Why You Shouldn’t Always Charge to Speak and Write

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Economists like to say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has a cost. A high-profile thought leader I recently attempted to recruit for my virtual summit for aspiring thought leaders knows this. When I asked him to speak without any pay his response was:

No pay, no play. I do not participate without payment. All my best.

This speaker wanted $5,000. He knows there’s no free lunch, and if he’s going to buy his own lunch, he can’t be giving away free lunches. He’s not the first to reject my offer. Another potential speaker wanted a $15,000 fee. Yet another asked that I buy 250 copies of his new book. I even have friends who rejected this opportunity.

They’re making a mistake.

At least there’s a good chance they are. You should speak and write for free — under the right circumstances. I don’t blame those who have said no. I blame myself. I haven’t made the case well enough for them to understand that while I’m not paying a speaker fee, they most certainly will get paid. How? Through a currency called “exposure.”

It’s become a dirty word for professionals such as designers, writers and speakers. Many unscrupulous individuals have taken advantage of them to get free work and give nothing in return. It’s not that exposure has no value. It’s that professionals feel ripped off when those “exposure bucks” aren’t delivered. In other words, exposure is worth something only if there’s actual exposure. Giving exposure a bad rap because you didn’t get it when you should have is like dissing money when you should have received cash but never got paid. Don’t blame the form of payment; blame the guy who never paid you!

Related: 10 Tips to Negotiate Like a Boss

Can exposure pay? Absolutely!

Gary Vaynerchuk’s YouTube channel has 808,658 subscribers. Each week, he gives away hour upon hour of content for free. Every once in a while, he publishes book and asks his followers to spend $10 to buy a copy. Every title becomes an instant best seller.

Oprah Winfrey gained fame through her TV show — which was broadcast on a free channel. Her viewers never paid a cent for that content. She’s worth $3.1 billion.

Related: How to Find Your Purpose, Your Audience and Your Voice

“Oh, sure Josh,” you’re thinking, “but those people are on a different level. What about normal, little ol’ me?”

It works for us, too. In 2013, I started writing for various business publications — Entrepreneur included — for free. Those articles have generated more than $5 million in revenue for my marketing agency, landed a book deal, launched a second company and earned me paid speaking and consulting jobs around the world. I’ve been paid directly for only two of the more than 300 articles I’ve written, and I would have done those for free (but they waived money in my face, so I took it).

I don’t do any of this writing for free. Vaynerchuk, Winfrey, and I are all getting paid — just not necessarily by whom you might think should be writing the checks. We’re taking the long view and looking at the big picture rather than focusing on the here and now.

This year, I’ll speak at events around the world. Some event organizers will pay me, some won’t. Regardless, I’ll get paid. The exposure might sell copies of my book, tickets for my events or seats in my courses. It could lead to other, paid speaking engagements. While on location at an unpaid event, I even could set up consulting sessions to train teams on digital marketing or public relations. That could land a client or two for my agency. I’ll build my personal brand and get some video I can use to market myself further. How short-sighted would it be for me to make my decision based on whether or not the event pays me a speaking fee?

Related: 10 Tips on How to Become a Thought Leader

A personal decision.

I’m not disrespecting anyone who tells me he or she can’t speak without getting paid. Maybe the friend I mentioned above is in great demand and has more work than he can handle. In that case, why wouldn’t he choose the gig that offers exposure plus pay?

Everyone must manage the details of her or his own life. But I encourage you to ask yourself three questions the next time you’re offered “exposure bucks” as payment:

  1. What is the promised value of the exposure?
  2. How likely is that value to be delivered?
  3. How can I create more value from this opportunity, beyond what is being promised?

Look beyond the short-term, immediate gain, and you may find some diamonds as you travel on your influencer journey.

Related: 8 Master Tips on How to Get Paid for Public Speaking


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