• Advice

How to respond when invited to speak…for free

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

Oftentimes freelancers are asked to speak on their particular areas of expertise to a local group or at a special event. I’ve been called to do so several times and you may have been too. Here’s how the scenario typically plays out.

The Scenario

Caller:  “Hi, I’m Ms. Organizer of the XYZ non-profit for local artists. We’d love to have someone come and talk about graphic design to the teens enrolled in our after-school program, and found your web site while doing an online search. Now, since we’re a non-profit, we can’t pay you to come speak. But, some of our students’ parents will be in attendance and may be in need of your services for their companies which will give you GREAT exposure!”

Which of the following is your initial reaction when you get this call?

  • “Wow! They want ME to come and speak? I’m so honored!”
  • “Well, I could use the exposure since I’m still trying to build my client base. It could be worth my time even though I’m not getting paid I guess.”
  • “OMG! I’m terrified of speaking in front of groups! I think I’m already having a panic attack!”
  • “Last time I spoke to a group they told me it would be great exposure, but it wasn’t. There was no one there interested in any of my services which was disappointing.”
  • “There’s no way I’m speaking for free! My time is worth more than that!”

Most freelancers’ reaction is typically one of the above. But when you take the emotions out of the situation, what should your rational response be? Should you take the unpaid speaking gig, or not?

How to Decide

Consider these questions: What kind of win-win situation is potentially available if you agree? Is it one that benefits the organization’s audience while also benefitting you? For example, could this be great practice in case you decide to later add presentations to your income stream and start charging a speaker’s fee, while also imparting wisdom on your new-found audience?

How you choose to handle this situation can set the tone for all future speaking gigs. Also, it can either make or break your piggy bank if you get these kinds of requests on a regular basis.

How do you decide to take an unpaid speaking gig?  Here are a few suggestions I shared from my own personal experience when leading the Nashville Spark chapter’s discussion on the topic of public speaking last spring.

First, wait until the emotions (excitement, uncertainty, fear, etc.) subside before agreeing to anything. Ask for a couple of days to check your calendar and get back to them with an answer.

Then, in those couple of days, spend some time developing your priorities and a strategic plan for agreeing to non-paid opportunities (because if you get one request, you’ll like get more requests!). Your plan should be made up of two lists:  a “SAY YES IF” list and a “SAY NO IF” list.

Say YES if...

The “SAY YES IF” list can include any criteria that make it a win-win situation. Suggestions of criteria to include in this list are:

  • If your target market/ideal client is represented in the audience. But don't take the caller’s word for it. You know your market better than they do. Do your research and ask enough questions to determine if your market will actually be represented.
  • If they allow you to promote your own business/services at the end of your talk or to sell your books/products.
  • If you get to choose a topic that doesn't require a lot of time for additional research and preparation on your part. It should be a topic you know well enough to speak on without any notes. If it’s simply a Q&A or a panel with other experts, that’s even better because those scenarios require little to no research or preparation.
  • If the prep time and delivery time doesn’t cut too deeply into your billable hours.
  • If they offer to give you an honorarium for your time and expertise. It’s okay to ask them if they ever do that for speakers who agree to come speak for significantly less than what you’d normally charge and/or what other speakers would typically charge.

Say NO if...

The “SAY NO IF” list can include the following suggested criteria:

  • If at least 3 of the criteria from your “SAY YES IF” list aren’t met.
  • If the organization has very specific demands, keeps changing details on you, or does anything else to make things difficult.
  • If you're not allowed to invite participants to visit your web site or subscribe to your newsletter (remember, it must be a win-win situation or you’ll become resentful!).

You don’t want to say yes to every opportunity or else you’ll lose money by losing the time and energy you could be dedicating to your paying clients. You also don’t want to say no to every opportunity (no matter how fearful you are of public speaking) because you’ll miss out on helping others and also getting your name out to potential clients.

The trick is to be strategic about it. If you start to get an unmanageable amount of requests, then it’s time to consider doing one or both of the following:

  • Include presentations into your business as an additional revenue stream since your topic is in high demand. Then charge accordingly.
  • Limit the number of free gigs you do per year to only a few. This will require you to be selective in which organization you want to donate your time and expertise to.

Feel free to add your own criteria to each list and add to it as needed. If you want to improve your speaking and presentation skills, there are several resources to teach you the Ted Talk presentation format (just search “Ted Talk” within books on Amazon). You may also want to consider joining your local Toastmasters’ group for practical experience and constructive feedback.

Lori Bumgarner is a freelance career coach helping clients pursue their passions and make the transition to freelance work. She is the owner of paNASH, a passion and career coaching service ( She is also one of the co-founders of Nashville’s Freelancers Union SPARK.