Gini Dietrich

Perspective: Public Speaking and Time as a Gift

By: Gini Dietrich | July 29, 2013 | 

Perspective- Public Speaking and Time as a GiftBy Gini Dietrich

I just finished reading Ender’s Game. Wait, that is a lie. I just finished listening to Ender’s Game (I’ve discovered Audible while I ride).

It wasn’t my favorite book, but it definitely kept my attention through more than 220 bike miles. That said, there was one thing that really bothered me about it. Here are these genius children who are brought up in battle school, some as young as six years old, and they’re taught to fight the enemy, to anticipate what the enemy might do, and how to win.

I’m not against winning. I’m one of the most competitive people around (ask Jason Konopinski how that’s going for him). But what bothered me is these children – genius or not – have the perspective of 40-year-old adults. The kind of perspective that only comes from living life. It’s not something (unfortunately) that can be taught. You can’t read about it in text books. You can’t learn it in simulation. You have to live it.


About five years ago, I was in charge of hiring the keynote speakers for an industry event. We invited – and paid – one of the top experts in the field to do the opening keynote. It, unfortunately, fell on a Saturday afternoon and this speaker only agreed to do it if we would change the schedule to accommodate his being home with his family for most of the weekend.

I remember thinking, at the time, he was a diva for such a request. In my mind, I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was if you are paid, your expenses are paid, and you get to hang out in an exotic location with some of your friends.

Fast forward five years and my perspective has completely changed. The last thing I want to do is work a full week and then get on a plane on Friday afternoon to speak at a weekend conference. I’ll do it for my full rate, but I don’t love it. Many of us who speak also own businesses so the idea that you work all weekend and then take a couple of days off the following week is completely foreign.

I didn’t understand his request until I began getting on a plane several times a week to speak and was already away from home quite often. Perspective.

Public Speaking for Free

Last week a friend sent me an email to ask if I’ve ever had to pay to attend a conference where I was speaking. I said no. Resoundingly.

She’s speaking at a conference – for free, mind you AND paying her own way (flights, meals, hotel) – and the organizers are requesting she pay to also attend the conference. She was a bit flustered about it and asked my advice on how to handle it. I suggested she reach out to the organizers to see if they would consider giving her a conference registration in exchange for the time she’s giving them in speaking for free.

She did. I read the email before she sent it. It was very kind and polite.

The organizer called her a diva and was shocked at the request. She said the professional organizations where she has volunteered her time have only waived the registration for the portion where the speaker is speaking.

Good Lord. I hope so! Can you imagine being asked to pay to attend your own speaking engagement?

But the diva comment really got me. My friend is the least diva-like person on earth. She actually feels badly the conference may have to take away a “scholarship” to let a student attend for free so she doesn’t have to pay to attend. She’s even considering telling them to forget it and paying to attend (don’t get me started on what I would do in that situation).

Time is a Gift

If you don’t sell your time, I realize it’s hard to understand why it’s such a big deal to speak for free. If you work for a company, I realize it’s hard to understand what three days away from your business means. If you don’t make a living (or want to make a living) speaking, I realize it’s hard to understand how much time goes into preparing something for the conference, rehearsing, and making it sound like you’ve done that same thing a million times before.

It’s a huge gift to the conference, to its organizers, and to its attendees.

Think like the kids in Ender’s Game. Gain perspective, even if you don’t have the personal experience. If a speaker is willing to come to you for free, give them something in return. And, for the love of all things good and mighty, don’t make them pay to attend your conference, too.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Okay, I’ve got to ask: how do you cycle safely with earbuds in? I suppose if it’s podcasts and audiobooks you can still hear okay?
    Second, asking a speaker to pay the conference registration fee is insane. Sometimes the waived fee is the only “pay” the speaker gets. Pretty damned nervy.

    • RobBiesenbach Yep…I keep it low enough that I can still hear okay. I ride mostly on the lakefront, but I listen even when I ride north up past Highland Park. I can still hear everything around me.

  • Free.
    The problem is that by going to the conference for free, your friend devalues her presentation, devalues her knowledge, skill and experience, and devalues herself.
    The conference organizers are doing the same. The simply don’t value what she is bringing to the conference.
     Have I presented or performed work for free? Yes, but it has been on my terms and for a cause I felt deserved the DONATION of my time and/or services.

