How to go from Speaking for Free to Getting Paid to Speak

Table of Contents

Introduction

So you’ve been speaking for free to get a head start in the early days of your speaking career. But as you’ve honed your talk and found your niche, you’re ready to try getting paid speaking gigs. How can you go about it? What do you say to people to convince them to pay you when you had been speaking for free before? Where can you find paid speaking gigs outside of your existing network? And how much you should charge?

When it comes to building your speaking business, there are a number of tips you can use to go from speaking for free to getting paid to speak. For answers to the questions above and more, read on.

When to stop speaking for free

Generally speaking, you cannot make a living by speaking for free. If you want to build a speaking business, either as a part-time or full-time endeavour, you’ll need to transition from speaking for free to getting paid to speak.

That said, it may be strategically helpful – even once you’ve started your speaking business – to speak for free. For example: if you want to get in front of decision makers, pitch a product or service, or simply to travel and go to events and conferences for free, you may not want to charge.

But once you’ve gotten enough practice and demo footage from your talks, you’ll be positioned to transition from speaking for free to getting paid to speak.

Remember: If you want to make a living from speaking, you have to be willing to to charge for what it is that you do. Key to all of this is to remember that you are providing value to people and you should be compensated for that value. (Want to learn more about when to transition from free to fee? Check out our podcast with Grant Baldwin, Should You Speak for Free? here.)

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How to lay the groundwork for a paid speaking business

Have a solid website

If you don’t have a website, you don’t exist. A website is the most common way for clients to find and research you. And no, we’re not talking about a Facebook page or a LinkedIn profile. An actual website on a domain you own. I recommend you use your name as the domain (i.e.GrantBaldwin.com), because as a speaker, you are the product. You are the brand. And please make sure your site looks sharp. Whether we like it or not, please judge books by their cover, so if your website looks like it was designed by your 2nd grade child, they’ll assume you suck as a speaker. (for more on doing speaker websites, check out this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast)

Make a demo video

If you want to transition from speaking for free to getting paid to speak, a demo video is a must. Think of a demo video like a movie trailer. It should be short enough to give people an overview but make them want to see more. If you post a video online of a 45-minute talk you gave, your mom will watch that 897235987 times, but no event planner will take the time to watch it. Good demo videos are usually between 2-4 minutes and just show the highlights of you speaking. (for more on demo videos, check out this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast)

Collect testimonials

Testimonials are incredibly valuable for speakers. They are the social proof that you are good at what you do. Ideally, you want testimonials from event planners and decision makers so other future event planners and decision makers can feel validated when hiring you. But you can also get testimonials from audience members. You can never have to many testimonials.

Where to find paid gigs

Most speakers ‘want paid speaking gigs,’ but aren’t very specific with what type of gigs, venues or the audience they want to speak to.

Do you want a small venue with highly engaged people? Do you want to speak at conferences? Non-profits? Local or global? Do you want to speak to business professionals? Colleges? Churches?

The list is endless. So narrow down your focus. Once you do that, finding paid speaking opportunities becomes that much easier.

How to search for gigs

If you’re more specific and say, “I want to speak at a local networking event,” or “I want to speak at TEDx,” or “I want to speak at a gardening club,” you’ll be in good shape for the next step: Google it!

For example, if you live in Tennessee and you’re a dentist looking for speaking opportunities you could search: “Tennessee Dentist Conference”

Notice the big, national conferences are at the top. But don’t just go for those. Scroll down a bit and look for the smaller, local conferences that would love to have someone from their own backyard give a great talk.

And you want to know the secret to Google, scroll all the way to the bottom and you’ll see “Searches related to Tennessee Dentist Conference.”

This part is gold!

You’ll find all the related keywords that you’ll need to continue your search in the Tennessee area. Once you have what you need from local cities, expand your search to state and region.

What if you’re in healthcare? Knitting? Youth athletics? Parks and Recreation? The same rules apply. Search for conferences in any industry. Google knows everything.

Make a list of gigs

Make a list based on what you find in Google Docs or Google Sheets with links, dates and contact information for each event. You have to go get what you want and it starts with a list.

Once you know the events, you can see when they’re taking speaker applications (typically months in advance) you can begin reaching out and getting interest from coordinators. Repeat this process until you have a list of dream events and realistic events that are in your niche.

PRO TIP: Just list the events for now. Don’t jump ahead and start crafting emails to the event coordinators or to the hiring professionals. Stay focused and search like crazy.

Start a Google Doc or Google Sheet with links, dates and contact information.

Do this process over and over again until you have 20, 40, 100 events that you’d like to be a speaker at.

How to get paid speaking engagements

Now that you have your list of specific event and contact information, it’s time to reach out.

“But what do I say?” Easy. Start with value.

If you know someone from their organization or if you attended their event in the past, say that. Tell them how their event or conference has impacted your life and how it’s made a difference.

PRO TIP: Be specific and take the time to customize this for the person or event you’re reaching out to. Yes, this is time-consuming, but this is the work that will set you apart and make you stand out.

Don’t copy and paste a generic template to every one of the conferences you listed. That’s the fastest way to get deleted and to never hear back from anyone.

