5 reasons you should speak for free

A while back, in a land before COVID-19, an author in a writers’ group posted that he was frustrated by invitations to speak for free.

The organizations contacting him didn’t have speaker budgets, but they hoped they could compensate for that by making it possible for him to sell books after his presentation.

He wasn’t sure that was enough of an incentive for the time involved.

It’s a business decision

I can relate.

After my humor book that explained male behavior to women, WHY CAN’T A MAN BE MORE LIKE A WOMAN?, was published, women’s groups all over the country asked me to speak at their meetings. Because of the time and expense involved with traveling long distances, I could only present to organizations with a budget for travel expenses, at a minimum.

It was a business decision. The investment involved was greater than the potential reward.

On the other hand, I happily accepted all invitations to speak within 90 miles regardless of the budget because doing so served more than one purpose.

First, they gave me opportunities to sell books to women hungry for what I could offer. In addition, I always learned from audience members when I asked them to share their stories and experiences.

What’s right for you?

I can understand any author’s reluctance to spend time on unpaid speaking engagements, even if they’re local.

There really isn’t a right or wrong answer in this situation.

You have to do what’s best for your career. What works for me, and what works for the author I mentioned who expected to be paid, might not work for you.

Even so, I encouraged the author in the group to be open to speaking for free.

Here are five reasons why.

1. Unpaid gigs often lead to paid gigs.

I’m Exhibit A for this.

A Fortune 500 company headquartered near where I live paid me to be the keynote speaker at an employee conference because several people on the planning committee heard me speak for free locally.

This happened after the book my presentations were based on had been out of print for almost a decade! Still, they remembered me and tracked me down. And, with my permission, the organizers scanned and reprinted my book, giving a copy to each of the 300-plus attendees.

I was well-paid and had a great time with a group of smart, fun, and engaged women.

2. Presentations can generate book sales and consulting income.

When I had several traditionally published books in print, I bought them at a discount from the publisher and sold them when I spoke. I always earned enough to make it worth my time.

In addition, the speaker, media spokesperson, and consulting fees I earned from my book on the lighter side of gender differences have far exceeded what the publisher paid me to write it.

That also applies to the speaking fees I earned from my third book, Publicity for Nonprofits.

3. You can expand your “database” of anecdotes and get new perspectives on your topic from your audiences.

One reason I get my audience involved in presentations is that I learn from them. They enhance my knowledge of the topic and how it’s relevant to them.

And, when I was still speaking regularly on the lighter side of gender differences, I always came away with pages of funny anecdotes I could use in my radio interviews.

When I talk about book promotion topics at writers’ conferences, I ask attendees to tell me about their struggles so that I can continue to provide them with relevant, helpful information in my newsletter, on this blog, and in training programs.

4. You will expand your reach.

Most of us write books to entertain, educate, or inform, whether we’re novelists or nonfiction writers. We can’t do that unless people are exposed to our books or how we think.

There is no better way to do this than by engaging with people face-to-face.

People support those they know, like, and trust. Connecting with your target audience in person helps you get to know each other better.

5. Speaking for free gives you the experience you need to become a paid speaker.

If you’re not already an accomplished speaker, you have to start somewhere, right?

Meeting planners who aren’t paying you a fee are far more forgiving than those who have written you a check, so use unpaid engagements to practice your presentation and speaking skills. (And be sure to read Betsy Fasbinder’s guest post here, “6 things every author can do to captivate an event audience.”)

You will also discover what works and what doesn’t with your audience. You’ll see when your attempts at humor fall flat, or when people start taking notes because what you’re saying is so important they want to make sure they don’t forget it.

Get feedback

To transition from speaking for free to speaking for a fee, use feedback from the audience to help you improve.

When I first started speaking locally, I always tried to plant an honest (and gentle) friend in the audience to give me feedback about my content and how I presented it.

I’ll never forget the input from one of them after my first-ever presentation on the lighter side of gender differences. She was appropriately honest, explaining why a different approach to my content was a good idea.

I was a little embarrassed, but I was also grateful. She was right.

Ask the organizer to share results of the speaker evaluation forms with you, too. Anonymous feedback is often the best kind.  (Pro tip: Toss out the best and worst evaluations and focus on what’s in between.)

