The Free Speaking Trap
There was a time, not so very long ago, when I would drive anywhere and speak for anyone. For free. Want me to drive three hours to speak to four people who have never even heard of social media? Okay! It was the “paying your dues” process that’s inherent in many professions. You’ve got to take the time to hone your craft to the point that it’s worth paying for. That means not only knocking the rough edges off your presentation style, but also making sure you can consistently deliver content that’s truly useful to people.
As that experience increases, you begin to get a true feeling of self-worth. As people tell you how useful your presentations are, you start to think hey, maybe you could do this for money. After all, it takes time and expertise to put on a great presentation; more if you need to do something custom. You start hesitating before you say yes to waking up at 4:30 a.m. to drive halfway across the state for a small presentation. You start tentatively asking about budgets and honorariums.
And you feel like a complete heel when you do it.
You stutter and stumble, but sometimes something miraculous happens: the voice on the other end of the phone tells you that why yes, there is a budget for speakers and they’d be happy to pay you. You pound your fist into the air and happily accept.
But other times, you get an answer that no, there’s no budget (or there’s only a budget for keynote speakers). The event organizer on the other end of the phone assures you it’s going to be great exposure for your business. What should you be asking yourself before you say yes to that gig?
- Who is your target customer? At Roundpeg, we don’t do a lot of work with not-for-profits, so a room full of fundraisers isn’t a great fit for us. But a room full of people who own small manufacturing companies is of great interest to us. If there’s a significant chance the program might be a sales tool, it’s easier to say yes to speaking pro bono. Ask if you can hand out literature or make a more clear sales pitch at these kinds of events. It’s the fee for your services.
- Is it for a good cause? While not-for-profits might not be our target customer, we still like to do nice things for great causes. I’m far more willing to donate my time to something like the Cancer Services Luncheon than a convention.
- How far is it? It’s easier to make a gig that’s just around the corner than one that requires you to spend your time–and gas money!–on a road trip. If it is a bit of a hike, can you combine the trip with other networking events? Is there some benefit to making the trip?
When all the stars align, you might still wind up with a great profitable speaking gig, even if you aren’t being paid a dime. And if you’re asking someone to speak for free, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Remember, you are asking for a favor. If it really is a great opportunity for them, be prepared to share why instead of thinking they should be grateful you asked.
- Communicate. Give clear information on when, where, and why they’re speaking. Don’t make them chase you.
- If at all possible, give some small token. I was once given a handwritten note and a $5 Starbucks gift card after a free speaking gig. It meant a lot to me–it showed that someone understood that my time had value, even if they couldn’t offer anything more. And I don’t even like Starbucks!
- Testify! If you loved what your pro bono speaker did, leave a LinkedIn recommendation. Tell a friend about them. Spread the good word.
What do you think? Am I being too calloused and calculating? Is it a privilege just to be asked to speak? How do you decide when to speak for free and when to turn on the fees?