Speaking for free: It's only a 'favour' but the true cost is steep

It’s only a ‘favour’: The trouble with speaking for free

speaking for free
I suspect it’s because too many of us are too nice and too modest. Why else is speaking for free something so many of us do? Why do we fail to treat speaking opportunities as a business transaction?

It’s easy to be fooled and flattered. There might be a nice bunch of flowers, a bottle of champers or a fancy candle, but does that make it worth it?

So often it starts positively with ‘we need a speaker’: it could be a referral from a friend, an email from a former work colleague, a LinkedIn message or an invitation addressed to you to be their ‘guest speaker’ for an event. Often it looks like a promising lead but then you discover what they really want from you is a favour.

We need to be aware just how costly these favours are. We don’t get paid for being nice: we get paid for doing business.

Here’s how speaking “favours” can cost you:

Your time It’s been said there’s an hour of preparation for every minute you speak.  With a keynote address of 40 minutes, that’s a whole week worth of preparation not being remunerated.

Your intellectual property They might want to film you, make copies of your slides, transcribe your speech or mention your insights as quotes in their magazine articles/website/blogs. You’ll be sharing your experience, your knowledge and your expertise under their business name – goodbye IP, goodbye image control. In one way or another they are profiting from your friendship.

Your pocket Who pays for the transport, the accommodation and sometimes even your entry to the actual event? You, their ‘honoured guest speaker’. They’ll most likely need  headshots, for which you’ve presumably paid, your bio, necessitating more of your time and they’ll probably also want to ensure that you cross promote their event on your social media channels.  The fact that this commitment of time means you can’t accept other paid work whilst you’re doing this ‘favour’ means you are penalised TWICE.

Your reputation.  Are you selling yourself as a speaker or are you marketing someone else’s product? Audiences aren’t stupid, they know when they are being sold to.

How to deal with requests for a favour:

Assume it’s a sale. Ask them to email details of the event, date/time/location/audience numbers/length of speech/topic and once you have all that information, create a speaker’s agreement (contract) stating your business terms.  Once you have that signed and your deposit THEN lock in the date and start preparation for the event.

The “but we’re not for profit” excuse. Ask if they are charging entry to the event and ask who else you will be sharing the stage with. If it’s a well-known name, you can be fairly confident they WILL be paid for their appearance. A quick Google search will often uncover the appearance fee for a big name. Interestingly, when disability advocates are invited to be on panels or the face for a community awareness event, we are told it’s ‘community service’ yet the clinicians at the same event are often paid for their appearances because they are ‘experts’.  Ironic isn’t it – one lives a life of disability and one makes a living out of the disabled.

“But you’re one of us”.  You may belong to a volunteer service organisation as an amateur but chances are once you become successful, your club will regularly ask you to facilitate a speaking course, MC an awards night, provide a presentation workshop, mentor a newbie and so on. If this happens, suggest that the organisation gives a newer member that experience, as it was that same experience that helped you to get where you are now.

“But you can sell, promote your book (product/program)” at the event. Do the maths. A speaking fee is guaranteed money in the bank, sales are not.

Get reimbursed. If you’re asked to attend or speak at a government function, forum, panel or similar and you (or your organising/trust) do not receive government funding or grants, ask to be reimbursed for your travel and accommodation. Many departments have funding allocated and available for this very purpose. Remember to have all the approvals in writing.

Set aside a portion of your time for your favourite charity/event. When you do provide your service, make sure you send them your speaker’s agreement and make sure they realise it’s a donation of your fees, rather than a favour.

Ask your accountant if you can claim on expenses around this donation, transfers and accommodation.

Having the speaker agreement in place BEFORE you speak pro bono, it will ensure you have full control of your IP, your image and your business.  If they ask for addition tasks/items – if the MC is ill or the facilitator cannot make it – you can decline the task without guilt as it wasn’t agreed upon. You could even ask for payment for your services as per you speaker’s agreement as it’s listed as ‘additional to what was agreed/signed’.

If I’m asked for a favour and I happen to be in town on a paid gig around the same period, I’ve offered ‘mates rates’ for their request (favour) because they don’t have to pay for accommodation and transfers so I can reduce my speaker’s fees dramatically.

I will take the opportunity to speak at my professional association’s conference.  I am indirectly paid because the conference fee is waived.  I also gain extra benefits with networking opportunities, seeing new product/s on the market, the formal dinner and awards night, plus travel and accommodation is claimable under tax, CPD and my articles are published/peer reviewed – all adding to my expertise and credibility.

As a dear friend once told me “I’m may be cheap but I’m certainly not free” so empower yourself and decline the favour – you’re worth it!

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