How much it costs me to come speak at your event for free

21 May


Just because I have no waist doesn't mean I can't count.

Some people have a firm grasp on their philosophy for life. A “Do unto others…” or a “Everything happens for a reason” that they try to live by.

I admire that, but the closest I’ve gotten is to try to live by the rule, “Don’t be a dick.” That one has kept me from sending certain e-mails and from saying things I’d like to say to people who are being rude. It hasn’t always prevented me from ruining a friendship with a few old college chums on Facebook or initiating a flame war on Twitter, but away from the computer, I do try to do it. By which I mean not do it. Be a dick. I try not to be one.

Part of not being a dick for me is to not get so full of myself that I turn down invitations without consideration to come speak to groups when I’m invited. Most journalists get asked at some point to come speak to a middle school class about writing or to some other group about their area of expertise (whether it be sports writing, movies, education or whatever else). Over the years, I’ve spoken to journalism classes, to a Writer’s League group, on panels about social media for public relations professionals and lots of other places.

The speaking engagements are not always short; they can go on for two hours or more and I’ve sometimes had to do them solo. I never get paid to do them and because of this, I’ve always taken a “I’ll just wing it” approach. If I do a presentation of any kind, it’s usually a PowerPoint left over from something I was paid to work on or something hastily pulled together on a topic that’s typically not of my choosing.

Ever since I started working with NPR in late 2008, the volume of invitations has increased dramatically. My producer at the time warned me that this would happen, and sure enough, once the All Tech Considered segment started to become a regular gig, the e-mails rolled in. I get invited to educational and tech conferences in other cities. Groups in Austin who in the past have raised their nose at the Austin American-Statesman suddenly want me to come talk because I’m affiliated with NPR.

The out-of-town engagements usually offer to pay for my travel, but you’d be surprised how many offer no honorarium. They expect me to miss work and leave my family for a day or more out of the goodness of my heart. (Or, maybe, to promote a book I haven’t written yet or to plug NPR, which really doesn’t need a plug from the likes of me.)

Nevertheless, I’ve turned almost all the out-of-town engagements down for a simpler reason: we have a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old in the house and I’m not about to make my wife stay here alone with them while I go travel if I can help it. The kids have been a good, reliable excuse for me to turn down speaking engagements in other cities.

Another reason to say no is that last year, my newspaper implemented a policy that they need to know about speaking engagements before we commit to them. Sometimes just saying no is a lot easier than bothering my editors and asking them to make a decision on something that’s not directly work-related.

It’s a lot harder to turn down offers in town for more casual events and panels. I typically tell people that I have to run home in the evenings to help take care of the kids or that I’m on deadline with stories and that makes it hard for me to leave the newsroom for too long during the day.

I still go talk to non-profits or groups of students now and then, but a bigger reason why I’ve been so frustrated in recent months is because of money. Or the lack of it. I don’t expect charity groups or schools to pay to bring in a speaker, but if you’re a big organization that meets regularly, has sponsors and can fill a room with more than 100 people, you have no excuse not to compensate your guest speakers, or at least cover their parking and offer a meal or snacks.

I’ve been a little shocked that people who can definitely afford to pay for everything else (gift bags, A/V equipment rental, mail-outs, venue), treat invited guests like an afterthought. (And not just me — it happens often when I’m on a panel with other people. We all get the shaft at the same time and vent to each other about it.)

I recently was asked to put together and deliver a short presentation and then stick around to help coach a group of people for a very large national organization.   I wasn’t offered a seat at any table with attendees (I sat in a chair on the side of the room with a few other bewildered guest speakers like I was a teacher’s aid or intern). And I was reminded in an e-mail that parking at the hotel where the event was being held would be $10-$15. No reimbursement. No parking validation.  I parked elsewhere, but still paid.

I’m not expecting to make money on speaking gigs in town. In fact, because the groups asking me to speak are groups I may cover as news, I wouldn’t be allowed to take cash from them anyway. What’s bothersome is that it costs me to do these things. I’m in the hole, either in money or in time, every time I agree to speak at an event for free.  I don’t think attendees at this event realize it, and I’m beginning to think that organizers of events just haven’t given it much thought.

So I decided to figure out exactly what it’s costing me and make that my standard speaking fee. Let’s break it down, shall we?

