Speaking for free

Something almost every person who speaks, wholly or partly, for a living will have dealt with is ‘can you speak for free? We can offer expenses or a bottle of wine and our thanks!’ It’s a famous but faux-poverty tactic that could jade even the most patient soul when heard for the hundredth time.

Here are a couple of thoughts for those who search for and book speakers:

Perhaps you’re in charge of organising an event for a non-profit. You need to budget for and book a whole raft of things. You want an after-dinner speaker and so make contact, explaining that your event is non-commercial and you could provide dinner as payment. At this point consider the following. Is the venue hire free? Possibly they offer a ‘charity discount’, but is it free? Unlikely. Are the caterers free? No, and in fact most won’t even discount non-profits – they have costs and margins.

So, challenge yourself with the question ‘why should another service-provider work for free’? If you can’t come up with a legitimate answer, either budget for and pay a speaker, or don’t use one.

Asking a professional speaker to work for free is a direct translation from ‘I don’t really value your time, expertise or background, but need after-dinner entertainment, so I thought I’d try it on.’ This is how your pleas are received and are the reason why responses are bound to range from restrained ‘no’s to outright irritation or even ruder, a non-reply.

And, for speakers:

If you speak for free for any reason – because it’s a non-profit and their poverty blurb worked on you or perhaps because you’re still building experience or wanting to try out new material, consider the knock-on effect. (There are of course rare exceptions – perhaps the book-sale potential to a 1000-strong audience makes it worth it, or perhaps a particular charity is close to you and you wish to ‘donate’ your fee by speaking for free).

We have free markets, so if you choose to not levy a fee, that’s up to you. Perhaps you’re retired with plenty of cash but wish to speak for a hobby. Or maybe other parts of your business are so lucrative you don’t need to see speaking as a revenue source.

You have directly taken away work from a professional speaker in a competitive environment. That becomes a matter for your ethics and conscience. In addition, you have reinforced an industry mind-set that speakers and others who sell their time, rather than tangible objects, can be free of charge and worthless. This spills over into photography, screen writing, graphic design and other squeezed professions. The damage can be enormous.

Please do mull these over before the next time you do a deal.

Click here for my tips on speaking in public

Alex HibbertComment