Give it a try

Even if none of these reasons resonates with you, I hope you’ll be open to speaking for free.

You might find that what you receive in terms of information or connections is worth more than an honorarium of any amount. I certainly have.

Do you speak for free? Why or why not?

(Editor’s note: This article was first published in October 2013. It has been updated and expanded.)

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  1. I have spoken to groups at schools and read my illustrated kid’s book quite a few times. It’s been great fun and I took new skills and understanding from the experience each time. I learned in a group of over 100 kindergarteners about connecting with individuals in a large group. I learned from a group of high school students how to gauge their interests and tie my book and experiences to that. I’ve gained a lot of pay in the form of new understandings from free speaking engagements. I love doing them!
    As usual, your comments are thought provoking!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Karin. I’m glad you got so much from the experiences. Kindergartners must be a great audience!


  2. This is a terrific article explaining the benefits of availing ourselves to speak, even for free. I totally agree, especially with the part about practicing and honing our skills as speakers with eat hose who cannot afford it. They are grateful to have us and we are grateful to get the opportunity and experience. Think: what would it cost me to take a course that would give me such an opportunity and feedback?
    Thank you for providing this article.

    1. Hi Susie,

      Thanks for that feedback! The benefits are there for both groups — authors and organizations, right?

      I’m not sure if this is what you’re asking about, but I’ve got a great audio program that explains how authors can become paid speakers. It’s about 2.5 hrs long and is just $29. The person I interviewed once booked paid speaking engagements for some very well-known authors. Check it out at http://buildbookbuzz.com/speaking-audio-program/. She also works one-on-one with authors.


  3. Wonderful advise! I love the part that says that free gigs can lead to big paid gigs. I would love to have my book springboard me into becoming a professional public speaker. Not there yet but I am on my way.

    1. Keep at it, Renee! Toastmasters is a great training ground for that. Check out the National Speakers Assn meetings if there’s a chapter in your area, too. Good luck!


  4. This is excellent advice. When I first started speaking, I did it for free, just to get the experience and exposure. That way, if I flubbed something, I didn’t feel guilty for not providing the host’s money’s worth. From almost the first presentation, I had people from the audience come up and ask me if I was free to speak to another group they belong to. As I got better known for my book, I began to get referrals from audience members after the fact. And then one day, one of those referred asked me, “What do you charge to speak?” I had been anticipating that sooner or later I’d begin to charge, and realized that this was my cue. I had prepared a number I thought would fly, and it did. Now, ten years into public speaking in support of my work and also as an instructional speaker, I’ve gradually raised my rates and do more paid gigs than free. But I still speak for free when I feel I want to support a worthy charitable or civic service group, when I believe the audience will really benefit from the content I share, or when I believe the exposure will lead to more paid gigs. It’s always nice to have the option.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Mary! Don’t you find, too, that the more of it you do, the more fun you have doing it?


  5. Most definitely! And I think that’s because every time I do it, I get a little better at it, a little more confident. I can relax more and enjoy the experience. And I always learn something new about my topic from the audience, and who doesn’t like fresh research!?

  6. I have spoken for free on many occasions. Since my main audiences are library patrons and women’s church or civic groups, they often have little or no cash to offer. I have many titles in print to sell so I can come away with some cash even if there’s no honorarium for my speech. I also encourage sign-ups for my newsletter. The fact is, I love meeting people face to face and prefer it to virtual contacts through social media. I believe in listening to your heart and also weighing each opportunity in regards to your schedule and business needs. I love the way you’ve itemized the advantages of speaking without pay. Excellent food for thought if you’re undecided about the “free speaker” question.

    1. Such great insight, Donna! Thanks! I love that face-to-face contact, too. And I love it when I meet someone I know “virtually” when I speak in the real world! Thanks for stopping by!


