I get paid to speak because I paid my dues by speaking without pay

Posted on December 28, 2010 2:15 pm by | Speaking

There has been a surge in conversation lately about organizations that solicit people to speak at their conferences without compensation. These organizations are generally labled as “disreputable” and other less-than-flattering adjectives.

I am frequently asked to speak without pay. I’m usually informed that the talk will be an opportunity for exposure. In most cases, I explain that I’m a professional speaker—that is, a significant portion of my income derives from speaking engagements—and I politely decline. I don’t write posts complaining about the fact that I was asked. In fact, explaining that I speak frequently and am paid for it often leads to a paid gig.

I gladly speak annually at the IABC world conference and some other events—without pay—because of everything IABC has done for me and my career over the last 30-plus years. I speak at BlogWorld without pay because, while I have plenty of exposure in the world of organizational communications, BlogWorld presents me with an opportunity to enhance my visibility among my peers. Every now and then, I’ll accept an invitation from The Conference Board, mostly as a favor to a friend who organizes the conferences.

Most everybody else gets a thank-you for the invitation and the I’m-a-paid-speaker explanation. But I never resent the invitation.

For associations like IABC and PRSA, razor-thin conference profits represent the funding that will be used to provide services to members. As for for-profit conference companies like Ragan Communications, paying every speaker would either lead to unreasonably high registration costs or significant losses. Since most people would skip conferences that are too pricey for their budgets, the conference organizer loses either way, and fewer conferences would be hosted, leading to fewer opportunities to learn.

While there may, indeed, be some fly-by-night conference organizers, I’ve been part of the conference scene long enough to know that there’s a model in play that’s actually quite effective and beneficial for the conference organizers and unpaid speakers alike.

Shel Holtz

When I was kicking off my career, I routinely spoke without pay at as many of these conferences as I could. I was already getting paid by my employer, and it was work I was doing on my employer’s behalf that earned me the invitation in the first place. If the conference organizer didn’t pay my expenses, my employer usually did. At this point in my career, I did need the exposure. In fact, it was the speaking as much as anything else that helped me build my reputation (or my “personal brand,” as some people would call it).

I built my career. The conference organizers added high-quality sessions to their events. Win-win. And it led to a career in which I’m now blessed to be able to charge for talks. Even now, though, I still evaluate each offer individually, on its merits, and every now and then decide I will speak for nothing, either as a way to give something back to the community or because the benefits (such as reaching an important new community) outweighs what I’m losing by not earning a fee.

To those who complain about being asked to speak without a fee, ask yourself:

  • Do you have a professional reputation and public speaking track record that justifies a fee, or is your ego just getting the best of you?
  • Are you a good speaker? Expertise and credentials alone don’t warrant a speaking fee. Have you had presentation skills training? Do you get top evaluations from the talks you give?
  • Are you speaking about work you did for a full-time employer that’s already paying you?
  • Have you evaluated the benefit of an engagement that may exceed the fee you’d expect to be paid?
  • Have you looked into the organization making the request to see if this is a a reputable organization applying standard model that other top-notch speakers have bought into?

If your answers position you as someone who should be paid, by all means, ask for it. But seriously, face up to the fact that unpaid speaking is simply the way much of the conference industry—not just disreputable corner of it—works. Feel free to decline. But for goodness sake, stop complaining about it.



  • 1.I agree with you fully Shel and you know I respect as a mentor and a friend so I'm curious on your opinion about something.

    What is your feeling about being asked to speak for free AND being asked to also cover your travel expenses or worse yet to pay to attend the conference.

    I've had two different conferences in the last year actually expect me to buy a ticket to the conference in addition to speaking. It was a discounted ticket, but it still seemed very wrong on all levels that this would be expected.

    Have you ever run into it and what are your thoughts?

    Thanks for the never ending stream of top notch content you always put out. Truly inspiring.

    C.C. Chapman | December 2010 | Boston

  • 2.Yes. Most people who complain about being asked to speak for free are fooling themselves.

    A far more pernicious problem stems from conference organizers who accept one's speaking services for free and then demand that the presentation (in printed and digital form) be made available for the attendees. I've had my material presented *back* to me too many times for this to be even remotely acceptable.

    One organizer even told me: "I'm really sorry, but the attendees expect that they'll have the speakers' presentations." Wow... That would've been nice to tell, say, the speakers!

    This has forced me to change the way I make presentations and, in so doing, has made those presentations a bit more creative.

    Phil Gomes | December 2010 | Chicago, IL

  • 3.@Phil, that indeed is a different situation. The organizations I work with make any requests for copies of the presentation upfront. Depending on the organization, I either agree (I'd be inclined to post my presentation anyway) or offer some other kind of handout, such as a one-pager covering the highlights, key links, and a few tips. If a conference organizer asks for the presentation AFTER the fact, I'll simply refuse. If they DEMAND the presentation, I'll refuse unpleasantly.

    @CC, I guess it depends. Most of the conferences where I'm invited to speak offer a complimentary registration in exchange for the talk; I haven't run into many that expect me to pay my own way. Still, when I do encounter one of these, my response is the same: I politely decline and explain that I get paid to speak AND that my fee does not include travel costs, which are billed separately (with accompanying receipts). In the same breath, I'd note that I make every effort to keep travel expenses to a minimum. It was such a response, in fact, that led to several paying gigs with a conference organizer that originally did want me to pay my own registration and travel costs. After I chatted with them, they did some more background research on me and came back with an offer that I accepted.

