What Is The Message You Send When You Ask Women To Speak For Free?

keynote speakersAs a motivational speaker, I get a lot of requests to come speak for free.

We are a non-profit.

We don't have a budget.

Times are hard.

And for a while I took this as a normal part of my business. And then I would get on a stage and tell women to believe in their value to the business world, and not to undervalue themselves. I would teach them to ask for what they want, and not settle. And then I would take a job at no pay. Hello – mixed message?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Would you expect your plumber to come work for free? Your doctor? Your kids' teachers? Your hairdresser? No. You would consider it highly rude to call up your hairdresser and ask her for highlights but you don't want to pay for them. So why are you asking that speaker to work for free? Especially you groups out there that claim to exist with the purpose of empowering women. You are sending a mixed message. You are teaching women that they are valuable, and then asking them to provide their value for free.

It's not just one woman's group. It's not just a handful. For years there has been a strong pattern of women's empowerment events seeking free speakers. I think it's time for the conversation to change.  It's time to think about the message you send when you ask someone to give of their time, energy, talent, wisdom, expertise – for free.

Does that help the women's movement? Or does it hurt it?

I still do jobs sometimes where I am not paid a fee. But these are not free jobs because in return I ask for something else of value, as a trade. Therefore, I am not doing the work for nothing – but trading value for value. I am paid in other ways.

Your thoughts?


Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson - called one of North Carolina's funniest women by Our State Magazine. Kelly lifts the spirits of audiences from coast-to-coast using humor, storytelling, and lives of the characters from Prides Hollow - Kelly's make believe small town. This unique approach to motivational speaking allows Kelly to break through communications barriers and connect directly to the audience's imagination.
Her powerful stories and wacky wit will make you laugh, remind you that you matter, show you how to see beyond your obstacles, and teach you how to stand up and stick out in a crowded market.
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  1. Sing it, sister! Many of the really good professional motivational speakers (the kind you would WANT to speak at your event) work very hard for a lot of years, learning relevant information and spending lots of money to build a business in order to provide tremendous value for their clients. They (we) deserve to be compensated appropriately for that value.  And yes, there are non-profits or other groups that I WANT to discount my fee for – but those women conferences with the purpose to, as you say, EMPOWER women…. Oh my, that's a different story.  I lovingly declined one of these events and actually did tell them why.  What happened then? Welll, they didn't say, "Oh wow! So GLAD you pointed that out! Please, let us PAY you!" Nope. They said, "Okay fine. We'll get someone else who WILL speak for free."  So my hope is that if enough of us stick to our values, we may make a difference for everyone. Thanks so much for this post. Oh how I am going to share this one!!!!

  2. Oh my goodness what a timely post!  Would you believe that I just agreed to speak at a Lunch and Learn at a local insurance company…..for free.  The only reason I'm doing it is because a dear friend just became their Wellness Director and is trying to make an impact.  Your words ring stingingly true, Kelly, and I do bellieve this could be the last time I do this to myself.  I'm trying to think what a trade off might be for this event, hmmmm.

  3. Amen, Kelly! It is the same with non-profits for people with disabilities. They talk about empowering and employing people with disabilities, but when it comes to paying speakers with disabilities, that is another story.

    Kelly, do you have any advice for speakers who are starting out and might be tempted by the no or low fee gigs? Is a matter of "I need to start somewhere"?

    • Glenda, ¬†When you are first starting out, those free jobs are your way to practice, network, and build a name for yourself. Nothing wrong with free jobs when you are first starting out. You client shouldn’t be paying you to practice. So in the beginning you are just speaking wherever you can, for whomever will bring you in. Free jobs are part of the process – in the beginning. And they are a great way to plant seeds. Then after a while, you will stop doing them – or stop doing as many. Hope this helps. Feel free to email me any more questions to kelly@kellyswanson.net and I would be happy to give you pointers.

  4. Polly, don't beat yourself up for taking a free job. We all do it from time to time. I just suggest that you make that free job give you something in return. Maybe it gives you a place to practice new material in no pressure situation. Maybe you ask for the emails of everyone who attended and add them to your mailing list. Maybe you ask that local insurance company rep to write a glowing testimonial you can put on the front page of your website. Maybe you ask your friend to recommend you to the bigger association that this insurance company belongs to. These are ways to turn that free job into a paying job. You're just being paid in something other than money. And I would still rather run and go do a lunch and learn than stay at home and wait for the phone to ring.  So I usually book those things last minute when I am sure nothing else is coming in. Then it becomes a marketing opportunity, not a booking. Make sense?  Perhaps you could take something to sell at this lunch and learn? Can you throw together a little book of Polly-isms? Sell it for $5 in the back of the room?

  5. Your post and other's comments are singing my truth! Until someone has walked in our high heels they'll never understand what they are truly asking us to do for FREE. Like you said, there are reasons to show up and give your time, energy and talent away. We do that. And there are times when women need to recognize that until we place as much value on our time, energy and talent as men do, we will hold ourselves back. Bravo Kelly for speaking the truth!

  6. Amen my fellow sister speakers!!!  I am getting better at this but lessons are hard.  I remember having an MPI group hire me saying they only had $500 – plus my travel.  Because it was an MPI group (Meeting Planners International) I did say yes, knowing this audience was perfect for me to showcase my talent.  I had a great day, got a full fee booking the following week from someone in the audience.  HOWEVER, I rode in the limo with the other keynote speaker who disclosed that he was paid $3000.  I was livid.  Was I lied to? They told me they only had $500.  I confronted the meeting planner who was surprised I found out how much the other speaker was paid, and said it was because they paid that much for him, they only had $500 left for the other speaker slot.  Now, the lesson I learned is to find out what the speaker budget is for all the speakers.  I never want to have that feeling again.  

  7. There are two big messages in this conversation: valuing ourselves, and the market's perception of our value.   A friend of mine was ticked off because he said he did a job for an association for well under his fee and then found out that they booked Jeanne Robertson. His comment: "Well, if they had enough money for Jeanne, they certainly had enough to pay my fee."  The way he saw it was that they had cheated him and lied to him by telling him they didn't have the money.  The way I saw it, was that it wasn't about having the money, it was that their perception of Jeanne's value was much higher than their perception of his. It's not the market's job to decide our value. It's our job to increase their perception of our value. When the economy went sour, it affected, and still affects everything. It's why there is unemployment, budget cuts, struggling businesses, etc. It also affected their perception of the value of the items they buy. A dentist told me that now people are so strapped for money, that getting their teeth fixed isn't as high a priority, when there are other things they need more. It wasn't that the value of the dentist that went down. It was the market that changed. It's why many conferences will pay the keynote speaker, and not the breakout speakers. They don't place as high a value on the breakout session speaker. So to bring the conversation full circle, I think that we should spend some time thinking about how to increase or value in their eyes, so we can get the jobs we want.

  8. Kelly, this is a great article – and a really good reminder that while we run into a lot of situations where people want something for nothing, we don't have to participate in that mindset. If we don't place a value on our services – whatever those might be – no one else will either.

    Granted, there are organizations that don't have the funds with which to pay a presenter, but those are the opportunities to hone our craft – should we choose to do so. If not, all we have to say is "I'm sorry. That doesn't work for me right now." And they'll move on to find someone who can work with it.

    Teresa Beeman

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