One of my problems as a professional speaker is that I’ve often been too willing to speak for free. This bothered my wife and my business partner to no end because, they said, my time and knowledge are worth something, and that I’m devaluing myself by speaking for free.

So I finally took the time to figure out exactly what it cost me to speak for free, and was shocked at what I learned.

  1. It takes 2 – 7 hours to update or create a new slide deck and script.
  2. It takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours to get to where I’m speaking, and the same amount to get back.
  3. I always arrive 1 – 2 hours early for setup, to familiarize myself with the room, and to fix any technical difficulties. This past Monday, I flew to North Carolina to give a talk on Tuesday. It took six hours just to get there; I turned around and flew home the next afternoon.
  4. My talk goes for 1 hour.
  5. I usually spend another hour talking with people after I’m done

The problem, I realized, is that when I agreed to give a free talk, I wasn’t just giving them one free hour. I was actually giving up anywhere from 5 – 15 hours of my time, not counting my one hour talk, plus any travel expenses.

When I look at how much money I charge clients per hour — and that’s what I’m actually giving up — I was losing anywhere from half a day to nearly two days of revenue to give that “free” one hour speech.

Think of it this way. If you make $60,000 per year and work 2,000 hours per year, you earn $30 per hour. Imagine you don’t get paid for the time you prepare your talk — 6 – 16 hours. All that time will run anywhere from $180 – $480 of lost income. Now add your travel expenses — gas, food, lodging — on top of that.

Think that free speech is still worth it?

Once I discovered what I was losing, I quit feeling bad about turning free engagements. Unless I know I can land a client who will pay me a monthly rate to make up for what I lost, I think very seriously about giving free talks.

I still do them, but they’re much rarer these days. At the very least, I ask the organizer to cover my travel costs and buy up to 100 copies of one of my books. It doesn’t always happen, but if the cause is worthwhile, I’ll sometimes speak for free locally.

The next time you’re asked to speak for free, do the math and see what you’re giving up. If they don’t have the budget to pay you, ask if they can make alternate arrangements instead. Maybe they can cover travel costs or purchase your consulting services for a month. Maybe they can give you an honorarium instead of a payment (budgets are weird that way. Call it one thing, and you can’t do it; call it another, and it’s okay). Or maybe they can make a donation to your favorite charity in your name.

But don’t be so eager to give it away for free. Once you start landing paid speaking gigs, you’re a paid speaker. You’ve taken a big step forward, don’t take two steps back. If you have to speak for free, be very choosy about which ones you accept. Otherwise, hold out for the paying gigs.

You’re a professional now; you deserve to be paid like one.


 is the owner of Professional Blog Service, and the co-author of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself, which is now in its 2nd edition. He co-wrote his previous book,No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing, with Jason Falls in 2011; both books are available at, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million. Erik is also a professional speaker. And he knows that none of this would have happened without Darrin.