Change Management Innovation/Creativity Leadership

7 reasons why I won’t work for free

I’ve written this blog last year but it’s still relevant for most people.

‘But you’ll get a lot of exposure to potential clients. You get the chance to speak in front of a lot of influential people. It’s a great opportunity.’

This is one of the phrases that I hear quite a lot of times. Most of the times in combination with the sentence ‘But we have very limited budget to pay you’.

I don’t have the intention to insult the event or conference organizer because they probably ask this question with the right intention but I would love to give a bit more background information and reasons why I’m saying ‘No, I’m sorry’ to these great opportunities.

I’m working as a motivational speaker but I can imagine that a lot of people working in creative industries (copywriters, designers, …) get a lot of similar requests.

1. Can I ask you to work today for 20% of your normal fee?
There’s a tendency to believe that it’s easy for speakers to lower their fee significantly because they get a lot of exposure. I wonder what a baker would say if you would only pay a small fraction of a bread because you’re going to promote the bread to all your family and neighbours? Or tell the hotel manager that you only pay 25 euro for a night in his hotel because afterwards you will send a mail to your clients that his hotel was very good? Or try to book a flight to your favorite holiday location and tell the airline that you don’t have budget for a ticket but they will get a lot of new clients if they let you for free on the plane? Probably the answer is no.

2. I invest a lot of time and money in being a ‘professional’ public speaker 
Most of the times, the event organizer forgets the word ‘professional’ which means that I have to earn money with public speaking. I don’t have another day job which will pay for my rent, my food and other expenses. And ‘professional’ means that I’m investing a lot of time and money to be(come) one of the best speakers in my domain (between brackets are indications of the time/money I spend):
– going to conferences worldwide to experience and learn from world class leaders (I spend around 20.000-25.000 euro /year to go to these events);
– following expertise training and coaching to make sure that I can give the latest updates at the events that I speak (I spend around 10.000 euro / year on this)
– reading the latest books and blogs and articles (I try to read one book / month + spend 4 hours / week checking blogs and sites)
– sharing all this content via tweets, blogs and newsletters (on average, I spend 3 – 4 hours a week to share this)
– publishing a new book about my topic every 18 months (which means investing 2 months / year without any income + investing around 15.000 euro in a good copy-writer and designer)
3. Don’t compare a top-speaker with an extra coffee-break
I believe the organizer when (s)he is saying there is a limited budget. What they forget to say is that there’s a limited budget for speakers. Most of the time, they is a budget for a nice location; there’s a budget for food & beverages; there’s a budget for administration; …  A CIC economic impact study shows that 85% of spendings on events and conferences is going to travel, hotel and F&B; 15% is left for business services, technology and … speakers. I think that the added value of a good speaker is a lot more than a coffee break.
And if you calculate the costs speaker / participant than it suddenly looks very different. Eg a fee of 5000 euro / 100 participants is 50 euro; /200 participants = 25 euro; /500 participants = 10 euro.
BTW: Event organizer, I’m very happy to think together with you how we can create a nice flow/program where you can probably save a lot of money on the F&B or hotel budget (and then you have some extra budget to pay the speakers ;-))

4. My added value is worth thousands of euros / participant
It seems that it’s very hard to calculate the value of a good presentation but I’m sure that my participants get away with at least one good method to generate a lot more ideas (and speed up the innovation process). If you just can save one extra meeting – Eg because a method like ‘yes and’ helps you to overcome long discussions that don’t lead anywhere – then you save already hundreds (or thousands – depending who’s attending the meeting) euros. And now I’m not talking about breakthrough ideas like the launch of a new product or service; finding a new target audience; integrating a smoother business process; having happier employees; …) which can be worth millions in the long run.
5. You don’t pay me just for one hour of speaking
You pay me for 15 years of expertise and experience. I have probably already spend 5.000 hours on front of groups (of which at least 1.000 hours on stage on larger events and conferences). Every time I learn something new to improve the quality of your event (a technique to interact; an example for a certain target group; a pause of 2 seconds longer to make sure that an insight can happen; … – all kind of things that most people don’t even notice but which have an impact). And you also get access to my network of connections if I know relevant people for your event. And I will spend a day searching for tailor-made examples to inspire your audience.
6. Your audience isn’t necessary an interesting audience for me.
I can speak in front of 500 dentist or IT-professionals or coaches (and I believe that I can absolutely have a big added value for them) but the chance that they will hire me afterwards is very small. Even talking in front of event-organizers (my main target group) has a ‘potential ratio’ of 1/500 (see next topic). A strange ‘side-effect’ is that quite a lot of times, the potential clients from a client -who don’t have (a lot of) a budget- also don’t have a lot of budgets.
7. The route from an enthusiast participant to a paid customer is complex and long.
When I speak for an audience, I want to get at least (High) Distinction which means to get at least scores of 8 or 9 on a scale of 10 because organizers pay me a lot of money. And in most cases, I get these results so apparently the audience loves what I’m doing but this doesn’t have a direct relation to future assignments. On average, when I can speak for an audience of 500 people, 3 or 4 people will come to me after the session and say that they want me to speak for one of their own events. If I connect to those people afterwards, only 1 or 2 are serious and if I’m lucky, 1 paid assignment will happen within a year. So the conversion rate would be around 1/500 (assumed that the audience is relevant for me). I have a feeling that a lot of conference organizers count on a ratio of 1/25 when I get their mails.

BTW: I don’t speak that much at events of 500 people (yet, hope to get there) – most of the time I have an audience between 50 -150 people which means that I get 1 new assignment out of 5 assignments – even if the evaluation rates are very good. 
And one of the reasons that I even didn’t mention above is that it’s my job as a public speaker to get exposure. If you only wanted to give content to your audience, you could better give them a book or let them follow an e-course. You want a speaker because you want your audience to be exposed to an inspiring and motivating keynote to deliver your message.

So I hope that these reasons give a little bit more background why I think that a good professional speaker should be paid well because (s)he’s worth the money. And yes, I make exceptions a few times a year for a good cause but then I like to choose the non-profit organisation. And in other cases, the compensation doesn’t only have to be money but organisations can reward me with other non-money value (that’s often a lot worth for me and doesn’t cost them too much money) – like a professional recording of my performance on stage; connections and recommendations with other associations; offering one of my books as a New Years’ present to employees or relations; … be creative but the value should reflect the added value that I’m giving to your audience.

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