  7. I view my speaking engagements as part of my income, an addition to my book sales.
    I have a 10-program repertoire. My educational programs last between 60 and 80 minutes, then there’s a Q&A, and then there’s the book sales.
    The time actually spent delivering my programs’ content is a fraction of the overall preparation that goes into putting on a professional program. Communicating with the host is very time consuming–what does it need? did you have questions about my introduction? Can I write blurbs for its website? Is the paperwork okay? How can I help?
    I spend hours driving to and from the venue (last Saturday I spent 7 hours in the car). Set up takes 2 hours. Last Saturday was very typical: I left at 8 a.m. and got back at 7.
    I spend hours and hours developing, researching, and practicing my programs’ content. If I’m doing a PowerPoint, it’s usually custom-tailored specifically for my host. My feedback is off the charts, and it should be. People come up to me after a program and tell me that I’m the “best speaker they’ve ever heard”–that happens all the time. Well, I work at it. I work hard.
    A good deal of my time is spent promoting my programs, pitching feature coverage, and (if all goes well) giving interviews to media outlets. For example, I spent 45 minutes this afternoon on a newspaper interview to promote a program in 2 weeks, and now (it’s past 9:30) I’ve got to prepare and email appropriate images to be included in the feature.
    I’m hoping I have enough time tonight to write the 4 “thank you” notes for last Saturday’s event. Make that 5 “thank you” notes: two for the Friends of the Library ladies, one for the librarian, one for his IT guy, one for the town’s mayor who kicked off the program (my latest thing is inviting mayors to “kick off” my programs), and one to the terrific historical society guy who gave me a tour of the town. Excuse me, six “thank you” notes.
    I am a professional speaker and a professional author. I do about 100 paid speaking gigs a year.
    In that year I also do about a dozen free speaking gigs for causes I support. You run a cat/dog rescue and need a speaker? I’m there. You want to rally the troops for a political cause I support? I’m there. You want me to make a case for literacy in your community? Show me the stage! But these aren’t places where I have a book–so those speeches are just that: speeches.
    If you’ve got a book, you should be paid to speak.
    When I am paid to speak, I respect myself, I respect my host, and I respect my audience. And, you want to know something? When my hosts pay me to speak, they respect me more. We value what we pay for.
    Last thing: speak at a level where you get paid, or–I was going to say “stay home,” but that sounded kind of harsh, so I’m going to finish by saying–paid or not, speak at a professional level or stay home.
    Being an author is a business. I love it–I think it’s why God put me on the face of this earth–and it’s fun, but it’s a serious business.
    Liz Coursen, author, The Book Tourist: Seven Steps to a Wildly Successful Book Tour

  8. Your advice is excellent. I have done a few 20 – 25 minutes talks at Lions Club and Rotary functions for free. It is a very enjoyable exercise plus I have been able to sell a few copies of my novel at each event. What steps would you folks recommend for picking up additional gigs? I live in the Pacific Northwest and have presented talks in BC as well as WA.

    1. Thanks, Guy! As for advice, where you should go with it as far as public speaking is concerned depends on what your book is about and who is most likely to buy it.


  9. Sounds to me like Liz may need to decide where her time is best spent. If she’s speaking in places that don’t involve her books or getting paid, maybe some of those will have to go without her. If the venue is too far away, perhaps she can Skype in instead of spending 7 hours in her car.

    It sounds like she resents the time it takes to put this all together, and that can be a long row to hoe if you’re not enjoying yourself. Perhaps she needs to package her presentations as pre-recorded videos and sell them online, or do webinars where she won’t have to drive so much.

    I agree that people respect more what they pay for, but the reality is that some of our best and most appreciative readers belong to groups that simply don’t have the money to pay us. If payment is a very big deal, I suggest asking what the organization’s speaking budget is, then if they say the don’t have one, suggesting to them that you’ll discount your usual fee but can’t drop it entirely. Suggest that they contact local businesses to each chip in a little to sponsor your talk. They can offer to allow the sponsor companies to hang a poster or banner for their business and maybe even introduce the speaker. It’s done all the time.

    But it sounds to me like maybe there’s a bit of over-commitment going on here that will rather quickly burn you out if you keep up that pace, because you sound a little angry and resentful. That’s not good for your audiences or your books, Liz, but even worse, it’s not good for you. Good luck finding a more healthy balance with your speaking. It can be done.

    1. Mary, this statement is so true and so important:
      [that some of our best and most appreciative readers belong to groups that simply don’t have the money to pay us ]

      In the article, I wrote that we all have to do what’s best for our careers. Some people want to be paid every time they speak — and that works for them. I don’t limit myself that way — and it sounds like you don’t, either — for the reason you stated. If group members are in my book’s target audience and I don’t have to spend a lot of time and money to get there, and if I can sell books afterwards, I’ll speak w/out a fee. I understand why others won’t — and they’ve got good reasons, too.

