Pay the Speaker

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I’m about to wade into what I fear will be unpopular waters. This will fly in the face of a few of the conventions many of us have held when it comes to working in a volunteer organization. But it is a subject that really needs to be broached. Let’s start with a YouTube moment. 

There is a video out there of author Harlan Ellison titled “Pay the Writer”. I am not providing a link to the video as it is a bit…shall we say…expletive-laden. Harlan is notorious for using all the words that we have available in our speech and, in his anger, he lets fly with a few of them here. With that caveat in mind, I do suggest you search for the video (and, depending on where you are listening, turn down the sound).
Harlan discusses a situation where he was contacted about the use of an interview for part of a DVD compilation that was being released. When he asked how much he would be paid, the individual on the phone was surprised, indicating that no one else had asked for money. You can see his actual reactions on the video, but think this through on your own. The company will get paid for the DVD. The person making the phone call is getting paid. The people producing the DVD are getting paid. The cameramen, the editors, the key grips, the gaffers, the best boys (whatever key grips, gaffers, and best boys are) are all getting paid. Yet, there is no compunction on anyone’s part to ask for free copies of an interview that will be part of this product that will be sold. 
There are people who have skills for which there is value: people such as writers or artists or photographers or musicians or speakers. This stuff doesn’t fall from the sky. Good writing or art or photography or music or presentations are the culmination of hard work performed over lots of years. And yet, people seemed surprised when those writers/artists/photographers/musicians/speakers expect recompense for that service.
Let’s talk about something more specific: presentations at local chapter meetings. I want to start with the fact that I’ve played at both ends of this court. I have given presentations for a number of years. I was also a chapter officer responsible for lining up speakers. I preface with this comment so everyone will recognize that I understand the conflict in this situation – the “profession” of public speaking butting heads with the volunteer nature of our organization (the donation of time to help foster knowledge within the profession).
All that being said, I still think it is amazing how many chapter officers/board members/etc. are surprised, shocked, and, sometimes, insulted when a speaker asks for a fee. I believe part of this comes from the perception that, as a volunteer organization, everyone should volunteer. But that perception is not true; many speakers are professionals, just as internal auditors are professionals, and neither should be expected to work for free. 
Now, as I’ve indicated, I’ve been on both ends of this court and I know how tough it is for chapters to work within their allotted budgets. And yet, how much of the trouble with that budget has to do with trying to get members to come to meetings? And how much of the trouble with getting people to come to those meetings has to do with quality of the speakers?
Two things here. First, I’ve spoken with a number of chapter officers who have indicated that the more money they spend, the more money they make. And that, when the chapter is willing to pay for better speakers, they get a better response from the members – more people willing to pay for the privilege of hearing a good speaker. (And, before you go off on an “I’m-from-a-small-chapter-and-it-won’t-work-for-us” rant, these discussions have included small chapters who have amazed me with what they have been able to accomplish – e.g. a 60-person chapter who have 40 show up for an all-day seminar.)
Second, we’ve all seen the broad spectrum of quality out there, and sometimes there is a disconnect between quality and speaking fees. I’ve seen some very good speakers who did not charge. I have seen some really bad speakers who did charge. But those are the outliers. If you are honest with yourself, you will acknowledge that the overall quality of paid speakers is better than the overall quality of those who have not been paid. And I will also bet that your experience is the same as mine:  the very worst speakers I have ever seen were unpaid and the very best were paid.
This is not to say that every chapter should pay every single speaker. Many chapters have highly qualified speakers within their ranks and, through various sources, there is an availability of other free speakers who are of the highest quality. Neither am I saying that, if you start paying, you will see instant success – members are going to need to see proof of improved quality before they are willing to make new commitments. However, I am saying that most chapters need to build into their plan a way to bring the best quality in, and that means being willing to pay for quality. Paying for a speaker is an investment in quality of product and quality of the chapter.
And, one last request. When a speaker asks for a fee, it is fine to say you are unable to pay it. However, it is not okay to be shocked at the request. Ask yourself, how many of the chapter officers would be willing to audit for free?

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