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Would You Go to Work For FREE?

How about a day of work in exchange for a chicken dinner?

Every single day I’m asked by fellow working professionals from the C-suite at giant corporations to independent business owners like me to do my full-time job as a professional speaker FOR FREE.

Every. Single. Day.

Speaker pay equity is in the toilet because it’s a misunderstood job.

Let me tell you a little about it.

(And yes – I know it will be highly controversial. I’m open to your feedback! And it isn’t every event planning committee. Many groups pay fairly and pay well! I’ve worked with non-profits and small and large groups with generous speaker budgets. But as a whole – I’ve found over the last ten years of speaking professionally and in conversations with other speakers at all pay levels and experiences that there is a big problem in the speaker compensation realm. Read on for my take on it…)

The Research Shows…

Research in the meetings industry shows that audiences most want relevant CONTENT and CONNECTIONS.

When they leave the office and home for a convention, sales meeting, or conference they want the time and energy they spend there to be worth their while whether they are paying out of their own pocket or their company is covering the expense. That means they want to meet new people and learn new things to help them grow. Do they want a cool venue and good food and drink? Of course – but the primary goal is the LEARNING and NETWORKING.

And yet time and again the budget to pay for the speakers who provide the education and facilitation of this learning and networking is one of the smaller line items in the budget and often NON-EXISTENT.

The TOP want and need of the paying attendees has a LOW level of importance to planning committees – at least based on their willingness to pay for it.

This is hurting attendees’ experience because they are getting less-than-stellar sessions of boring, dry, irrelevant, or non-actionable content that don’t provide them what they really want and need most.

Plus it hurts the professional, full-time speakers who have spent years building their expertise, education, and insights to give them the ability to craft slam-dunk, engaging, and entertaining sessions that actually motivate attendees to take action in their work and lives. (I’m pretty sure if you asked the companies paying for their teams to go to events they want this too!)

And speaking to an audience and keeping them engaged and entertained for any length of time is NOT EASY! It’s hard work that requires practice and skill.

What’s the Big Deal? It’s Just an Hour!

What you pay a professional speaker isn’t just for their one hour on stage.

They have spent many hours before they hit the stage creating the content for the audience.

They have likely created videos or social media posts to get the audience pumped up. They’ve made travel arrangements and arranged and paid for kid or pet care. They’ve spent many hours getting to your event and will spend many hours while there testing A/V, mingling with attendees, posting on social media about your event, and many hours getting back home.

Plus professional, full-time speakers don’t receive an hourly wage paid to them from a boss or their company. THEY are the company. (And they aren’t non-profits by the way.)

They don’t receive paid vacation or sick days or benefits or health insurance. This all comes out of their pockets on top of business taxes, annual dues for any certifications they have, continuing education expenses, and paying for their technology, website hosting, social media, administrative work, and so much more. This all hits their bottom line.

Their paychecks for speaking at events cover all of these costs of doing business PLUS it covers the work, education, and experiences they’ve had or done to get to the place where they are true experts in their field.

Think of it this way…a cardiologist charges thousands of dollars for an hour-long appointment and hundreds of thousands for a few hours of surgery. Because they have the education and years of experience backing them up this is an expected level of payment for their expertise.

A professional speaker has invested in their education and experience too. That should be fairly valued and compensated.

I have a Master’s-level education, multiple certifications, over 15 years in corporate leadership roles, and experience working with some of the biggest brands around the world. If I were to get a job in corporate America again my salary would be in the multiple six figures. That’s not bragging. That’s fact. That’s demand for skills and there are companies willing to pay for those skills.

Me or any professional, qualified, experienced speaker standing on a stage for an hour isn’t just some random person sharing a message. It’s years of work that can benefit your audience.

Lots of Speakers Do It Free! Why Pay?

PROFESSIONAL speakers are true leaders and experts in their fields and that level of education and expertise should be paid a fair wage just as CEOs, VPs, and Managers are paid for their experience.

Now let’s be clear – we aren’t talking about an industry speaker who works for a company within an industry who is already attending the conference and is bringing their insights to a session on behalf of their company or a sponsor. That’s apples to oranges.

And yes there are tons of new and less experienced speakers willing to speak for free – but you are getting exactly that – inexperienced speech-givers who have usually not mastered:

  • vocal range
  • content engagement
  • physical interactivity
  • stage movement
  • humor applicability
  • storytelling
  • audience energy management
  • researched case studies
  • actionability
  • much more!

Why does all this matter? So the session is actually relevant to the people sitting in the audience AND they retain what they learn AND they have a good time in the process AND they actually do the things they learned after they leave.

(I’m not downplaying new speakers. I believe even the new speakers should be paid actual cash money because they too are taking the time and energy to come to you and deliver a program FOR YOUR audience. One day they will be super-experienced too and their commitment to their craft deserves compensation!)

Why Professional Speakers Though?

When you bring in professional speakers, you are committing to your audience that they are important and you value them and their experience at your event above all else. You demonstrate this by bringing in high-quality content that meets their needs and that level of importance. This will make them:

  • Buzz about your event.
  • Invite others to attend with them.
  • Engage in your social media.
  • Tell their companies about your event.
  • Register for next year’s event!

And when using a paid professional speaker you are respecting them as a fellow business professional by maintaining pay equity for the value brought to the table.

What Would YOU Do?

Think about it…would the caterer provide the meals at a conference just for fun and exposure?

Would a doctor make a free housecall just to help you out?

Would your hair stylist come to your house and do your hair for free in hopes you’ll tell your friends?

Would the A/V team do it for free?

Would a hotel let you use their rooms for free?

What about YOU? Would YOU go to your job and do it for NO PAY?

The struggle is real for professional speakers.

