No One Should Be Expected To Work For Free. The Same Goes For Speakers
Fees and the speaking industry are often a hot topic. We see leaks about how much a certain high-profile person was paid to speak at an event, and the chatter about anticipated fees is often sensationalised in the media.
This week, I was alerted to a few, somewhat viral, tweets about speaking. A few speakers took to Twitter to announce the occasions on which they had been asked to speak at an event for free.
In these scenarios, such events were held by big, profit-making corporates, and the event itself was ticketed. The context matters, though I will also talk about rationale for charity work.
The issue at hand is a complex one. But there are a few fundamentals around which I can explain my beliefs.
Put simply, speaking is a job. In a world where multi-faceted careers are increasing, speaking is a strand of a career path that offers opportunities with different motives for many. Speakers need to earn their livelihoods just as any other professional does.
There is also a huge amount of behind the scenes and preparation work. Being a great speaker doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it is a task charged with hours of practicing, training, client research, as well as mental barriers such as confidence.
The next reason is key. We must remember that the very reason a speaker is asked to speak is because of their credibility and experience in their sector. Through many years of development, or the thought leadership they have demonstrated, the speech itself is the bringing together of many different facets of the individual. Such content and delivery only come through the speaker’s experiences and time. Put simply, speakers are experts in their field, and their speech isn’t just a bit of event entertainment. It is consultancy, tailored to the audience, a one-off live experience. Speakers also offer their ‘next wave’ of thoughts during their speeches, which is a truly unique and irreplicable experience.
When speakers are asked to speak for free, they are often met with the reassurance that doing so will ‘raise their profile’ and lead to more work in the future. While it is true that speakers at the start of their career might benefit from some unpaid gigs for the experience, it is not fair to say that their entire career should rest on this. It is even more complicated when we think about how one speaker’s attempt at raising their profile, earns profit for the client.
Not only is working for free fundamentally unethical, it is a structure that puts up barriers for many people. The speaking industry, like so many other industries, has a diversity problem. By expecting speaking engagements to go unpaid, the industry prevents women and people from marginalised groups from entering it. And that is a crucial problem for all of us. For society to progress, for companies to innovate, and for us all to collectively maximise our potential, we need to hear from a diverse range of voices. We need people who don’t all think in the same way, but bring something new to the table, and encourage us to think differently than we have done before.
Another reason speakers are often asked to work for free, is that the client in question is a charity. In these situations, conversations can often be harder to have, and the work somehow feels tied with ethics or a sense of morality.
However, in many cases, charities are businesses with a budget. If they put on an event with a speaker, the speaker helps to draw an audience and helps them justify a ticket price. If the speaker is helping them raise a profit, they should be fairly rewarded.
From time to time, speakers will give engagements at charity events, and they will do it for free. However, this will be for charities they personally support, and will be an individual decision, not an expectation.
I hope that moving forward, more companies will see that not only is paying speakers fundamentally fair for the consultancy they receive, but an essential way of diversifying the industry. If we are committed to innovating ideas, and truly driving key messages of change, we must amplify - both physically and financially - the speakers through which these conversations are delivered.
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