What it costs me to speak

Let’s start with travel.  I live in New Braunfels and work from home at least one or two days a week.  Some of the events I get asked to speak for take place on weekends or at night, when I would otherwise be home.  It’s happened more than once that I’ve driven up to Austin just to speak.  It’s 100 miles round-trip to Austin from New Braunfels.  Let’s estimate low and say it costs 36 cents a mile in gas and wear on my car to drive. I’m lowballing — IRS mileage is 55 cents a mile, but I am a generous person. 36 cents times 100 miles is $36.

'That'll be $273. I take checks.'

As I mentioned before, parking is not always assured at a speaking gig, especially if it’s downtown or at a fancy hotel. I’ve paid more for parking, but I’ll low-ball it and say $7 is pretty typical for what I pay to park.

I think my time is pretty valuable and there’s never enough of it.  I’ve been working as a journalist and freelancer long enough to be pretty comfortable, but I’ll lowball it and pretend that I’m a reporter with just a few years of experience at a metro paper making about $35,000 a year. That’s close to $18 an hour.  I’ll probably be at a speaking event for about two hours, including time to set up and maybe stick around afterward to answer questions.  Travel to and from the event could be as much as two more hours.  And I’ll probably have to prepare some slides or at least put some notes together for at least an hour so I don’t sound like a complete idiot.  That’s five hours at $18 an hour.  $75.

I’m usually so busy talking and preparing that I don’t get to eat at a speaking event, even if there’s food on offer. I’ll probably grab a quick drive-thru meal or something else to make it through the evening or lunch hour I missed in order to speak.  $10.

My daughters don’t like it when I’m not around in the evenings or on the wekeend, and they’re noticing it more and more the older they get.  It’s not a huge abandonment problem, but I know it bothers them and that somewhere down the line we’ll have to deal with that issue.  Let’s say it only comes up twice in several years of therapy and only for about 15 minutes per session.  A good psychiatrist may charge about $200 per hour.  So, $50, per child, to deal with issues in therapy.  $100.

My wife gets help from her parents, but it’s still not easy to deal with two kids when I’m not home.  I’ll feel obliged to make it up to her on anniversaries, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day with a flower bouquet upgrade.  $10 for each holiday for a slightly nicer arrangement.  $30 total.

Even with the time and money I’m donating, it still happens that at an event where I’m supposed to be a guest and treated with respect, I get ambushed by someone who wants to ask why our newspaper sucks so badly (it’s usually in relation to a story I had nothing to do with), or asked why I’m not writing a story about a person’s company because I just wrote a story about their competitor’s company and they’re much better.  What’s up with that?  Shouldn’t I be doing my job better?  I think it’s cheesy to charge a mental health fee or a fee for alcohol I may need to consume later to get back my equilibrium, but I’m going to do it anyway. $15.

So that comes to a grand total of $273.

Now that I’ve got it worked out, that’s the fee I’ll be charging to speak at events if you’re an organization who obviously can afford to pay guest speakers and treat them right.


All too often

This is me trying very hard not to be a dick and offering up excuses on why I can’t speak, or speaking and then getting angry and bent out of shape that I’ve put myself out for seemingly no return whatsoever.  I realize it probably looks petty.  I’m lucky to even be in a position to have anyone interested in something I might have to say.  How dare I take friendly invites from well-meaning groups and twist them into a ledger of complaints.

That’s what’s stopped me from saying anything in the past or what took me so long in writing this post. I’m complained before about the selfish Internet, but I’ve stopped short of saying that I’ve felt personally burned by people who doesn’t seem to understand the value of other people’s time.  I’ve let it slide for a long time.

But I think my willingness to do it so readily in the past and my enjoyment of meeting people and speaking to groups has made it easy for people to take advantage of me. And they do. Often.

If you’re an organization that has more than 100 attendees and you’re still not paying for parking or expenses for your guest speakers, maybe you shouldn’t have guest speakers. Maybe you should have people from your own organization  be your speakers instead of bringing in someone from the outside and expecting them to donate their time and money.  Maybe you should pick up a book on team-building exercises and do that for a few months with your group until your group is sufficiently organized to accommodate regular speaking guests comfortably.

You can let me know when that’s happened.

I’ll invoice you in advance.