If a Speaking Gig Can’t Pay, Ask for Another Form of Compensation

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Speaking opportunities — your professional contributions — need to be compensated. But what should you do if your request for compensation is denied? Do not be discouraged. Do not stop. Negotiate for a fee alternative: high-value commodities other than money. The authors offer ten options to consider, including testimonials, expenses, and discounted memberships and dues. 

It is time to admit an honest truth: professionals deserve to be paid for speaking engagements. You may wonder, “When should I start the transition from speaking for free to speaking for a fee?” The answer is now. But we are not telling you to decline to speak if they decline to pay. We want to help you redefine what it means to get compensation. Here we introduce the idea of negotiating for a fee alternative.

Typically a single hour of speaking requires multiple hours of preparation. Time is spent making slides and handouts, practicing delivery, obtaining feedback. There are additional components of checking and double checking the technology. We have been asked to reserve time to virtually meet organizers, moderators, and co-panelists prior to events. It is even more if we consider travel, as restrictions from the pandemic are lifted. Despite the workload, professional talks are often sold as career building, good for exposure, good for networking. Yet often they are a net loss: time spent and little deposited into the savings account. When an invitation to speak arrives, we may initially be excited, grateful, and accept all offers. However over time, without a financial remuneration attached, we feel conflicted and, hence, are more likely to decline.

We fundamentally encourage clear and upfront communication about monetary compensation when invited to speak. The literature offers different ways to request a fee for speaking. “Is there funding available to cover an honorarium?” is a simple and direct question; tailor the script to your voice and comfort level. Always prioritize clarity and brevity. You can build this skill to one that is both comfortable and confident. 

But what happens when the request is declined? Do not be discouraged. Do not stop. Negotiate for a fee alternative: high-value commodities other than money. Here are ten options to consider:

1. A letter to your supervisor 

Prior to accepting an offer to speak, request a brief letter of participation, placed on a letterhead, and signed by the most senior leader of the group. This letter should be sent directly to your supervisor, and should include the date and time of the event, the number of attendees, the title and brief summary of the lecture, and the overall reception of the audience (direct quotes from attendees are preferred). This will keep your supervisors informed of your work and can serve as support for a promotion or contract re-negotiation.

2. Discounted memberships and dues 

Many lectures are hosted by regional or national conferences and organizations. Request a waived or discounted membership to the associated organization for a predetermined time frame. This trial membership will expand your network and save you money. 

3. A public speaking coach to build your skills

Ask if the organization has affiliations with professional storytellers or public speaking coaches. If so, request for the coach to meet with you for one to two hours on more than one occasion to give feedback in advance of your talk. Determine the type of feedback you seek in advance, deliver the lecture in full, and receive verbal or written feedback in real time. Use each lecture as an opportunity to improve personally and professionally as a speaker.

4. Referrals

Request that if feedback is positive that you are invited back to speak again. Or, if this is a local lecture, ask to be invited to an affiliated larger scale lecture in the future. Ask to be referred to speak with a related department, organization, or conference. The goal is to use this first opportunity as a stepping stone for upward mobility.

5. Promotional material on social media 

Amplify your personal brand and professional reputation. Promotional material allows the lecture to survive outside the isolated presenting time slot. Ask the organizers to record the lecture and curate shareable highlights for social media. This teaser video can be used to promote your content and speaking style. Use the material as a demo reel to help solicit further speaking opportunities.

6. Testimonials

Collect reviews. Ask that the organizers gather quotes from the audience. If you have a personal or professional website, request that the feedback received from the general audience or organizers be used later as a testimonial of your content. Testimonials with a name and affiliation are preferred over anonymous.

7. A high-resolution photograph from the event

While most speaking engagements are virtual, we are moving back to in-person meetings. Request that a photographer, if available, take action shots of you speaking on stage or interacting with the audience. Also request a headshot if there is a professional photographer on site. These high-quality photos should be available for you to use for promotional purposes.

8. Expenses

Operational costs are often more readily provided than an honorarium. If travelling to speak on behalf of an organization or conference, expenses should be financed by the host. For seasoned speakers, this is apparent. However for junior speakers, be sure to have clarity on what is covered for these costs ahead of time. 

9. Swag

The value of swag is the role it plays as a conversation starter — not actually in the merchandise itself. For example, a water bottle on your office desk can spark a conversation about the organization and your association with it. From there you have just advertised your speaking expertise on a large platform on a particular topic. The merchandise, though often inexpensive, brings the opportunity to speak about your skill set.

 10. Networking opportunities

There is value in one:one conversations with leaders. Request an introduction and meeting with a leader or decision maker within the organization or conference to build broader deeper networks. This creates long lasting connections after your talk.

Technically, these ten strategies can be requested in addition to or instead of a cash honorarium. Speaking opportunities — your professional contributions — need to be compensated. As women, we more commonly struggle asking for compensation. The more we do it for ourselves, the easier it will be for those who follow. While we acknowledge the obvious benefits of remuneration, we recognize that money is not always available. In fact, if we limit ourselves to speaking opportunities solely accompanied by monetary payment then we might eliminate other opportunities to build our brand, skillset, and network. We also limit our ability to speak at mission-driven events.

So don’t walk away just yet from an opportunity. Consider which fee alternatives you can receive for your time. 

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