5 reasons you should speak for free

person speakingNot too long ago, an author on a writers’ forum expressed frustration with the speaking invitations he was receiving.

The organizations needed him to speak for free because they couldn’t afford to pay him, but they would allow him to sell books after his presentation. Still, he was reluctant to invest time in appearances that didn’t offer a fee for his time.

I can relate.

When my humor book that explained male behavior to women, WHY CAN’T A MAN BE MORE LIKE A WOMAN?, was published, I received speaking invitations from women’s groups all over the country. Because of the amount of time and expense involved in traveling out of state to speak, I had to turn down (with reluctance) any opportunities from organizations that couldn’t at least reimburse me for travel expenses. It was a business decision — the travel involved would take me away from other income-generating work.

What’s right for you?

There really isn’t a right or wrong answer in this situation. You have to do what’s best for your career, not mine or the author I heard from on the forum.

I happily accepted all invitations to speak within 90 miles whether the host organization could pay for my gas and tolls or not because doing so served a purpose. These invitations to talk about the lighter side of gender differences gave me an opportunity not only to sell books to women hungry for what I could offer, but to learn from audience members, too, by asking them to share their stories and experiences.

I can understand any author’s reluctance to spend time on unpaid speaking engagements, even if they’re local. Even so, I encouraged the author on the forum to accept as many of these invitations as he could. Here are five reasons why:

1. Unpaid gigs often lead to paid gigs.

In fact, I was hired to be a paid keynote speaker at an international conference hosted by a Fortune 500 company headquartered near where I live because several people on the conference planning committee had heard me speak locally (for free).  This happened even though the book my presentation was drawn from has been out of print for almost a decade. The company scanned the book and re-printed it, giving a copy to each of the 300+ attendees.  

2. Presentations can generate book sales and consulting income.

I buy my books at a discount from the publisher and sell them when I speak; I always earn enough to make it worth my time. In addition, the speaker, media spokesperson, and consulting fees I earned from my book on the lighter side of gender differences have far exceeded what I was paid to write it. I can say the same thing for the speaking fees I earned from my Publicity for Nonprofits book.

3. You can expand your “database” of anecdotes and get new perspectives on your topic from your audiences.

I like to make my presentations interactive not only because people learn more when they’re involved in the process, but also because the experiences of audience members enhance my knowledge of the topic and how it’s relevant to them. When I was still speaking regularly on the lighter side of gender differences, I always came away with a notebook full of anecdotes I could use in my next radio interview.

When I talk about book publicity and promotion at writers’ conferences, I always ask attendees to tell me about their struggles so that I can continue to provide them with relevant, helpful information in my newsletter, on this blog, and in my training materials.

4. You can expand your reach.

Most of us write books to entertain, inform, or educate, whether we’re novelists or nonfiction writers. We can’t do that unless people are exposed to our books or how we think. There is no better way to do this than by engaging with people face-to-face. People support those they know, like, and trust. Connecting with your target audience in person helps you get to know each other better.

5. Speaking for free gives you the experience you need to become a paid speaker.

If you’re not already an accomplished speaker, you have to start somewhere, right? Meeting planners who aren’t paying you a fee are far more forgiving than those who have written you a check, so practice your presentation and speaking skills in situations where you aren’t paid.

Learning what works and doesn’t with your audience is important. You’ll know when you’re up there if your attempts at humor fall flat, or when people start taking notes because what you’re saying is so important they want to make sure they don’t forget it.

Get feedback

When I first started speaking locally, I always tried to get a few honest (and gentle) friends in the audience to give me feedback about my content and how I presented it. I also asked the organizer to share results of the speaker evaluation forms with me so I could benefit from anonymous feedback.  (Here’s a tip: Toss out the best and worst evaluations and focus on what’s in between.) I continue to use them to help me improve. You can do that, too.

Even if one of these reasons resonates with you, be open to being an unpaid speaker. You might find that what you receive in terms of information or connections is worth more than an honorarium of any amount.

Do you speak for free? Why or why not?


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Sandra Beckwith is an award-winning former publicist who now teaches authors how to market their books. Three groups have recognized her BuildBookBuzz.com site as an outstanding resource for authors, so you know her advice is author-tested.