    • ClayMorgan Same for me. I used to speak for free if it meant I would be able to build on some existing relationships, network, or find some new business opportunities. I once spoke at a conference that promised me a bunch of stuff (including a mailing list of attendees) and never delivered on that. So now I get that stuff upfront and I no longer travel for free.

  • I can’t imagine paying my own way in much less paying to get there!

    • aimeelwest I wouldn’t pay my own way. I *might* speak for free, but you have to pay to get me there. That’s all there is to it.

      • ginidietrich Donating time is different then spending hard earned cash for plane tickets, hotel room and food. End of story.

  • I think it’s another bad example of the free-onomy, the non-economic system that seems to increasingly grow up around us. This is a particularly egregious (and/or clueless) example… but those of us trafficking in content marketing for ourselves and others also have to work hard to make sure that we fully emphasize the concept of truly sharing in our social and other business lives.  I think that’s why there is such consistent community participation here. We trust that the gift of our time, as you put it, will be respected, whether in the comment section (OK, respect may be pressing it when it comes to comments here)… guest posts or whatever. I’d recommend that your friend stay home and spend the time (and money) on other new business efforts.

    • creativeoncall yes huff post published a study that 80% of americans will experience poverty in some way (this commenter included). NPR last week had someone on discussing how this generation of college kids can expect a lower level of earning and life than their folks. I just am shocked at how many white collar folks have let this happen.
      The main reason Apple is looking at cheaper products is because they know the % of people who can buy Apple has dropped from 40% of the US to 20% since 2000. Soon we will have NGO’s coming here to feed us. Thank you Walmart and RNC.
      Screw the free-onomy. I would rather join a street gang and carjack Paul Ryan.

      • Howie Goldfarb creativeoncall I always love when Howie comments.

    • creativeoncall I went to Gethsemane (I call it heaven on earth) yesterday and looked for you. Now I expect to see you out and about!

  • Great post! I am glad that you read…well, listened to Ender’s. Now we know I am a bit of a semanticist, but I love Card’s use of language. Certain phrases like “the enemy gate is down” will stay with me. 
    I feel this. I know for people going out of town to attend a conference and connect with their colleagues, the idea of a “weekend away” is exciting. For those of us working the conference, we’ve just worked a full week, and now hop on a plane and book in to a hotel, alone, to work. And those conference socials? Those are still “work”- it’s not that same social event it is for someone there as a participant. It’s a hard message to give to those who are excited to spend time with you or talk to you at these events, but truly draining to introverts. I am glad that you have enough perspective to ask for what you need now Gini. The alternative is a particularly terrible form of burn out.

    • RebeccaTodd You know, that is a very good point. For us, it’s work. For most attendees, it’s fun. People say all the time, “Yeah, but you were at cocktail receptions or fancy dinners.” Yes, I was. And I was on the entire time. My poor little body needs a break sometimes!

      • ginidietrich RebeccaTodd Exactly! Body and brain. My customers really want me to join them for the dinners and drinks, but when I get to the conference at 8 am and spend all day meeting people and supporting my authors and such, I don’t want to be “on” until 10 pm. The sales person in me does not relax if I am surrounded by customers that could use some attention-and you know I adore my customers. I need a glass of red, my book, and a bath.

  • Gini, how do you listen to books while riding?  You’re probably excellent at chewing gum & walking, too! 😉
    Ouch! The organizers apparently do not value or appreciate of what they’re receiving…which probably doesn’t bode well for the conference as a whole! I agree with Chuck (creativeoncall )!

    • lizreusswig creativeoncall I am fully on the speaker’s side here (i.e., shouldn’t have to pay to attend his/her own speaking gig). But on the books front, I LOVE LOVE LOVE audiobooks for running (not cycling but assuming it’s kind of similar).  I reserve them for the slower runs (zone 2 heart rate, a topic for a different thread) but I definitely recommend it (or at least trying it!).

      • biggreenpen lizreusswig I keep it low enough that I can still hear traffic behind me and “on your left” when someone passes me (which, let’s be real, doesn’t happen very often). I spend two or more hours a day on my bicycle. I have to have something to take my mind off of how much my quads hurt.