We provide a service that is the MOST valuable thing to event attendees and yet we are valued the LEAST in the form of budgeting and compensation.

What About All the Exposure?

Exposure – now that’s a controversial topic. Yes it’s great to get in front of the other companies at an industry event. But usually the spinoff requests I get after speaking at an event pay about the same as what I was paid for that original event and I’ve heard similar from other speakers. It’s human psychology and groupthink that the pay ends up mirroring each other. So speaking for exposure or low pay is usually going to lead to speaking again for other groups who “pay” similarly.

For new speakers this can be a great thing. I did it and it’s very valuable when you’re first getting started. But for a full-time, professional speaker who owns a business solely dedicated to the education, entertainment, and engagement of your audience?

Exposure is NOT comparable value to an actual paycheck for the level of work.

And what about “free conference admission” or “access to the social events” or “networking with other speakers” as incentives?

If I’m speaking at an accounting conference I don’t have a desire or need to sit through sessions on tax law or accounting best practices in the hopes one of my tablemates might be interested in hiring me. It’s rare and I’d rather be on a plane back home to work with clients and get home to my daughter.

Hitting a social event can be fun and a nice way to network and I definitely go to these – but as a valuable perk that actually pays my business expenses, development time in crafting an engaging and researched speech for YOUR group, or values my time away from my family – sorry – not a real monetary benefit.

And networking with other speakers? I do this all the time – at my own industry conferences and events that I PAY a lot of money for every year. Am I happy to run into fellow professional speakers at events? Of course – but it’s not our primary way of connecting and not a substitute for equitable compensation.

But We Cover Your Travel!

I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve had with planners who feel they are offering such a great opportunity for me to speak for them because they’ll pay for my travel, hotel, and food.

Covering travel is great but it’s also a normal part of speaking at conferences. That’s not a big incentive. Most professional speakers I know would rather get paid fairly for their work and time and cover their own travel.

Wow Kristen – This is HARSH!

This is not written as a criticism but to bring awareness to a very real issue in the meetings industry that hurts audiences and creates frustration for speakers and planners alike.

We are on the same team – one that is committed to providing the very best experience to the audience.

As a speaker AND meeting planner – I understand budgets are tight. I have planned many meetings and events myself and I get it. But I also know how important it is to meet the actual needs of the attendee. I’ve done many formal and informal surveys over the years (I am a market researcher after all) and they truly don’t want another swag bag of junk and don’t care about or want all the extra pomp or unhealthy filler foods and desserts.

I’ll say it again – they want content and connection! You need to pay for those things first and foremost.

What Should I Do Then?

Skip that $3 logo notebook they already have 15 of in a drawer at home. No one needs another $1 pen. And that $5 portable charger is likely pretty junky and won’t work anyway. Ditch the chocolate fountain and extra unhealthy desserts. Save the cash on the colored tablecloth and napkins.

Funnel that saved money back into your education programming that your audience actually wants and PAY your speakers equitably.

Professional speakers are taking a night and full day or more away from their business and home life. They are creating awesome content for YOUR audience.

They are there for you. Be there for them too.

For REAL Though – We Don’t Have a Speaker Budget

I know this is a real issue. Click here for some easy and quick ways to drum up extra cash for your speakers.

There ARE ways to find money in your budget if you think creatively and get rid of the things that really aren’t valuable to the AUDIENCE.

Speaker pay should be a TOP PRIORITY since it’s a TOP NEED your audience.

We’ve Hired Paid Speakers Who Sucked!

The screening process for hiring speakers is stressful! There are so many to choose from and picking a speaker from a website or list that’s specifically written for sizzle can often be a bait and switch.

There are several things that set professional, experienced speakers apart from new, part-time, hobby, or simply not-good speakers.

Click here for some things to make your speaker screening easier…and to pick the right ones!

The Bottom Line

The audience experience is the #1 priority.

It’s the professional speaker’s #1 priority too.

We spend a lot of time, energy, and money to get the education and training we need to provide this top-notch experience for your group.

Choose the right speakers for your audience needs and pay those speakers fairly for the experience they provide!

You wouldn’t work for free. Neither should a professional speaker!


Share Your Thoughts

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. It’s controversial and will no doubt get a lot of criticism. I’m a staunch supporter of speaker pay equity and need all viewpoints to best understand how to make that happen.

#speaker #payequity #meetingprofs

About the Author

The most awesome leaders and happiest humans keep their energy in sync and charged up so they can show up as and feel their best every day even when times are stressful! Kristen can help you do it! Energize your leadership and life to drive real growth for yourself, your loved ones, your company, and the world! Kristen Brown’s super-actionable and nerdy-research-proven methods for work/life alignment, leadership, and personal power are a result of her experiences as a bestselling author, worldwide speaker, consultant, energy medicine practitioner, 15-year corporate leader, widowed mom, and RYT-200 yoga teacher. She spent over 15 years in corporate America before starting her business after being widowed unexpectedly with a new baby during the economic crash. Since then she has worked with clients around the world including the Minnesota Vikings, General Mills, Lenovo Computers, and Boston Scientific. She appears often in the media including Live with Kelly, Forbes, Working Mother, Psychology Today, and monthly appearances on the daily TV show, Twin Cities Live, on ABC in Minneapolis. Her books and podcast are read and listened to by audiences around the world. Her biggest faults – she is an occasional know-it-all, sometimes workaholic, and frequent wine aficionado; and her biggest love is her genetically-sassy daughter Brooke. She lives in Minneapolis and spends her free time boating, teaching yoga, hiking, and cuddling with her 1-year-old black lab, Boone. Join the fun and get all the social media links where you can get daily energizers at: www.KristenBrownPresents.com