A while back, in a land before COVID-19, an author in a writers’ group posted that he was frustrated by invitations to speak for free.
The organizations contacting him didn’t have speaker budgets, but they hoped they could compensate for that by making it possible for him to sell books after his presentation.
He wasn’t sure that was enough of an incentive for the time involved.
It’s a business decision
I can relate.
After my humor book that explained male behavior to women, WHY CAN’T A MAN BE MORE LIKE A WOMAN?, was published, women’s groups all over the country asked me to speak at their meetings. Because of the time and expense involved with traveling long distances, I could only present to organizations with a budget for travel expenses, at a minimum.
It was a business decision. The investment involved was greater than the potential reward.
On the other hand, I happily accepted all invitations to speak within 90 miles regardless of the budget because doing so served more than one purpose.
First, they gave me opportunities to sell books to women hungry for what I could offer. In addition, I always learned from audience members when I asked them to share their stories and experiences.
What’s right for you?
I can understand any author’s reluctance to spend time on unpaid speaking engagements, even if they’re local.
There really isn’t a right or wrong answer in this situation.
You have to do what’s best for your career. What works for me, and what works for the author I mentioned who expected to be paid, might not work for you.
Even so, I encouraged the author in the group to be open to speaking for free.
Here are five reasons why.
1. Unpaid gigs often lead to paid gigs.
I’m Exhibit A for this.
A Fortune 500 company headquartered near where I live paid me to be the keynote speaker at an employee conference because several people on the planning committee heard me speak for free locally.
This happened after the book my presentations were based on had been out of print for almost a decade! Still, they remembered me and tracked me down. And, with my permission, the organizers scanned and reprinted my book, giving a copy to each of the 300-plus attendees.
I was well-paid and had a great time with a group of smart, fun, and engaged women.
2. Presentations can generate book sales and consulting income.
When I had several traditionally published books in print, I bought them at a discount from the publisher and sold them when I spoke. I always earned enough to make it worth my time.
That also applies to the speaking fees I earned from my third book, Publicity for Nonprofits.
3. You can expand your “database” of anecdotes and get new perspectives on your topic from your audiences.
One reason I get my audience involved in presentations is that I learn from them. They enhance my knowledge of the topic and how it’s relevant to them.
And, when I was still speaking regularly on the lighter side of gender differences, I always came away with pages of funny anecdotes I could use in my radio interviews.
When I talk about book promotion topics at writers’ conferences, I 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 training programs.
4. You will expand your reach.
Most of us write books to entertain, educate, or inform, 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 use unpaid engagements to practice your presentation and speaking skills. (And be sure to read Betsy Fasbinder’s guest post here, “6 things every author can do to captivate an event audience.”)
You will also discover what works and what doesn’t with your audience. You’ll see when 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.
To transition from speaking for free to speaking for a fee, use feedback from the audience to help you improve.
When I first started speaking locally, I always tried to plant an honest (and gentle) friend in the audience to give me feedback about my content and how I presented it.
I’ll never forget the input from one of them after my first-ever presentation on the lighter side of gender differences. She was appropriately honest, explaining why a different approach to my content was a good idea.
I was a little embarrassed, but I was also grateful. She was right.
Ask the organizer to share results of the speaker evaluation forms with you, too. Anonymous feedback is often the best kind. (Pro tip: Toss out the best and worst evaluations and focus on what’s in between.)
Give it a try
Even if none of these reasons resonates with you, I hope you’ll be open to speaking for free.
You might find that what you receive in terms of information or connections is worth more than an honorarium of any amount. I certainly have.
Do you speak for free? Why or why not?
(Editor’s note: This article was first published in October 2013. It has been updated and expanded.)
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