    • lizreusswig creativeoncall Audiobooks is totally the way to go during workouts. Exercising your mind and body!  It can take some getting used to, but once there, it is so productive.

      • Frank_Strong lizreusswig creativeoncall And you get so much “read” when you do this!

        • ginidietrich Frank_Strong lizreusswig creativeoncall See, I can read and walk- and yes, I mean with a paper back book in my face- but I need to be able to make notes and highlight. I try audio books, but then I have to pull over and take notes.

  • OMG what a horrible book and speaking story.
    I get the ‘Hey if you want to start getting paid speaking gigs you might have to do some for free’. But not even comping the conference fee? I would certainly make a huge stink and start a rival conference and tell them slugs to stick it.
    Is this the mashable event coming up? I bet it is.

    • Howie Goldfarb OK. You win. It was the Mashable event (slowly shaking my head no).

  • KellyeCrane

    This sounds like a racket! Why not let everyone and their brother speak, if you’re going to get revenue from each of them?
    Some small events can’t afford to pay speakers a fee, and they should graciously understand if a desired speaker is too busy with paying gigs to accommodate them. But I have never heard of an event asking the speaker to pay to attend — their unprofessional response is another example of the event’s weirdness. Run awaaaay!

    • KellyeCrane LOL! You bring up a good point…why not have everyone speak?

  • Tinu Abayomi-Paul

    Back up? Booyakasha! #technicalterm

  • Everyone sells their time. Most people are just paid by the hour or the year. To make it real for them, to understand why I don’t work for free, in response to requests I’ll say things like “sure, if I can have your laptop.” 
    And when they look at me incredulously I explain “I mean, since we’re giving things of value away for free. If what I had to say wasn’t valuable to your audience, you wouldn’t be inviting me, right?” 
    Of course, I’ll sometimes speak without being paid in Cash, but I always have to have something of value in return. For example, I’ve spoken for free at events that greatly expand my audience more than I ever could myself. I consider that a “payment” of however many thousands of dollars. When I lived in Vegas, I took comped hotels room, and had mini-staycations.

    • Tinu I love this comment. What you said about giving things of value away for free really got me thinking! Thanks!

    • Tinu I would totally take comped hotel rooms in Vegas, too!

  • Time is absolutely a gift. I think it’s important for people to remember to invest in time for themselves as well, which is what the expert that ginidietrich was having at a conference was doing. Prioritizing and investing in themselves.

    • hailleymari I think people who don’t sell their time have a harder time understanding that’s how we make our money. It’s all about perspective.

  • So much perspective here @ginidietrich. Loved this piece x2. So much “seriously perspective people” takeaway here. I hope the right people find this and say to themselves, “ that makes sense. Whoops.”

    • ryancox It’s the same reason I think people should have to ride a bicycle in traffic. So they understand when they inch cyclists into parked cars, it’s super scary. Perspective.

  • Communic8nHowe

    As someone who organizers events featuring speakers, I try to do as much for them as possible especially if they aren’t charging to speak. I’ll pay all travel and accommodation experiences and often look to do more such as a nice dinner out or speaker gifts. When I organized a nonprofit series, we couldn’t pay speakers but in my new series I respect that compensation may be required. So in general, I’m on board with you Gini.
    Having said that I attend an annual conference at which I’ve applied to present. If accepted, I’ll be responsible for registration and travel/accommodations. I know this because it was shared upfront when applying. I’m happy to do pay these costs in part because I’d probably be attending anyhow, the costs are reasonable and it’d be a great opportunity at a  major industry event. The event is primarily for nonprofits so I appreciate that they are keeping costs as low as possible so as many can attend as possible. The same conference does pay invited keynote speakers and I assume gives free admission and travel costs. So in some cases such as this one, I think the payment of registration fees and how it is done is entirely appropriate.
    I think the real problem in the situation you describe is how the organizers are handling it. Was paying for registration clearly communicated upfront? It should be. But even if it but your friend didn’t realize it, the diva comment and confrontational response is not constructive for anyone involved.
    Should she pay? Probably not. But if it’s a conference she’d normally pay to attend and speaking is a career/business opportunity, it may be reasonable IF the organizers treat her with respect. I’d take a pass this time.

