5 min read

What to say when you’re asked to speak at an event for free

The ‘can I buy you a coffee and pick your brain’ phenomena is something I know well. In fact, I’ve seen people dress up the ‘will you work for free’ mantra so many different ways I can now spot it from your opening sentence.

The ‘can I buy you a coffee and pick your brain’ phenomena is something I know well. In fact, I’ve seen people dress up the ‘will you work for free’ mantra so many different ways I can now spot it from the opening sentence of your sales pitch, email, tweet or direct message.

This ‘work for free economy’ extends well beyond the coffee shop and into other environments. For example, the elephant in the conference room is the fact that many professional speakers are asked to – you guessed it, speak at events – for free.

I’ve even had audacious event organisers ask me to pay THEM to speak at their conferences to the tune of up to 20 thousand dollars.

The real kicker to these invitations is that in many cases, the event organisers are making money on your time, expertise and reputation to the tune of hundreds or even thousands of dollars per delegate. And if you have the gumption to ask to be paid for your time, they either drop you like a hotcake or try in some strange attempt at reverse psychology to make you feel bad for suggesting you’re worth being paid to speak at their event.

I’m not saying don’t take on speaking engagements unless you are appropriately remunerated – there are definitely merits to doing some pro-bono speaking work. Maybe you are at the start of your career and need the experience and exposure. Maybe the conference topic pulls at your heartstrings. Maybe the event is being run by a not-for-profit or charity by volunteers. Maybe you’ll be able to network your way into paying work. Maybe your employer has the capacity to support this activity.

But realistically – that’s a lot of maybes.

In my experience of professional speaking, the maybes are they exact way event organisers dress up the ‘work for free’ invitation to make it appear more palatable. Like they are actually giving you something of commensurate value in return for your time and effort.

The reality is, maybes don’t pay the bills. Your bank won’t give you a mortgage on a speaking calendar full of maybes and maybes don’t help you out when you get to the checkout at the grocery store.

Commercial event organisers understand full well what they are asking for, and they are banking on their being able to sell those ‘maybes’ so well that you’ll agree to work – for free.

I’ve decided that I’m no longer going to be a willing participant of this false economy and here’s why you should reconsider your involvement too:


1.  Sought after and professional speakers charge a fee to speak at conferences, events and to deliver workshops.  

Our time – like yours – is valuable.

Like you, our time is how we make our living.

To accept an invitation to speak at your event means saying no to other paid work. It means spending many hours of time preparing for your presentation and traveling. It often means being out of pocket for expenses.

So – no, we do not speak for free.

The only exception to this rule for me is if you are a Government registered not-for-profit organisation, a charity or your event is otherwise clearly NOT geared for profit. Then I consider each invitation on a case-by-case basis.


2. Piss off our publicist/agency at your own peril.

Like many busy professionals, speakers employ others to help them manage their schedule and run their businesses. In my case, my publicist exclusively manages -funnily enough – all my publicity and public speaking engagements.

That means the only way you can book me for a speaking engagement is through her. You’ll find other reputable and sought-after professional speakers also have publicists or they may have an agency that performs exactly the same role. Why? Because they represent our best interests in negotiating speaking engagement contracts.

If you think you are too special to discuss the details of your event invitation with my publicist, you can be assured you won’t be hearing from me.

If you think that giving her attitude or otherwise treating her with disrespect will get you access to me- I can guarantee you it will not.

Smart event organisers know that publicists are the fiercest gatekeepers on the planet- and they actively cultivate productive ongoing relationships with them. Be a smart event organiser.

3. Chances are, we don’t need your ‘event exposure’.

Trying to convince us that your event will give us the ‘exposure’ we need or that it will ‘boost our reputation’ is quite frankly, insulting.

The fact that you are inviting us to speak at your event means you have some understanding of our achievements and the influence we have in our spheres of expertise or else you wouldn’t know who we were or what we do.

It is unlikely that your event will provide us with any ‘exposure’ or ‘reputation boost’ that surpasses what we have already obtained of  our own volition.

If you think your event is the exception to this rule, put a compelling pitch to our publicist/agency for consideration.


4. Don’t list us as speaking at your event unless you’ve *actually* booked us – to speak at your event.

Leveraging our reputation to sell tickets to your conference before you’ve actually confirmed our attendance is out-right rude – and also illegal. Advertising a speaker before you’ve confirmed their attendance infringes on our intellectual property and misrepresents our brand.

More than anything, this makes clear to us that your organisation’s ethics are not aligned with our own. Personally, I have no interest in doing business with organisations that thinks deceptive and misleading marketing practices are acceptable.

5. Your lack of organisation does not our emergency make.

If you have sent out instructions on presentation file submission, the event schedule and audio visual requirements – you can trust that we have read and are familiar with the briefing. These are the instructions to which we will adhere.

If you haven’t sent out instructions before the event or think you can make them up (or change them) hours before the event begins – your lack of organisation isn’t our problem nor will we make it our priority.

6. Do your research.

Interested having me talk about social media marketing? Facebook advertising? eCommerce? SEO? That’s great – I have half dozen recommendations of people whose expertise is in that EXACT area for you.

I am not a social media jack of all trades nor do I represent myself that way. Similarly other professional speakers have unique skill sets and expertise. 

If you don’t know what we specialise in, you haven’t done your research. This also tells us you don’t understand your target audience, or ours, and that gives us little confidence that your event is a good fit for us.


7. No. We won’t pay YOU to speak at YOUR event.

I don’t know on what planet a speaker paying YOU for the privilege of speaking at YOUR event makes economic sense to anyone but you.

It is in fact, the definition of advertising and if a speaker were to do this, it would damage their credibility. Sure, spin it as a ‘sponsorship opportunity’ or which ever way you like, it’s still paying for air time and I can guarantee you we can achieve much better results for far less money elsewhere.


Some event organisers operate in a false economy. I’ll wager that conferences selling what ever conference you’re buying – that are geared for profit – but who don’t pay their speakers, would make no profit whatsoever if they actually paid for the speakers line-up they so readily cash in on.

So why participate in this false economy to our own detriment?

Next time you’re asked to speak for free, do the math and work out how much it will cost YOU. If the situation doesn’t meet your pro-bono requirements, just say no.

Save your enthusiasm for the event organisers that have built loyal and passionate audiences. They know how much production effort goes into making an event great and they value the contributions made by everyone that puts their energy into supporting them equally – from the venue to the caters, delegates and the speakers.