They say that you know you love your job when you’re willing to do it for free. But being willing to do it for free doesn’t mean that you have to. Numerous articles have been written to help public speakers get paid gigs and make a living out of their passion, how to price themselves, and where to look for paid speaking opportunities. We’ve covered these topics in past articles on our blog. If you want to get our expert advice on becoming a well-paid speaker, head here.
In this article I want to focus on the power dynamics between event organizers and speakers, understand each of the two parties’ contribution to the event, and give public speakers a few tips on how to address the arguments event organizers use to avoid speaker fees. Understanding where the value of the event lies and what roles both organizers and speakers have will hopefully change attitudes and create a collaborative environment, rather than one in which competing interests clash. Because in the end, everyone involved has the same goal: delivering a great event that makes a difference for the audience.
First and foremost, I’ll unpack events as we know them and the collaborative effort that makes them successful. I’ll then look at the most common arguments event sponsors use to get speakers to donate their time and expertise, and ways to argue against them.
What event sponsors bring to an event.
No one can contest the dedication and work required to put together an event. The days of the event are the end result of the month- if not year-long efforts that go into its planning. The production itself is only the tip of the iceberg. For most organizers, the work on the next event starts as soon as one event finishes. From topic research to concept development, speaker curation and booking, post-event audience engagement, these are only the most important ongoing tasks that can never be ticked off the list.
Event organizers provide a set of elements that make the event possible. Whether or not the event is a success is hugely dependent on its organization. Numerous times I have met attendees excited about the content, who nonetheless complained about schedules, catering, or goodie bags. Good organization is key to the success of an event.
Moreover, if the event is well-known and has been around for a while, they are likely to have a huge following already. This doesn’t just mean exposure and a quick and easy way to sell those tickets, but also a lot of work to keep that audience engaged. Most organizers have a team dedicated to producing online content in between events to keep their audiences interested.
For the speaker, this means that promotion is taken care of and they will not have to spend too much time promoting their upcoming talk but can use the organizers’ marketing team for that.
That being said, the glue that brings and holds all this together is the content, and the speaker alone is responsible for that.
What the speaker brings to an event.
They say talk is cheap. The problem with that is that cheap talks are probably not worth listening to or attending. Your job as a professional public speaker might seem easy from the outside, but you know how much work and effort goes into preparing individual talks, not to mention the years of learning and research you have done to get to the point where you’re an expert in your field. It’s worth it to others to pay good money for this. You’re sharing expertise you’ve spent years building, and thus offering a shortcut for all those attending.
All the talk about the amazing life of a public speaker, the traveling and networking involved, is true. However, there is too little talk about the hard work involved. The hours spent preparing a presentation and structuring information to make it accessible, practicing the delivery and dealing with the nerve-wracking stage fright, and finally, the hours of travel and time spent away from home, are less glorious, but prevalent, aspects of a public speaker’s life. Yet, they are hardly ever mentioned.
While it is easier for everyone to focus on the positive aspects, public speakers also have a duty to make known the effort behind a seemingly effortless delivery. One way of doing that is sharing the process of preparing for a talk. Telling people about the work behind it will not only make them realize its value, but will also be a good indicator of the quality of your public speaking.
There is no doubt that speakers would not have access to the level of exposure that events offer on their own, or have the time to deal with the organization. There is also no doubt that event organizers would not have an event without the speakers. This mutual dependency is the reason why both speakers and organizers should value this relationship and view each other as equal contributors.
The arguments every public speaker has heard at least once.
It’s a privilege and an honor.
As a public speaker you’ve probably heard this argument time and again and been made to feel less entitled to a fair fee. Let’s get this straight. Indeed, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to do something you like. It is also a privilege and an honor to be allowed to get up on stage and address a big crowd — essentially to be given a voice. However, the fact that you enjoy what you do and that your job offers you fulfillment is not a reason to do it for free. What you personally get out of it isn’t payment enough. Though enjoyable, work is work and should be remunerated. This discourse has had less experienced speakers accept working for free and feel like they can’t ask for more than the pleasure and privilege of public speaking. It completely ignores what the speaker brings to the conference and the reasons why they are considered in the first place: their skills, knowledge, expertise. It’s hard to price intangible things but that doesn’t mean they have no monetary value. Your ability to research, summarize, present, and make information digestible is worth a lot. Whenever you hear this argument, remind the person in front of you of the hours of labor you put into accumulating the knowledge and experience, and get them to see how they can’t simply expect to benefit from it for free.
You get exposure.
Another classic argument is the exposure you’ll get from speaking at a huge conference. The promise that it will all be worth your while and you will finally reap the rewards once you have enough unpaid work under your belt is asking for delayed gratification. One good way to address this is to be prepared with facts. Check out the event and their social media following, find out how many attendees they expect, and compare it to your following. Most public speakers have already built strong personal brands and in the process taken on some of the tasks of event organizers. They have followers, and their databases and are usually great community managers. If you are an active participant in online discussions, follow forums, groups, guest-write articles, and generally make valuable contributions to discussions, then you are doing a great job of securing exposure for yourself. If this is you, make it known. If you do lack exposure, make sure you find out the number of attendees and their backgrounds, and check if the type of exposure offered is relevant for you. Not every event will be portfolio-worthy, and if you’re giving a talk for free you want to be sure you’re doing it for a good reason.
Your company can pay.
Another common request coming from organizers trying to minimize costs is to ask if your company can pay for your attendance. Some companies will indeed see benefits in sponsoring you to speak at an event, and the exposure they get goes a long way for them. But let’s face it, most public speakers either own their own companies or earn their living from public speaking alone as educators and experts in their field. Being associated with a company that can pay the costs of attending a conference is not a legitimate criterion when creating an event line-up. Most organizers know this but will do it anyway, mostly because they think recognizable brands and companies bring in audiences. I can’t tell you how many conferences I’ve attended where the speakers sponsored by their companies were far from being the stars of the show. Instead, those who were least expected to engage and excite the crowd did an amazing job. This is not the rule, but the point is you should not feel discouraged by the fact that you don’t represent a big brand. Instead, focus on the personal brand you’ve created and the value it can add to an event.
If you’ve been in the business of public speaking long enough, you will have learned that no matter how many boxes you tick and how prepared you are, some event sponsors will always have arguments against paying a speaking fee. The industry has often been accused of treating speakers unequally and not being transparent about offers from the start.
It’s time to change all that, and it starts with the way speakers approach opportunities. Hopefully, this has offered some clarity on what to expect and how to prepare for the situations where you’re being asked to give without receiving much in return. Equally, antagonizing every event organizer is not the right attitude. The efforts that go into planning a large- or small-scale event are mind-blowing and require a lot of sacrifices. As a public speaker you want to simply make sure you’re not the only one making the sacrifices.