    • Communic8nHowe I’ve been thinking a lot about your comment and there definitely are some conferences I would still pay to attend, even if I were speaking. SxSW, PRSA International, TED, etc. I know the value of attending those conferences is going to help me with my business.
      But if someone were to invite me to speak and then ask me to not only pay my own way and my registration, I’d bow out politely and let them all talk about me behind my back.

  • Yes yes yes and more yes.

    • belllindsay Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’d like to add a little bit more to what you’re saying and say…yes.

      • ginidietrich belllindsay This comment was so profound I’m almost moved to tears. Thank you Lindsay. Thank you!

        • LauraPetrolino ginidietrich Guys. Please. I do my best.

  • I’ll work (and speak) for food…but you already knew that….
    I don’t know what event she was attending and how important it might have been for her career to be seen and heard at this event but I would have told them to pound sand. That was extremely tacky she was paying her own way to get there and speaking for free and they couldn’t even comp the registration. 
    Somebody is going to pay me for my time, and hopefully it’s not me. However, if it gets me out of the house, sign me up; especially when there are drink tickets involved.

    • bdorman264 And for drinks.
      I like what Communic8nHowe says about the types of events you’ll speak at and pay your own way. SxSW is one of those because you know you’ll gain great value and they don’t waive registration for anyone. But when you are invited to speak and it is a gift to their attendees, asking you to also pay for your food and drinks and registration is lame.

  • ugh….working (including speaking) for free in general is a weakness of mine. A major, problematic weakness that someday I’ll write self-help books for others based on my experiences, good, bad and heartbreaking.  
    As a free working (in recovery), I will say that the hardest hit you take is not on your bank account, but on your overall sense of professional self-worth. It is damage that is hard to undo.

    • LauraPetrolino It always makes me feel badly when people perceive me as a diva or some self-important noob because I won’t travel to their weekend conference and speak for free, but I always try to remember what I’m supposed to be doing. If speaking for free takes me away from what I’m supposed to be doing, I can sleep at night.

  • A speaker pay?  One word:  absurd.   Was it a marketing/social media type event? Or another industry?

    • Frank_Strong It was a PR event. And not even a national one.

      • ginidietrich Frank_Strong That is the *craziest* thing I’ve heard of in a while. I am not even on the speaking circuit, but there is no way I would pay all of my expenses AND conference fees in order to speak. Now, if it was getting me in front of a valuable audience I would definitely speak for free and pay my travel — but conference fee? That’s really pushing it.

  • OK, step one – put Ender’s Game on my GoodReads shelf for reading later. Sounds like a great book.
    As a person who traveled a lot, early in my career, I understand time being such a valuable commodity. I missed both of my daughter’s first words as I traveled every month and only came back one weekend per month. Life of a software consultant…
    I do think it is crazy for a speaker to pay their own way unless it is built into the fee structure. If they are not even getting fees, then I assume it is because they are working on building their brands as speakers. If they are unproven, then they might need to prove their worth first.
    Of course, I can’t say we get the same option with consultants. Even if unproven, you still pay them for their time/expenses. If they do not work out, then that’s just the price of doing business. Would we consider speakers in the same context?

  • Dear Gini,
    Thank you very much for this – a valuable post which has
    cemented my resolve to turn down a recent request to pay to play.
    Incidentally, it was not until after a topic and slot had
    been discussed and agreed that it appeared that I was expected to pay a fee to
    speak (through paying registration) – I felt this was underhand.
    The issue appears to be on the rise in my sector (Corporate
    Responsibility & Sustainability).
    It is one thing to be asked to put in time, inspiration and
    expenses towards someone else’s event if you feel it is on balance worthwhile.
    Pay-to-play is quite another. It seems iniquitous to be asked to pay to speak
    if the event is made worthwhile because of the range of expertise and insight
    it gives access to.
    It seems it is becoming less valuable to have original, valuable
    insight and experience and more valuable to be a curator of input. In this scenario
    it is the conference organisers rather than the content experts who are the
    true value creators…
    An example of the media dominating the message if ever I saw
    Best regards,