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27 Responses to 5 reasons you should speak for free
  1. Karin Mesa
    October 8, 2013 | 5:15 pm

    I have spoken to groups at schools and read my illustrated kid’s book quite a few times. It’s been great fun and I took new skills and understanding from the experience each time. I learned in a group of over 100 kindergarteners about connecting with individuals in a large group. I learned from a group of high school students how to gauge their interests and tie my book and experiences to that. I’ve gained a lot of pay in the form of new understandings from free speaking engagements. I love doing them!
    As usual, your comments are thought provoking!
    Thanks.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 8, 2013 | 5:31 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Karin. I’m glad you got so much from the experiences. Kindergartners must be a great audience!

      Sandy

  2. Susie
    October 8, 2013 | 11:45 pm

    This is a terrific article explaining the benefits of availing ourselves to speak, even for free. I totally agree, especially with the part about practicing and honing our skills as speakers with eat hose who cannot afford it. They are grateful to have us and we are grateful to get the opportunity and experience. Think: what would it cost me to take a course that would give me such an opportunity and feedback?
    Thank you for providing this article.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 8, 2013 | 11:56 pm

      Hi Susie,

      Thanks for that feedback! The benefits are there for both groups — authors and organizations, right?

      I’m not sure if this is what you’re asking about, but I’ve got a great audio program that explains how authors can become paid speakers. It’s about 2.5 hrs long and is just $29. The person I interviewed once booked paid speaking engagements for some very well-known authors. Check it out at http://buildbookbuzz.com/speaking-audio-program/. She also works one-on-one with authors.

      Sandy

  3. Renee Mullins
    October 9, 2013 | 1:00 pm

    Wonderful advise! I love the part that says that free gigs can lead to big paid gigs. I would love to have my book springboard me into becoming a professional public speaker. Not there yet but I am on my way.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 9, 2013 | 1:24 pm

      Keep at it, Renee! Toastmasters is a great training ground for that. Check out the National Speakers Assn meetings if there’s a chapter in your area, too. Good luck!

      Sandy

  4. Mary Shafer
    October 9, 2013 | 4:41 pm

    This is excellent advice. When I first started speaking, I did it for free, just to get the experience and exposure. That way, if I flubbed something, I didn’t feel guilty for not providing the host’s money’s worth. From almost the first presentation, I had people from the audience come up and ask me if I was free to speak to another group they belong to. As I got better known for my book, I began to get referrals from audience members after the fact. And then one day, one of those referred asked me, “What do you charge to speak?” I had been anticipating that sooner or later I’d begin to charge, and realized that this was my cue. I had prepared a number I thought would fly, and it did. Now, ten years into public speaking in support of my work and also as an instructional speaker, I’ve gradually raised my rates and do more paid gigs than free. But I still speak for free when I feel I want to support a worthy charitable or civic service group, when I believe the audience will really benefit from the content I share, or when I believe the exposure will lead to more paid gigs. It’s always nice to have the option.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 9, 2013 | 5:05 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Mary! Don’t you find, too, that the more of it you do, the more fun you have doing it?

      Sandy

  5. Mary Shafer
    October 9, 2013 | 8:53 pm

    Most definitely! And I think that’s because every time I do it, I get a little better at it, a little more confident. I can relax more and enjoy the experience. And I always learn something new about my topic from the audience, and who doesn’t like fresh research!?

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 10, 2013 | 12:34 am

      Learning from audience members is one of my favorite parts, for sure!

      Sandy

  6. Donna Winters
    October 9, 2013 | 11:30 pm

    I have spoken for free on many occasions. Since my main audiences are library patrons and women’s church or civic groups, they often have little or no cash to offer. I have many titles in print to sell so I can come away with some cash even if there’s no honorarium for my speech. I also encourage sign-ups for my newsletter. The fact is, I love meeting people face to face and prefer it to virtual contacts through social media. I believe in listening to your heart and also weighing each opportunity in regards to your schedule and business needs. I love the way you’ve itemized the advantages of speaking without pay. Excellent food for thought if you’re undecided about the “free speaker” question.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 10, 2013 | 12:35 am

      Such great insight, Donna! Thanks! I love that face-to-face contact, too. And I love it when I meet someone I know “virtually” when I speak in the real world! Thanks for stopping by!