Again, you’re building a relationship don’t pitch on the first meeting.

What to do instead:

  • Inquire about the event.
  • Keep it short.
  • Ask specific, intelligent questions that can be answered quickly.

For example, you could ask, “When will you be taking speaker applications for the upcoming XYZ event?”

Be respectful of people’s time. Don’t go into your story and how you got into speaking.

Provide 3-4 sentences on who you are, what you speak about and how you can help their audience with your message.

Follow up a few days later.

If no reply, wait another week and follow up again.

If no answer, wait until the event is a little closer and try again.

Ultimately, you should be reaching out 3-6 months in advance. Some events book out longer — some shorter. This is why you’re contacting decision makers with plenty of notice. It’s important to be prepared.

How much to charge

You may well be wondering now, “how much should I charge per speaking gig?” We’ve created a guide to answer just that question, which you can find here, and a FREE speaker fee calculator, which you can use here. For more, read on.

Have a fee structure

A fee structure gives a client options. Generally offer 3 different options. You want just one keynote? It’s $X. You want a keynote and two workshops? It’s $XY. You want a keynote + two workshops + 100 books? It’s $XYZ. It’s the same reason fast food chains offer you “value meals” or you can buy ala carte. Every event planner has different needs and a different budget, so offer them options. (for more on speaking fees, check out this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast)

Do all inclusive pricing

There’s two ways to price travel…separately or all-inclusive. We’ve done both and recommend all-inclusive. It’s easier for you the speaker, and there’s no surprises for the clients. It’s just generally simpler for everyone. (for more on fees and travel, check out this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast)

Be confident in the value you offer 

At any stage of your speaking career, it may feel strange at times to charge anything, let alone thousands of dollars to do something you love like speaking. But remember you’re not being paid for that one hour you’re on stage. You’re being paid for the thousands of hours you’ve practiced, researched, worked, learned, spoke at other events, etc, so by the time you show up to speak at their event, you are providing massive amounts of value for that client and their event.

Negotiate based on value

Don’t be a speaker who just flippantly discounts for no reason other than you just want the gig. If you’re going to reduce your fee for some reason, find value that you can get in return. Maybe that client can introduce you to 5 other potential clients. Perhaps they can provide a provide extra nights at the hotel for you or your family (if the event is in a cool place :). Maybe they can provide footage of your talk that you can use for a demo video. If you’re going to reduce your fee for that client, make sure you’re still getting something in return.

Conclusion: From speaking for free to getting paid to speak

So you’ve started down the road of transitioning from speaking for free to getting paid to speak. But if this is your first time chasing paid speaking gigs, you probably still have questions. Below are some frequently asked questions about paid speaking—and the answers.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Paid Speaking

Should I hire a speaking agent?

Finding an agent can be tempting because they seem to promise a shortcut. Let’s face it, the more demanding business tasks required of speakers are no fun. Many speakers are proud to be creatives. They feel lost at sea when it comes to spreadsheets, accounting, and business forecasts. (If you’re struggling this, we highly recommend our piece on what metrics to track to grow your speaking business). Isn’t an agent the middleman who can help you achieve your goals without the number-crunching and cold-calling?

Unfortunately, for many speakers, this perception is entirely a false promise. You should invest your time into developing your own (perhaps unglamorous) systems. The systems you establish at the start of your career will become sustainable sources of business. While agents can be a great asset in your speaking toolkit, they are not a sustainable foundation. Are you still working on establishing client relationships, getting booked regularly, and achieving sustainable growth? If not, you should focus on those essentials.

How do I market myself?

How do you effectively market yourself? The Speaker Lab just created a new resource highlighting 22 ways you can get booked and paid to speak by marketing yourself. These 22 tactics are all about how to establish your expertise and online presence. These 22 ways to market yourself will help you get booked and paid to speak.

Click here to see which marketing ideas you want to focus on to find and book more paid speaking gigs.

How do I build an email list?

We won’t deny it–email list growth and maintenance is a lot of work. The time spent creating content, free resources, tracking data…it’s the long game, not a short path to success.

So maybe you’re not quite sold on the idea of building an email list. Perhaps you planned to invest your time and marketing budget on social media instead. Well, we have some stats for you. While social media is a very important tool, email is a more leverageable platform because the ratio of engagement is so much higher. If you are regularly maintaining 30% open rates, exponentially more people are seeing your content than the Facebook algorithm can promise. Seriously–the average organic reach for a facebook post is only around 5%! And engagement? Less than 1%!

The good news is that we’ve given a step-by-step guide on how to build an email list – check it out here!

How do I become a full time public speaker?

Many speakers worry that they don’t quite have enough traction to make the leap to full-time, even if they’re successful. The truth is, you cannot gain that traction if you’re still putting in 40 hours a week to your old job. There is no perfect time to quit. You can’t fully realize your potential of becoming a full-time speaker until you do. Sure, there’s a lot of risk involved. But if you already enjoy speaking, you know that a bland 9-5 is not for you.

At the same time, you don’t have to go blindly into the void. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some essentials to get in order before you become a full-time speaker, and follow up action steps.

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