

These days I routinely turn down offers to speak. That may seem odd as I am a public speaker (both in the content and social media space and on sea kayaking and my adventures). Yet, it is the fact that I am a public speaker which serves as my reason for saying ‘no’.

The reason I decline? The opportunities I turn down are unpaid.

And I do not speak for free (with some exceptions I’ll get into later.)

I am not sure where the practice began – if it was with bootstrapped event planners looking to draw attendees without having to pony up or if it was want-to-be speakers looking for a way to get exposure – but in either case, it sucks.

I understand the practice from an event planner’s perspective. By not paying for speakers they reduce their overhead. My issue here is that speakers are now effectively free labor. We’re like user-generated content. The organizers of the event or conference are using the value we offer/provide to generate revenue for them.

‘Opportunity’ and ‘Exposure’

Many of the event organizers I speak with do not see it as ‘not paying’. They see it as providing an opportunity for the  speaker to reach a new audience. The thought process is that the speaker now has a chance to earn business from the audience, either by generating clients or through the sale of merchandise at the event. Organizers see their ‘payment’ as the ‘opportunity’. That may sound like a fair deal until you take a moment to think it through.

The speaker is hired to generate income for the event planner and at the same time still needs to find a way to earn income for themselves! Event planners get a guaranteed return for what the speaker provides, while the speaker merely gets a chance to earn something.

Rather than being hired, the speaker is provided a marketing opportunity. That’s not a fair exchange of value, and I don’t care if they are the new kid on the block.

As an event planner, if you feel someone provides enough value to speak at your event, pay them for the value they bring.

No one benefits

Planners may see hiring (let’s call it what it is) speakers for free as a win-win. They get butts in seats and the speaker gets a captive audience. The problem here, aside from the above mentioned guarantee for the promoter and not the speaker, comes down to value. It’s human behavior. We don’t place the same value on something we’re given as we do something we’ve paid for with hard-earned money.

I am loathe to attend events with free speakers, and even more if the event has a cost. A free event with free speakers…..that’s a recipe for a waste of my time. If it’s paid….that’s a waste of time and money.

My experience has been that conferences with unpaid speakers fall into one of two categories:

  • They offer little value (lack of caliber of the speaker).
  • They are designed as sales pitches (how the speaker gets compensated)

I want no part of either. I attend events to learn, improve, grow….not be sold.

It’s a lose-lose

  • The event planner delivers less value.
  • The quality of the audience drops being.
  • The value of the exposure and the overall opportunity for the speaker is low.

The model is flawed.

It needs to change.

And I want no part of it….as a speaker or an attendee.

Beyond that, there are two more fundamental reasons I do not speak for free:

Speaking is not a marketing activity for me. It’s my product.

MC with MEi added this thought on Twitter about speaking for free:

“I will always have “my cause” but it means nothing if everything I do is free. You must build credibility to make the biggest impact, otherwise who are you?”

I treat every talk as if it was a paid consultation.

I am not using them to earn business or for a chance to sell a course, sign a new client, or sell a book. If that happens, it’s a bonus. My end goal is to empower others., to educate, to help through my presentations.

Every talk and presentation, from formal keynote to informal gathering, is design to provide value. They are meant to allow those in my audience to walk away with something which can be immediately implemented or to leave with a better understanding of a particular concept. Either way, those listening take away something valuable.

Mutually Assured Benefit

Let’s face it. I have an ego. When hired (and paid) to present at an event or conference, or to talk with a private group, guess what? I’m going to announce it…everywhere! As an influential social media marketer with an active, loyal following on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, that translates to your brand awareness, traffic to your website, and more butts in seats.

As a paid speaker I do more than deliver value for your attendees. I promote your brand. I market your event. Mutually Assured Benefit.

When will I speak for free?

The big one is at WordCamps. WordCamps give me a chance to give back beyond my organizer role in Seattle and I get to establish, grow, and nurture relationships with others in my industry. What I get is far more valuable to me money or leads.

When else will I forgo my fees? Guest lectures.

I speak at a number of local universities. It’s a chance to inspire others and to provide a look at the world in a way a text book cannot.

What do I charge for speaking engagements?

That’s a bit tricky to answer. While I have a base I work from, I don’t have a set speaking fee. There are too many variables including where the event is located, how many times will I be speaking, and if the event is paid or free.

My pricing isn’t ego based and what I know my content is worth, It’s based on that Mutually Assured Benefit concept and my expenses. It would be unfair to charge the same fee for the same talk delivered to 100 people attending a free event in Portland and a paid 3 day  conference in London for 1000 attendees.

If you have an event in mind, send me the details and I can provide my fees based on the particulars of your event.

I’d love to chat about your needs and see how we can work together to everyone’s benefit.

I’m also curious as to your thoughts, both as a speaker and an event organizer. Why do you ask for free speakers or speak for free?

This article first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse on 3 June 2019.

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