      Sandy

  7. Liz Coursen
    October 10, 2013 | 1:36 am

    I view my speaking engagements as part of my income, an addition to my book sales.
    I have a 10-program repertoire. My educational programs last between 60 and 80 minutes, then there’s a Q&A, and then there’s the book sales.
    The time actually spent delivering my programs’ content is a fraction of the overall preparation that goes into putting on a professional program. Communicating with the host is very time consuming–what does it need? did you have questions about my introduction? Can I write blurbs for its website? Is the paperwork okay? How can I help?
    I spend hours driving to and from the venue (last Saturday I spent 7 hours in the car). Set up takes 2 hours. Last Saturday was very typical: I left at 8 a.m. and got back at 7.
    I spend hours and hours developing, researching, and practicing my programs’ content. If I’m doing a PowerPoint, it’s usually custom-tailored specifically for my host. My feedback is off the charts, and it should be. People come up to me after a program and tell me that I’m the “best speaker they’ve ever heard”–that happens all the time. Well, I work at it. I work hard.
    A good deal of my time is spent promoting my programs, pitching feature coverage, and (if all goes well) giving interviews to media outlets. For example, I spent 45 minutes this afternoon on a newspaper interview to promote a program in 2 weeks, and now (it’s past 9:30) I’ve got to prepare and email appropriate images to be included in the feature.
    I’m hoping I have enough time tonight to write the 4 “thank you” notes for last Saturday’s event. Make that 5 “thank you” notes: two for the Friends of the Library ladies, one for the librarian, one for his IT guy, one for the town’s mayor who kicked off the program (my latest thing is inviting mayors to “kick off” my programs), and one to the terrific historical society guy who gave me a tour of the town. Excuse me, six “thank you” notes.
    I am a professional speaker and a professional author. I do about 100 paid speaking gigs a year.
    In that year I also do about a dozen free speaking gigs for causes I support. You run a cat/dog rescue and need a speaker? I’m there. You want to rally the troops for a political cause I support? I’m there. You want me to make a case for literacy in your community? Show me the stage! But these aren’t places where I have a book–so those speeches are just that: speeches.
    If you’ve got a book, you should be paid to speak.
    When I am paid to speak, I respect myself, I respect my host, and I respect my audience. And, you want to know something? When my hosts pay me to speak, they respect me more. We value what we pay for.
    Last thing: speak at a level where you get paid, or–I was going to say “stay home,” but that sounded kind of harsh, so I’m going to finish by saying–paid or not, speak at a professional level or stay home.
    Being an author is a business. I love it–I think it’s why God put me on the face of this earth–and it’s fun, but it’s a serious business.
    Liz Coursen, author, The Book Tourist: Seven Steps to a Wildly Successful Book Tour

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 10, 2013 | 2:06 am

      Well … nobody said it was easy….

      Sandy

  8. Guy Allen
    October 11, 2013 | 6:13 pm

    Your advice is excellent. I have done a few 20 – 25 minutes talks at Lions Club and Rotary functions for free. It is a very enjoyable exercise plus I have been able to sell a few copies of my novel at each event. What steps would you folks recommend for picking up additional gigs? I live in the Pacific Northwest and have presented talks in BC as well as WA.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 11, 2013 | 6:20 pm

      Thanks, Guy! As for advice, where you should go with it as far as public speaking is concerned depends on what your book is about and who is most likely to buy it.

      Sandy

  9. Mary Shafer
    October 11, 2013 | 7:06 pm

    Sounds to me like Liz may need to decide where her time is best spent. If she’s speaking in places that don’t involve her books or getting paid, maybe some of those will have to go without her. If the venue is too far away, perhaps she can Skype in instead of spending 7 hours in her car.

    It sounds like she resents the time it takes to put this all together, and that can be a long row to hoe if you’re not enjoying yourself. Perhaps she needs to package her presentations as pre-recorded videos and sell them online, or do webinars where she won’t have to drive so much.

    I agree that people respect more what they pay for, but the reality is that some of our best and most appreciative readers belong to groups that simply don’t have the money to pay us. If payment is a very big deal, I suggest asking what the organization’s speaking budget is, then if they say the don’t have one, suggesting to them that you’ll discount your usual fee but can’t drop it entirely. Suggest that they contact local businesses to each chip in a little to sponsor your talk. They can offer to allow the sponsor companies to hang a poster or banner for their business and maybe even introduce the speaker. It’s done all the time.

