Should you speak for free?

In the article 3 reasons that non-fiction authors should speak, I suggested why public speaking can be important to an author. But the question arises: should that be at any price?

My natural inclination, my default position if you will, is that if you’re good enough to be asked to give a talk, do a presentation or run a workshop, then you deserve to be paid for it. As my wife so succinctly put it to me: “Nothing doesn’t buy anything.”.

2012 Green Heart Schools public speaking competition, by risbane City Council, situations, like people, are different from one another. At the end of the day, if you are asked to give a talk without payment, your decision of whether or not to accept is one that involves weighing up the (perceived) costs and benefits. Here are the considerations you might wish to take into account.

4 reasons to decline the invitation

First, it comes down to a very basic fact of economic life. As long as your supermarket asks you to pay for your food, your landlord for the rent, and all the other providers of goods and services you benefit from think it appropriate to charge you for the privilege, you need money. I’d never have to audacity to ask any of the suppliers mentioned to let me have their stuff free of charge, so I always think it’s pretty audacious when organisations ask me.

I’ll slightly soften that position in a moment, but let’s ask a simple question: when people ask you to give a talk, what is it that they are wanting? It’s not merely 45 minutes of your time. It’s all your years of expertise, research and insights. Why should you not be paid? To borrow from a TV advertisement: you’re worth it.

Second, audacity is raised to another level when the organisation asking you to speak for nothing is probably going to make a very healthy profit. I was asked by one organisation if I would give a talk at one of their conferences. When I asked them what fee they were offering, I was told that they didn’t pay speakers. I looked at the prices they charged for delegates. Even allowing for room hire and catering fees, the profit I estimated made my eyes water. 

Third, I do wonrry about the fact that some people judge quality by price. If you are seen to be prepared to work for nothing for an organisation that should be able to afford to pay you, what does that look like?

Fourth, there is the opportunity cost involved. Everything has such a cost, which is defined by economists as the next best alternative foregone. In this situation it is the money you will not be earning while preparing the talk, and then attending the event. Now, clearly, the size of this cost is subjective. If you have, as Mae West put it, nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in, the opportunity cost is zero, at least in monetary terms. On the other hand, if you would have to turn down some lucrative work in order to do the talk, the opportunity cost would be much higher in monetary terms.

There are non-monetary costs too, of course. For example, an overnight stay would mean being away from the family; a talk on a Saturday would mean, in effect, halving your weekend. 

7 reasons to accept the invitation

You’d think those four reasons to not speak for nothing would be pretty conclusive. However, there are circumstances in which you might consider doing so.

First, the conference might be a good way of coming to the attention of a large number of people who possibly might not have come across you before. Some of them may buy your books as a result. As an example, you would probably not be paid to speak at the London Book Fair, but think of the opportunity it affords: a talk attended by 100 or more people, your name and details on the seminar programme. It would be most surprising if the exposure did not lead to more sales, more followers and, crucially, more offers of paid speaking work.

Second, and tangentially related to the first point, there is the potential kudos involved. It all depends on the status of the event, who else will be speaking and who might be attending. Bear in mind that terms like “status” and so on are all relative. The President of the United States may be there to hear your talk, but if you are talking about flower arranging he is unlikely to be that interested or influential. On the other hand, a publisher in the audience might be looking for a flower-arranging expert for a new publishing project she has in mind.

Third, being at a conference usually provides good networking opportunities.

Fourth, if the other talks and workshops going on at the conference look good, it could be worth your while accepting the invitation to speak, especially if the conference is expensive and there are no media passes available. I don’t much like the idea of being paid in kind as it were, but it’s something to consider if that’s all there is.

Fifth, it’s an opportunity to promote yourself and your work, especially if you are able to set up a table with your books for sale.

Sixth, it provides an excuse to do some research or organising you’ve been meaning to do anyway. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s suppose you’ve been meaning to look into some new web-based tools for book marketing, but because of paid work commitments you have never been able to justify the time required to do the research on it. Then someone asks you if you could give a talk entitled “Internet tools for book marketing”. Why not use that as an excuse to do the research, then package up your slides into a free PDF available from your website, or when people sign up to your newsletter? Or, even sell it?

Seventh, and here is where I modify my earlier stance somewhat. If the organisation is a (true) non-profit or my talk will do some good in certain quarters, I’d consider it. For instance, I was asked if I would give a talk to a group of people starting a business for the first time. The group doesn’t have any money, and giving the talk would help out someone I know. Plus, it will probably be a relaxing and interesting way to spend an afternoon, especially as it will enable me to find out first hand what their main concerns are.

Well, that is my take on the matter. I think the bottom line is that whatever you do, you have to feel good about your decision.