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Should You Speak for Free? If, When and Why?
by Chris King

The voice on the other end of the phone has a familiar request. They have heard that you are a powerful presenter with great content, but… “We are a small group (substitute nonprofit, association, club, organization) and don’t have any money in our limited budget for speakers. It would be great exposure for you. Would you be willing to speak to us for free?”

My answer for you is, “It depends!” I have been on both sides of the phone. Because I have a wide network of friends and associates, I am often picked to be a chair of programs and programming for groups with no funds for presenters. I have also presented both for free and for compensation. In this article I will examine both sides of the issue, giving you an honest rundown of what I have learned over the years from my own perspective and that shared by other speakers.

When I first aspired to becoming a professional speaker, I was willing to speak free for anyone, anytime and anywhere. This had its pros and cons. I will share my opinions in the following cases:

Speakers’ Bureaus
I became a member of several and the pros were and are:

  • Practice. The best way to become better at anything is to do lots of it. Speakers’ Bureaus give you this opportunity, especially if you are willing to speak on a variety of topics and to be flexible when it comes to scheduling. It doesn’t hurt, either, if you are so good that they receive rave reviews for your presentations.
  • Marketing. You don’t have to worry about selling yourself. The speakers’ bureau takes care of getting gigs for you.
  • Learning. Working with an active speakers bureau, you will learn many of the important ins and outs of preparing and presenting. Examples of two areas that enhanced by training were provided by a ballot issue:
    • To build our new baseball stadium, a sin tax was added to a May ballot. Those of us in the bureau who supported the passage of the tax were asked to speak about it. It passed, but there was still a lot of confusion, anger and angst about the construction.
    • I proposed putting together a presentation that would explain the issues to different groups. My first big learning experience was preparing the presentation so it was interesting, up-beat and positive.
    • My second huge learning experience was when I presented to a group of senior citizens who were violently opposed to the stadium. Talk about a hostile group. After sincerely answering their questions and explaining why and how the stadium would help our city, they wanted to know when and where they could buy bonds. I had learned how to turn around the emotional reaction of an audience.

The cons, which are usually the same for all free speaking were and are:

  • Control. In my final examples above, I had control of what I was presenting. In most other cases, however, I was handed a scripted talk and slides picked by the bureau. I did learn to add my own touches, but I basically was doing what I was told to do.
  • Exposure. One of the reasons I joined bureaus was to become known as an excellent speaker, so that I would be hired (and paid) for speaking independently. It just doesn’t happen. The groups that want free speakers - even though there may be a few in the audience in the position to hire you - don’t have any use for paid presenters. That is why you are there.

In what situations would I suggest speaking for free and why?

  • You would be speaking about your business to a group of potential clients. Some presenters I know do quite well with Chambers of Commerce. I never got repeat presentation business that included compensation from them, but I usually spoke about topics like creativity and storytelling. Today, I have the goal to collect e-mail addresses and names of people to contact. And this works!
  • You have a terrific product that sells well from the platform and the meeting planner has given you permission to bring it along for selling purposes.
  • You decide, for charity, to give a certain number of free presentations a year. The amount of your donated talk is included in the contract, so the group realizes what they are receiving.
  • You are writing a book and pick topics and groups that will be helpful to your research.
  • Finally, you want to record a presentation - on tape, on a CD, on video, or, at least get some terrific photographs of you in action. You will be more authentic in front of an adoring audience than if you just perform in a recording studio.

Final Warning. Don’t speak for free, unless you have a well-thought-out reason. I also suggest not ever negotiating your fees downward. Set them and stay firm. You can have different levels for time and distance, but if you start giving in because you want the job, word will get around and hurt you more than help you.

Personally, I feel strongly that playing with our fees just robs us of credibility and integrity. In those cases, I would prefer to speak for free.

Do you speak for free? Let me know the pros and cons you have encountered. I share a lot of information for free, but draw the line when I get that request on the phone from a money-strapped group. I tell them my fee and then suggest that they open the presentation to other groups and charge for it through ticket sales. Another speaker friend is often sponsored by big companies that want to get in front of the groups he speaks to - but that’s another story!

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