      Thanks for your input!


  10. I penned a narrative nonfiction memoir about my family’s adoption journey to our son and have yet to charge for speaking engagements. Most of my audience members are book clubs or hopeful adoptive parents. I plan to speak to some church group consisting of young mothers throughout the year and feel validated after reading your article that I am ok not charging a fee. I am a school teacher by trade and a writer by hobby and have experienced modest success with my book as far as numbers of readers are concerned. thank you so much for writing this article. You have given me great insight into timing and appropriateness of fees at this stage of my writing career. I honestly wish that I could afford to give my book away because I see my work as a ministry to help other women who have suffered or are suffering from infertility for are trying to adopt. The title of my book is THE EYE OF ADOPTION: The True Story of My Turbulent Wait for a Baby.

    1. Thanks so much for this feedback, Jody! I’m glad the article was helpful. You’re doing so much good with your book and speaking — I’m sure you know that readers and audience members are very grateful. Good for you!


  11. Thank you for posting these tips. I have been asked to speak t a MOMONDAYS meeting and although I cannot talk about my book I can talk about the stories in my book. There is no compensation for this but there are 400 people at these meetings. I know this will help me get the confidence I need to become a better speaker when I land other speaking engagements where I can advertise my books.

    1. Thanks, Christine. With few exceptions (for example, when the group specifically asks you to talk about your book research process, etc.), you want to build your presentation around a key message or experience from your book, etc. You learned a lot while researching your book; how will what you learned help your audience? Your presentation, because it’s related to your book’s content, will be a subtle book promotion, and that is SO much better than a presentation based on “here’s what my book is about and why you should buy it.”

      Good luck! I hope you enjoy it!


      1. Sandy thank you. I Sam lucky that my books are my memoirs – A Hairdresser’s Diary- so there is always someone who wants to know more. My audience is endless which is in my favour. Thank you for taking the time to answer.

        1. Ouch is right! I feel your pain! (I am also a hot tea drinker — high-fiving you now!)

          I have to think that you hear A LOT as a hairdresser. Am I right? That has to generate lots of interesting stories for your memoir!


          1. My stories start when I was 6 and the sequel ends at 69. Those are a lot of years and a ton of stories. I have awesome reviews on Amazon as my books took on different directions than what I imagined. What is so wonderful is when I was talking about a sequel, clients, friends and family asked me to please include their story in the book. I was honoured.

            As you can imagine there are no bad or nasty parts.
            I am now trying my hand at an audiobook for those who have asked for it. I am doing myself as seniors don’t make much on pensions so I am keeping my fingers crossed lol. Can’t do this while typing lol

  12. I used to take a vacation day from work to speak to groups free of charge. I found when doing this I didn’t sell enough books to make up for the loss of a vacation day. Now, if I do a free gig, I only do them in the evenings and on weekends.

    1. I don’t blame you, Cynthia. One of the hardest things about being an author is juggling job responsibilities with writing and marketing. Sometimes you have to make tough choices.


  13. Thanks for this amazing piece. So much to unpack!

    As an author, speaking for free is valuable for the very reasons you outline in your piece, and I gladly do it.

    I find it beneficial to piggy-back on other people’s audiences that otherwise wouldn’t know I exist. Being able to test and rehearse future workshop offerings is priceless and, when you consider yourself the product more than the book you’ve published, connecting with the audience as potential paying customers can’t be beat.

    Hopefully, in-person speaking engagements will return, as I have yet to master the virtual speaking reality of COVID.

    A topic for another blog post?

    1. Great input, as always, Sonia. Thank you!

      What are you struggling with on the virtual speaking side of this? That will help me create the right content for that blog post you suggested. It’s been on my topic list, but I’m not sure what you’re looking for is where I planned to go with it.

      Many thanks!


  14. Where to begin? As a speaker, I feed on the energy of interacting with the audience and audience members interacting with one another. How do you engage audiences (and read the room) when you’re not in the same room? Also, with everyone going virtual, including celebrities, how do you stand out when everybody else is doing the same virtual thing? Just a few thoughts. My list is long and tedious. Thanks.
    I look forward to your article!

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