Dear Innovation Women,
I get SO many requests to speak for free. I just received my 4th this week. And to make matters worse, they are frequently for weekends, evenings, or require travel – i.e. they will cost me money or time away from my family. Though I am certainly happy to do some engagements this way (especially for charity work or my alma mater), this is getting to be too much.

Does anyone have a polite way to turn these down? I typically start with a “Is there a budget for your event? Though I’d love to be able to speak for free…” No matter how I end that sentence it feels like it may come off as rude.

Brief background: I am a data privacy expert. I mostly do speaking and consulting in the cybersecurity world and corporations do pay – BUT I started my business years ago teaching parents and kids about online safety, so many institutions assume I’ll be happy to speak free since I’m a parent and I have valuable information to keep kids safe. Any ideas appreciated!!

Cyber Cathy

Dear Cathy,
Thanks for reaching out!

Your “Is there a speaker budget?” question is perfect and legitimate. Don’t stop asking it. But I would just ask that simple question and stop. No excuses. Put the ball in their court to answer why or why not. You are not being rude at all. Remember: your knowledge and time are valuable, and asking someone to speak for free, especially to travel to do so, is a big ask.

Decide how many free presentations you will do a year and let people know when you’ve exceeded your “free presentations” number. (And you can decide that the base number is zero too!)

You can also head some of this off at the pass – think about creating a way to “gang” your free requests. Maybe you can ask one school or group to host the others. Instead of you traveling all over the place and giving up a bunch of your evenings, do it once a year for a HUGE crowd. Ask the hosts to do all the coordination, sell tickets, and/or seek a sponsor. Maybe there is another way for you to get paid on top of this too. Does every member of the audience need a copy of a workbook that you could produce and sell? You could look for a sponsor yourself – maybe some of those corporations you work with would sponsor “community sessions” – but that’s also a lot of work. Maybe the schools can apply for a grant.

I also want to dig in on the travel and family you mentioned above. Many speakers tell us that travel is one of the things they love most about speaking (or hate – it depends on the trip!) Maybe you can combine a presentation with some family vacation time. Not that I think you should be interrupting any family time with work, but maybe you can figure out some bonus vacation time with the family built around a speaking engagement – that’s a win for everyone. If you are being asked to travel, maybe your family’s travel and accommodations could be covered.

Thanks for all that you do in the community!

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