    As you know, my friend, nice guys often finish first.

    Shel Holtz | December 2010

  • 4.Shel, I had a colleague tell me once that the way to make a name for yourself is to never turn down any opportunity that comes your way. By opportunity, he meant work, which speaking engagements fall under. But I think his point was right on and is one I have always remembered.

    I don't ask for fees to speak because I really don't speak enough yet and am not sure I've earned that right. What I do expect, to C.C.'s point, is that the conference organizers allow me to attend the conference so I can be "paid" with the benefit of learning and networking. I actually think travel should be covered for out of town speakers too, but have taken speaking opportunities where it wasn't.

    My question is this...Does a person's evolving ability to participate in communities, network and show thought leadership online -- including via Webinars and shared presentations -- change your mentality on when someone has "earned" the right to request a speaker fee? Or is it still about how many events you've been a speaker at?

    Justin Goldsborough | December 2010 | Kansas City, MO

  • 5.Well-balanced discussion of the topic, Shel. I've presented at conferences, and was fine with receiving the complimentary conference registration as compensation.

    As you said, I'm paid by my full-time employer, which also covers my travel expenses to these conferences.

    Other than a disasterous presentation as a last-minute fill-in at an IABC World Conference (http://ow.ly/3vpjq), I've received good reviews from conference attendees.

    In return, I've had the opportunity to improve my presentation skills and gain some modest recognition among my communication peers. If and when I leave my current employer, I hope to benefit from that experience and those contacts.

    I included some painful learnings in the above-mentioned blog post (which mentions that you were the top-rated speaker that year). I'll add here that my preference is to speak on a topic with which I'm passionate--not just knowledgeable.

    Then it doesn't seem like work, and I get rewarded regardless of whether I receive a speaker's fee.

    Tom Keefe | December 2010 | Chicago

  • 6.Love this Shel.
    I have only had one organization expect me to pitch them, pay for my own expenses, and pay for the ticket. We had a polite discussion about it. I explained nicely that while I often spoke in exchange for a pass if I was attending an event one way or the other, I wouldn't be creating the content that they were selling and paying for it as well, but that I understood the margin that goes into event planning. (I grew up with a Mom who was a meeting planner & event coordinator before it was recognized as a profession that required specific skills.)

    Honestly, summarizing part of what you've said, my fees & travel reqs depend entirely on the event and the benefits to both them & me.

    Bookmarking this one Shel - if only to remind myself.

    Lucretia Pruitt | December 2010 | Some Corner of the Internet

  • 7.Great post, Shel.

    As a professional speaker myself, I make money in two ways: speaking and consulting. The former leads to the latter, and the latter feeds the former.

    To that end, I'll still speak for free five or six times a year, usually at IABC events, because a) I want to support the organization; and b) I always get more speaking gigs and consulting work every time I do it.

    And for some of those events, I'll even pay my own expenses. I do that every year for IABC World Conference, for example.

    It's expensive, but worth it. The last three years, I've been lucky enough to be the #1-rated speaker and draw huge crowds. Every year, my investment is justified with tons of speaking and consulting offers.

    I COULD tell IABC: "Hey, I was the #1 rated speaker three years in a row. I need to get paid."

    But in my mind, I DO get paid---with great exposure AND a free ticket into the conference.

    What I have never been asked to do is speak for free, pay my own expenses, AND pay my way into the conference as well. That would be a tad bit insulting, and I think I would politely decline.

    Lastly, I'm glad to see Phil bring up the subject of handouts. I'm curious as to what other speakers feel about this.

    I don't know when it became standard operating procedure to demand that all speakers turn in their presentations four weeks in advance . . . but I find it incredibly irritating.

    One, I tinker with my presentations until the last minute. Two, like Phil, I've had my own material presented back at me far too often.

    Steve C.

    Steve Crescenzo | December 2010 | Chicago

  • 8.As usual, you're dead-on and way too nice. While I've had it out with a few people on this over Twitter, key takeaways that I'm seeing are these:

    * The people demanding payment have less than a year in their new "expert" role, but are self-proclaimed. And, that's enough to demand payment after a few speaking.

    * These same people are known less for doing anything, but for espousing their expertise in some form of social media or social commerce. That's enough to demand payment, because they write on this stuff instead of actually working with clients or a company and doing it.

    Another house of cards that can't fall fast enough.

    Jeremy Pepper | December 2010 | USA

  • 9.Shel,you are a great speaker and worth every cent that you charge for appearances.I know that I for one will attend every shel Holtz speaking session I can.

    And that makes me all that much more appreciative of the generosity you have shown to the Third Tuesday social media community in Canada. You and I know (but many others probably don't) that while you have spoken several times at Third Tuesday events in Canada, not once have you ever raised compensation as an issue. You accepted the invitation as something that would be good for the social media community in Canada, without question and without hesitation. That, my friend, is a sign of a true pro who knows his value and also knows that he can give freely and will be appreciated for it.

    Joseph Thornley | December 2010 | Ottawa, Canada

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