This is the latest in the Speaker Academy series, which started here. The series is addressed to patients and advocates who basically know how to give a talk but want to make a business out of it. I’ll try to be clear to all readers, but parts may assume you’ve read earlier entries.
There seems to be a storm brewing around the issue of speaking for free (or not), which I’ve written about several times (most recently last week). I expect it’s going to get louder, so I want to clarify some points. Then I want to get back to engaging with the audience!
This may be controversial to some readers; fine – I’m open. Let’s discuss or (correct me) in the comments:
- Your time is your own. I’ve never said you should never speak for free.
- I do say that you should be thoughtful about how you spend your time, and not be suckered by event organizers who flatter you about your greatness but offer you nothing. Those people are usually parasites, making a living off your time and your thoughts.
- My favorite low-life conference organizer, World Congress, once pumped my brain for an hour about who should speak at an event they were organizing. They were so enthused I assumed that after a couple of years wrangling with me, I was finally going to speak there. Nope: they didn’t know a single thing about the conference topic, so they were just pumping my brain! Then they went and got those people to speak – for free, I’m sure, while advertising that they’d convened a summit on the subject.
Particularly relevant at this moment is that some events truly do bring you good exposure, which leads on to good things.
My view isn’t the only view, but: in my view perfectly good reasons to do a freebie include (but aren’t limited to):
- Well-placed altruism: You want to do good for your client or your community.
- This was Deb Greenwood’s point in her recent comment here.
- You may also be doing a favor for a business person who’s been good to you. This is the case with my occasional work for Matthew Holt, a sharp sharp businessman who several times has given me valuable guidance that’s boosted my career. For him, a freebie is my way of saying thanks.
- You need to build a reputation as an effective speaker.
- Nobody much is gonna pay you when nobody knows if you’re any good.
- You need a good video for your website.
- Ask first: most conferences don’t record. If they do, ask for a copy for your website.
- The event may be strongly, strongly aligned with your cause, and you really want to help them.
- The event may be an audience you want to reach (for any reason), and your client truly is not allowed to pay you.
Guess who that often is: the Federal government.
That was the case on Sept. 16, when I gave a 14 minute talk early in the morning in Washington. It was the fall consumer kickoff for ONC, the health IT branch of our Department of Health & Human Services. As always the government wouldn’t pay me – that’s Federal policy, or law, or some such junk. In past years I couldn’t afford the time, but this year I chose to, because:
- The audience was top quality, both media coverage and industry leaders.
- The people I know at ONC have worked very hard, for several years, to do the right thing re consumer engagement in health IT, sometimes pushing real boulders uphill, and I wanted to thank them.
- And I got a video out of it, which I blogged.
And out of that, to my surprise a while later I was contact by an editor who was in the audience that day – and it turned into a cover story (right) for a major publication, Healthcare IT News. It was extremely well written and accurate, addressing exactly the audience I wanted to reach (health IT professionals), significantly advancing the visibility of my desired message to that audience.
Mind you, that 14 minute talk cost me two days of my time and too little sleep the night before, to cobble together a new speech. (A high impact short speech is really hard.) You could say that I personally bought that visibility for my message, paying for it with my unpaid time.
They did offer to pay my expenses … but they haven’t yet – the bill is still outstanding. Gr.
- By all means, do a talk for free if you want. (Academy cadet Randi Oster has done scores of them.) All startups lose money at first. Besides, not all speeches are business.
- But if your goal is to make a business out of it, sooner or later you need income.
- Do not, repeat do not, swallow the persuasion of for-profit conference organizers who flatter you and want your time but consider it worth not a cent. Speak at such places only if it serves your purpose, for well thought out reasons.
One more thing…
The “no pay for citizen voices” is one of the principal reasons that health policy is made by insiders. (It’s not just about speakers at government events; the same was true when I took time off work, unpaid, to testify at hearings about the critical Meaningful Use policy.)
Some of those insiders are flat-out lobbyists who want to steer things their way; others may be good-hearted but are detached from the grass roots citizen’s point of view. Very few truly have the perspective of the ordinary person in your grocery store. Intentional or not, the policy causes ingrown thinking. It must end.
But that’s a rant for another day, and it’s a separate subject from who gets paid to speak at conferences.