Whether a speaker is just getting their business started or has been in business for decades, there will come a time when they’ll have to consider speaking for free. This can either be a boon for business or cause a business to bust – and it all comes down to one thing:
Are there systems behind the free speech?
Many speakers are told to speak for free in order to get their business started (I definitely heard this advice). Personally, I spoke at enough civic organizations in my home community that folks thought I was running for office! Speaking for free anywhere that will have us is a massive mistake in a speaking business. I know – because it almost bankrupted me.
There are speakers who make a healthy living speaking for free, but they always use a system to ensure they’re only taking the stage in front of audiences who can buy their back-end products and services. If we’re focused on getting paid simply to take the stage, now or in the future, it’s valuable to know the reasons why someone would speak for free:
Reason 1: Marketing
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This is why most of the ‘back of the room sales’ speakers will take the stage for free. They know they can convert a percentage of their audiences into follow-on services, consulting, coaching, courses, etc.
Reason 2: Getting reps in
This is perhaps the poorest reason to speak for free, but if we’re developing an entirely new keynote or are at the very start of our speaking career, it may make sense to speak for free to simply be in front of a live audience. This is an acceptable business practice (and a smart one – if someone pays us tens of thousands of dollars for our keynote, they shouldn’t be the first audience that’s heard the material). Speaking for free to get reps in only makes sense if we don’t anticipate any follow-on business coming from the event organizers or audience members. That means we have to be conducting outreach as our primary form of marketing.
Reason 3: Testing new material
A variation of ‘getting reps in’ this reason for giving a free talk is a sound business practice if we are working in an entirely new story, speech or a massive alteration to our talk (incorporating props, entertainment like magic or singing, etc.). Massive chunks of new material shouldn’t be tested on a full-fee audience. Again, don’t anticipate the event organizers or audience members will be good sources of paid gigs from your ‘new material’ talk. The main purpose of these new material talks are to give you, the speaker, an opportunity to record the talk for self-critique.
Reason 4: Sampling a new potential market
If you’re moving outside of a tried-and-true industry you’re well-known in, speaking for free may make sense if it gets you in front of a new industry who might benefit from your expertise. Speaking for free is a good idea to ensure that your stories, content and style transfer into a new industry before you ask for full fee.
If we’re not in one of those above categories, there are a few mistakes speakers make when they speak for free in the hopes that it might turn into a full-fee opportunity:
Mistake 1: Speaking for people who can’t hire us in the future
Few speakers take the time to ask ‘have these folks hired a speaker like me in the past, for the fee I want to get paid?’ before they agree to speak for free. While this question can be asked directly to the person responsible for bringing in speakers, it can also be searched online. Enter the name of the organization or association you’re considering speaking at for free, and add the word ‘speaker’. If those results deliver speakers who have their own websites or bureau listings, they likely speak for a fee. Those are the organizations that at least have a history of hiring paid speakers.
Mistake 2: Speaking for people who aren’t likely to refer us to people who can hire
If we’re speaking for free in the hopes of generating referrals of those who can hire us, then we need to ensure the folks in the audience likely are those people or know those people, or both. Few speakers ensure they build into their agreements a clause like: “agree to speak for free on condition of receiving the contact information of all audience members for future follow-up.”
Mistake 3: Speaking to an audience that doesn’t need our expertise
Some speakers make the mistake of speaking for free before checking to see if that audience even needs the expertise the speaker has. If the audience can’t find the value in a speaker’s talk, neither they nor the event organizer is likely to want to pay that speaker in the future.
Mistake 4: Speaking to a for-profit company for free
Speaking to a professional association for free is one thing – but speaking for free for a for-profit company is a dangerous road to travel. If a for-profit company is able to get your speech for free, what incentive would they have to pay you in the future? This is akin to giving away milk for free and then offering to have someone pay for the cow. The deal doesn’t benefit the farmer – and you’re the farmer in this scenario.
So what systems are we using to ensure that we have the highest chance of turning our free gigs into paid ones?
First: Ensure they have brought in paid speakers in the past
Do your research before accepting a free speech or offering one. Otherwise, you’ll be fighting uphill to convince the meeting planner that your talk is worth paying anything for.
Second: Ensure they have events (live or virtual) that you can speak at in the future
Another easily-found piece of intelligence is that the organization does have events (live or virtual) that they’ll likely be using speakers for. If the organization you’re targeting doesn’t even have events, your talk (however great it is) likely won’t convince them to pull their employees or members together for just your talk. These days, a lot of events have cancelled or postponed their live events but do have regular virtual meetings. Any pre-existing meeting schedule is a great opportunity for a speaker to offer free content for if they complete the following steps.
Third: Position yourself as a solution and not just a motivational speaker
Whether we’re selling a free or fee speech, too many speakers cut themselves out of the gig entirely when they position themselves a ‘motivational’ speaker, or ‘leadership speaker’ or ‘millennial retention’ speaker or ‘(insert your topic here)’ speaker. What will convince a meeting planner to consider your talk (whether its free or for fee) is that you address a challenge their audience needs solved. This is a conversation that has to happen with a human and is difficult to achieve via email. So pick up your phone and ask, “What do you need that talk to achieve to know it was worth your audience’s time?”
Fourth: Conduct a pre-event brief
This is where systems really kick in – and also set a speaker up for future paid gigs. Before taking a live or virtual stage for free, have a chat with your event organizer to ensure you learn about the industry and specific challenges of the audience you’ll be addressing. Find out about the acronyms they use and how they like to be addressed. Ask to review previous speeches if they have any recorded or webinars they’ve hosted in the past if you’re delivering a virtual presentation. Why? You want to know what the bar is in their presentation quality so that you can surpass it!
It’s also critical that you use this pre-event brief to book an appointment on both yours and your event organizer’s calendar for a post-speech debrief.
Fifth: Deliver an awesome presentation
It should go without saying, but whether you are speaking for free or fee, you have to deliver a great talk. And the reason that a meeting planner would take the time to meet with you is how well you do on the stage and the information you gather that they’ll only have access to after the event- that’s why you conduct an event debrief. Gather metrics from your audience via polls or your own review of your talk’s recording (use you cell phone if you have to!) to measure what pieces of content your audience found most interesting.
Sixth: Conduct a debrief
The event debrief is where you have the opportunity to set up a paid gig in the future. Remember, this must be set as an appointment before you deliver your talk. You’ll be just below emptying the cat litter after your talk, so get it on the calendar beforehand. This debrief is where you show how much you focused on their industry and the solutions they needed for their audience. Once you go over the speech’s success and any metrics you gathered, you can run the same questions you’d normally discuss for a paid event (Next event they’ve planned, potential budget, challenges they plan on addressing, when they’ll be locking in speakers, how they’ll make that decision, etc.). This allows you, as a newly-vetted speaker who’s shown them the value of your expertise, to position yourself to either A. Submit a proposal for their next event or B. Get their budget, buying window and firm appointment to follow up when they will be selecting speakers. If you do plan on reaching out in the future because they can’t lock you in (and pay your fee) today, then get a firm calendar appointment when they will be selecting a speaker to circle back and go over any new content you’ve created/updates on their event, etc.
Bonus tip: If you’re conducting a debrief for a virtual event, make sure you do it via Zoom or a platform where you can get your meeting organizer on video so you can add them to your virtual speaking testimonial reel.
Without a system, you may end up speaking to a crowd that couldn’t hire you even if they did enjoy your talk. With a system, you can ensure you’re only speaking to organizations that can hire you – and will position you better for any future revenue than any other speaker they’ll speak with.
That is what makes speaking for free a great way to generate a fee.
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