I get paid to speak because I paid my dues by speaking without pay2010-12-28
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.
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.