Should You Speak For Free?

My friend Steve is the lead singer in a terrific local cover band.

They play at nearly every big event here and in surrounding towns, not to mention showing up regularly at nearby craft breweries, fundraisers, and the occasional high-end birthday party.

I see him most Tuesday nights at our town’s dive bar, a regular occurrence for five or six of us that’s punctuated with beer and idiotic conversation. Sometimes, if he has an upcoming gig (it’s fun to say “gig”), Steve will share the set list with me.

That’s when we play a little game… he names each song and I try to come up with the original artist.

I don’t like to brag, but I am extraordinarily good at this. Most of the songs his band plays are from the sixties and seventies, and for reasons I don’t really understand, when I hear the song, the artist name magically appears in my head.

Some are easy of course – Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison, or My Old School by Steely Dan. Others, especially the one-hit-wonders, not so much. Brandy? Looking Glass. Smoke from a Distant Fire? Sanford Townsend Band.

One of these days, he’ll probably try to stump me with Papa Dukie and the Mud People, at which point I will calmly declare, “The Subdudes, of course.”

So does this mean that I have an amazing memory?  Not exactly…

Because while I know without question that In the Summertime was originally performed by Mungo Jerry, I have a terrible memory when it comes to people.

On many occasions I have spent time one-on-one with another person – over coffee, at a networking event, on a phone call – and weeks later, I have zero recollection of having ever even met that person, let alone the conversation itself.

Both scenarios involve “memory,” but whether I am good at it or not depends on the context.

Where’s the Line?

I was reminded of this conundrum (SAT word!) on a webinar last week, when somebody asked me whether speaking for free was a good idea. The answer, coincidentally, is contained in a bit of music history…

As you may remember, in the late 90s, a company called Napster developed a free, music-sharing service. Was it good news for bands?

Well, if you were an unknown indie band, absolutely. Suddenly, people all over the world could experience your music, potentially raising your visibility and earning potential.

But if you were Metallica, which ultimately sued Napster, it was terrible news. They had plenty of visibility; what they wanted was to be paid every time one of their songs was shared.

Public speaking for free works the same way: the answer to whether it’s a good idea or not depends on who you are and your particular circumstances.

Some things to consider…

How’s business?

If, as a professional service provider, you have plenty of clients, great. Now you can charge for speaking and add some revenue on top of that.

But, if you don’t have enough work, you may want to be more open to speaking for zero compensation. It’s an effective way to gain exposure and you’ll have many more speaking invitations if you reduce the cost of booking you.

Make some rules.

I enjoy public speaking so much, that when invited, my inclination is to immediately say “yes.” If I can get two neighborhood dogs to sit still long enough, I’m ready to talk.

But about 15 years ago, while shlepping through the Chicago airport after speaking for free at a conference, I suddenly thought, “What am I doing? I just spent two days traveling and I didn’t earn a cent.”

I realized I was at the point in my business that I was less indie and more Metallica (minus the extended drum solos).

So I made some rules: I have a minimum fee; I charge more if I have to stay overnight or get on a plane; the number of days of travel involved has an impact on the fee.

There’s no right or wrong in the rules themselves. But having them forces you to stop and think before agreeing.

Break some rules.

None of this is in stone; it’s just a guideline…

Maybe it’s an event you want to go to, so you agree to speak for expenses only and a free admission ticket.

Maybe business is slow, so you decide the exposure for this particular event is worth it.

Maybe the event is on the same weekend as your wife’s cousin’s destination wedding and you suddenly realize that, “Sorry honey, I really need to attend this conference.” (This is just a hypothetical.)

Whatever the specifics, these are your rules and you can modify them whenever and however you want.

Here’s the bottom line.

Public speaking will certainly increase your exposure.

Just remember what my friend Andy Goodman advised years ago when I was about to use exposure alone as justification for accepting an unpaid invitation: “People die from exposure.”

Every situation is different, and what works in one context or for one person won’t apply in another.

Wonderfully, and as with most things about working for yourself, you get to choose!

Discussion Questions:

  1. What’s your favorite one-hit-wonder song?
  2. Do you know of two dogs that might be willing to hear me speak?
  3. What are your public speaking rules?

Share your answers below…

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15 thoughts on “Should You Speak For Free?

  1. Janet Falk

    1. Little Bit of Soul by The Music Explosion (check out the Bruce Springsteen cover on YouTube).

    3. I often speak for free on webinars, which have led to clients, including a call this week from an attorney in Colorado and a follow-up call with an attorney in California. (I am based in New York.) I also speak for lunch. I don’t drive beyond New York or New Jersey on my own dime.

    I haven’t been able to get honorariums or fees, yet I don’t believe I am leaving money on the table. I am educating the audience so they will be smarter when they work with me or my colleague. I am adding to my repertoire by applying what I know to a new industry sector. I am practicing my speaking craft.

    For a fuller discussion see:

  2. Graeme Roberts

    My favorite is “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvus, which may have been a hit in 1956.

    My one public speaking rule is to only address subjects that I know intimately and feel passionate about. If I do forget what I was going to say I can just start talking instead of speaking.

  3. Mark Reilly

    A-ha Take on Me.
    Rules are expenses, or at least a meal, has to be covered. I will speak for free provided potential clients are in the audience and I can peddle some information about my services.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Take on Me was the video that kept going back and forth between video and an animated drawing, right? I’ll have to look that one up!

  4. Lindsay Gower

    I am notorious for not remembering the names of songs or the names of bands. I do, however, remember all the lyrics.

    I know three dogs who will listen while anyone speaks. You would be required to (a) come to San Francisco, CA (oh, darn!) and (b) hold a delicious dog treat throughout your presentation.

    I have (so far) only spoken locally. I love teaching by speaking and am hankerin’ to get back to it. My plan for 2023 is to join Toastmasters again and teach them while they teach me. Once I’ve polished my skills a bit, I can look again for opportunities to speak.

  5. Evelyn Starr

    1. I was going to say Level 42’s “Something About You,” but then I googled Level 42 one hit wonder and got schooled by this article: I have more listening to do. 🙂

    2. We are one of only 2 houses on our 7-house cul-de-sac that does not have at least one dog. Come by if you’d like an audience. I’m sure the neighbors would be happy to oblige.

    3. My rules are if I am leaving the house, there needs to be some exchange. Doesn’t have to be large. The Babson student Family Business Club once asked me to speak and offered $100 and I happily obliged. Like you, distance travel ups my fee. On the other hand, I have spoken for free for a client hosting an event or for exposure as part of my book tour. Since I published during pandemic right as vaccinations were just becoming available, the entire tour was online.

  6. Elly J van Laar

    1. Radar Love by the Golden Earring, a band from the Hague, NL. Probably their only international hit, and a good one.
    2. As for dogs? I trained my friend’s dogs to be obedient. Maybe I can teach them to enjoy listening to you?
    3. Only speak for free if it’s my ideal audience and favorite topics, I have the opportunity to capture contact info, within half an hour’s drive, and I have time. Hum, good to memorize those rules.


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