    But it sounds to me like maybe there’s a bit of over-commitment going on here that will rather quickly burn you out if you keep up that pace, because you sound a little angry and resentful. That’s not good for your audiences or your books, Liz, but even worse, it’s not good for you. Good luck finding a more healthy balance with your speaking. It can be done.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 14, 2013 | 2:15 pm

      Mary, this statement is so true and so important:
      [that some of our best and most appreciative readers belong to groups that simply don’t have the money to pay us ]

      In the article, I wrote that we all have to do what’s best for our careers. Some people want to be paid every time they speak — and that works for them. I don’t limit myself that way — and it sounds like you don’t, either — for the reason you stated. If group members are in my book’s target audience and I don’t have to spend a lot of time and money to get there, and if I can sell books afterwards, I’ll speak w/out a fee. I understand why others won’t — and they’ve got good reasons, too.

      Thanks for your input!

      Sandy

  10. Jody Cantrell Dyer
    October 13, 2013 | 1:00 pm

    I penned a narrative nonfiction memoir about my family’s adoption journey to our son and have yet to charge for speaking engagements. Most of my audience members are book clubs or hopeful adoptive parents. I plan to speak to some church group consisting of young mothers throughout the year and feel validated after reading your article that I am ok not charging a fee. I am a school teacher by trade and a writer by hobby and have experienced modest success with my book as far as numbers of readers are concerned. thank you so much for writing this article. You have given me great insight into timing and appropriateness of fees at this stage of my writing career. I honestly wish that I could afford to give my book away because I see my work as a ministry to help other women who have suffered or are suffering from infertility for are trying to adopt. The title of my book is THE EYE OF ADOPTION: The True Story of My Turbulent Wait for a Baby.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 14, 2013 | 2:09 pm

      Thanks so much for this feedback, Jody! I’m glad the article was helpful. You’re doing so much good with your book and speaking — I’m sure you know that readers and audience members are very grateful. Good for you!

      Sandy

    • Christine Hannon
      March 2, 2016 | 4:54 pm

      Jody how does one find book clubs to speak at? I have recently moved and don’t know many people here yet.

  11. Christine Hannon
    March 2, 2016 | 10:38 am

    Thank you for posting these tips. I have been asked to speak t a MOMONDAYS meeting and although I cannot talk about my book I can talk about the stories in my book. There is no compensation for this but there are 400 people at these meetings. I know this will help me get the confidence I need to become a better speaker when I land other speaking engagements where I can advertise my books.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      March 2, 2016 | 10:48 am

      Thanks, Christine. With few exceptions (for example, when the group specifically asks you to talk about your book research process, etc.), you want to build your presentation around a key message or experience from your book, etc. You learned a lot while researching your book; how will what you learned help your audience? Your presentation, because it’s related to your book’s content, will be a subtle book promotion, and that is SO much better than a presentation based on “here’s what my book is about and why you should buy it.”

      Good luck! I hope you enjoy it!

      Sandy

      • Christine Hannon
        March 2, 2016 | 3:27 pm

        Sandy thank you. I Sam lucky that my books are my memoirs – A Hairdresser’s Diary- so there is always someone who wants to know more. My audience is endless which is in my favour. Thank you for taking the time to answer.

      • Christine Hannon
        March 2, 2016 | 3:29 pm

        Sandy apologies for my mis spell I had my hot tea o my lap and it slipped ouch!! Sorry.

        • Sandra Beckwith
          March 2, 2016 | 3:58 pm

          Ouch is right! I feel your pain! (I am also a hot tea drinker — high-fiving you now!)

          I have to think that you hear A LOT as a hairdresser. Am I right? That has to generate lots of interesting stories for your memoir!

          Sandy

          • Christine Hannon
            March 2, 2016 | 4:39 pm

            My stories start when I was 6 and the sequel ends at 69. Those are a lot of years and a ton of stories. I have awesome reviews on Amazon as my books took on different directions than what I imagined. What is so wonderful is when I was talking about a sequel, clients, friends and family asked me to please include their story in the book. I was honoured.

            As you can imagine there are no bad or nasty parts.
            I am now trying my hand at an audiobook for those who have asked for it. I am doing myself as seniors don’t make much on pensions so I am keeping my fingers crossed lol. Can’t do this while typing lol

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