The Biggest Mistake You Can Make When Speaking for Free


Last week I explored the idea that as bloggers, we can grow our reputation through speaking engagements. Contributing thought leadership, subject matter expertise, or personal experiences in front of a crowd can be an effective part of larger strategy to build out income sources that aren't dependent upon brand sponsorships, or advertisers. However, the first step to getting paid to speak is often by first gaining experience (and positive testimonials about your speaking prowess), by donating your time, i.e. speaking for free.

I can't even remember all the various panels and presentations I gave  (some of which happened in badly-lit hotel ballrooms or in small, windowless rooms and to audiences who were clearly less-than-interested) before I was offered a check.

While it is true that I have been able to secure some pretty sweet speaking gigs, I can't even remember all the various panels and presentations I gave  (some of which happened in badly-lit hotel ballrooms or in small, windowless rooms and to audiences who were clearly less-than-interested) before I was offered a check. Sure, many of these came through the digital marketing agency I was working for at the time (and therefore “paid” in the sense that I was a salaried employee getting time away from my desk), but others were offers that came through via PR Couture from organizations that didn't have a budget for speakers, or only had enough for the fancy schmancy keynote. Sometimes I was offered a plane ticket, or a hotel room (or both!), and truth be told, as someone who loves traveling this can often be enough to get me to say yes, just for the fun of it. But in the beginning I was mostly nervous I would disappoint the audience by telling them a bunch of stuff they already knew that I often forgot to keep one very important question top of mind: what's in it for me?

Ask: “What's in it for me?”

Now, let me stop you mid-eye roll to clarify something. What's in it for me could be all sorts of things. It might be an excuse to plan a trip to New York City, like the first time I taught at Fashion PR Confidential, or a chance to speak on a panel with Leandra Medine and Anya Strzemien, like during StyleX. What's in it for me might be a chance to speak in front of a bunch of new designers about my new brand elixir sessions, like at Swim Lessons, or the chance to explore some new material, like when I shared my thoughts about brand storytelling at the San Diego Marketing Association Conference. It could also be just about supporting my community, or as a favor to a friend. But if I am not super clear on what I am getting out of my time, I miss the most important opportunity that comes along with any speaking opportunity: what do I want my audience to do next?

Ask: “What do I want my audience to do next?

When I know that I want my audience to do after hearing me speak, I can choose how and what information I share that is in support of that goal. As with anything, once you have a goal, you can develop strategies to help you achieve that objective. For example, if I am speaking to a room full of college PR majors, and I want them to buy my book, I might casually mention that anyone who signs up for my email list will receive a code for 20% for the next 3 days. If I know I want new clients, I will frame my answer in such a way that it allows me to highlight, in a super not cheesy way, my latest consulting offer.  If I am speaking to an audience of bloggers and my goal is to get more bloggers to read my site, I might announce a new series focused on PR tools for bloggers that launched that day, and urge them to subscribe.

There can be all kinds of benefits to speaking for free, as long as you are clear about what is in it for you, and what you want your audience to do next. I am sure we have all been in the room with the so-called expert spending most of her time promoting her book, or her $3,000 “secrets of the universe package,” to know what not to do when it's our turn to speak. Instead, figure out how to use the time you've got to get to the next level of relationship with your audience, your co-panelists, the company that invited you in the first place.

If you're game, give it a try in the comments. Let me know your:

1. Audience

2. Speaking Topic

3. Goal

4. Audience Action

If you're getting stuck I'll help you out!


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6 Responses

  1. sacramento

    How do you get invited in the first place???
    Any help here?

  2. Wayne

    Well. your approach and my approach are different.

    My first question is always, “What does my audience need.” Followed by:

    Does my speech match their need(s)?

    Do I have something to gain by fulfilling their need(s)?

    Can I tie in my promotion without ruining a potential client relationship?


  3. SandyNeneSA

    This article has been very helpful. Thanks so much. I as the founder of the very first blogging community in SA: have been approached to speak at an annual Digital Day happening on the 31st of October. When they first approached me. I didn’t really know what to say, but then I spoke to a lot of people about this and they all think it’s a great exposure for me as a brand as a blogger. I look forward to such opportunities.

  4. julie

    In the beginning speaking for free is great. But eventually you have to pay the bills. You can either sell from the stage (frowned upon by meeting planners) or you could get sponsors to pay your way. That way you know you’ll get a paycheck and you can just focus on giving great content.