Speaking for Free Costs Money

I’ve been wrestling with a problem that many entrepreneurs and business owners face: the idea of “working” for free.

My wife, Toni, is a jazz singer who is asked to sing at no charge around the state. My photographer friend, Paul D’Andrea, is often asked to take a couple quick pictures as a favor, because “it’s so easy for him.” Other writer friends are asked to knock out a quick article on something or other “for the exposure.” And I’m often asked to speak for free by small companies and nonprofits.Speaking for free has a lot of hidden costs

While none of us are jerky enough to say “NO!” outright, it’s important that the requesters think about what they’re asking for. They’re not just asking for an hour of our time, there’s so much more that goes into it.

When you ask us to to work for free, here’s what it costs us:

  • Preparation time: My wife hours creates a new set list for every show, and rehearses it for 2 – 3 hours beforehand, in addition to her normal practice. Paul has to make sure his equipment is assembled, working, and fully charged. And I spend anywhere from 3 – 6 hours for a 1 hour talk. All of us do this whether we get paid or not.
  • Travel time: Driving to a local event can take 60 – 120 minutes round trip. I’ve driven up to 5 hours away for talks outside Indiana. Toni has driven 2 hours one way for a single show.
  • Gas: Cars do not run on good intentions, they run on gas, which costs $3.35 per gallon right now. It takes anywhere from 2 – 20 gallons to get to where we’re going.
  •  The actual event: Toni typically sings for 2 – 3 hours. Paul’s photo shoot takes at least an hour if it’s an “easy” one. A good writer will write and edit for 3 – 4 hours. I speak for an hour. None of this includes pre-event setup, which takes roughly an hour for any of us.
  • All of that leads to lost work time: We get paid for our jobs. That’s how we feed our families and run our businesses. When you total up everything it took to do that free concert, photo shoot, article, or talk, we spent 4 – 12 hours not doing client work. That’s anywhere from a half day to a day-and-a-half of billables that we didn’t collect from clients.

So what does that work out to be? How much would that be for you? To figure out your regular hourly rate, take your hourly salary (your yearly salary divided by 2,000 hours per year) and multiply it by 4 and 12 (the range of hours).

That’s what it costs for you to work for free.

Based on a $60,000/year salary, that can be $120 – $360 of lost revenue.

Would you take an unpaid day off work to volunteer at a nonprofit? Or to help a friend move? What about taking an unpaid day to attend a conference, and pay your own way to travel there (but receive a free pass)?

If you expect us to work for free, will you also give up half to a day-and-a-half’s wages to show your gratitude and share our plight?

But that doesn’t mean we won’t do it.

Now, having said all that, none of the people I mentioned have become such egotistical jerks that we would never, ever work for free. We will.

Toni will sing for free at certain events, because not singing there can work against her. Paul will take the pictures, and the writers will write the articles, because sometimes the exposure is more important. And there are still groups and events where I’ll speak for free, because I consider it paying my blessings forward.

But it wasn’t until I started looking at what it was costing me in lost wages for that free one hour talk that made re-examine whether I would start charging to speak at events. And every other professional I’ve talked to has wrestled with this problem. Hell, we all still wrestle with it, even after we “turn pro.”

Should we do something beneficial for someone because it’s the good and right thing to do? Or do we say no to some very special people because our top priority is to take care of our families?

Over the past two months, I’ve had to cancel two free engagements because they conflicted with two paid ones, and I had even committed to the free ones first. I felt guilty about it. So guilty that I almost turned the paid ones down. It was Jason Falls who reminded me that my first responsibility was always to my family, and that sometimes I have to make the unpopular, un-fun decision to take care of them, like saying no to people I want to help.

Taking care of family means I have to turn down some important events down. It means Paul can’t load his very expensive camera equipment into his truck for an easy photo shoot. It means Toni won’t load her entire PA system into her car for a free performance. And it means the writers won’t even turn on their computers for some free exposure.

These costs are why I charge for my speaking engagements, or at least ask people to buy copies of my books. That’s not to say that every talk I give will be a paying one, or that I’ll require the organizers to purchase 100 copies of my book.

But hopefully it will help you understand why I — and my family, friends, and colleagues — may say no when you ask us to work for a “quick freebie.” (Hopefully it will also help you understand you need to bring your A-game when you’re going to convince us that working for free is worth it.)

And of course, if we do work for free, a little thank you gift, like a Starbucks or Barnes & Noble gift card is always appreciated.

Photo credit: NoHoDamon (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Another Blog Writing Secret: Write Like You Speak

I’ve talked in the past about different blog writing secrets — write list posts, write an email to your mom — but I’ve thought of one more secret you can try:

Write how you speak.

Imagine you have to present the content of your post to a small group. How would you say it? Hopefully you won’t be stiff and overly formal. Hopefully you won’t try for the lofty language of a presidential inauguration speech. Imagine presenting the material in a casual, laid back manner, and how it would sound.

Then write that almost as a script.

If it helps, close your eyes and visualize yourself giving that talk. Think of the vocal inflections, the pauses, the emphasis, the important points, and the stuff you would gloss over.

If you can write it this informally, as if you were giving a 5 – 10 minute talk, you can come up with 200 – 300 words for a blog post.

As you write it, try to hear yourself speaking the words. If it helps, read it out loud with the same inflection and delivery as if you were actually giving the talk. You’ll near the places where you take a breath, you’ll hear the words you want to emphasize, and you’ll even hear the paragraph breaks.

And since a lot of people tend to read things as if they hear a narrator in their head, your post will seem conversational in tone, and as if it were being delivered in person. That makes it easy to digest and enjoyable to read.

My TEDxFortWayne Talk on Community

I was given the chance to give a talk at the first ever TEDxFortWayne event in May 2012, where I talked about how the Internet has given us a chance to do community better than we’ve ever done before.

It was the first year for the TEDxFortWayne event, and I was very proud to be one of their speakers. (It’s still one of my favorite talks.)

When the Internet first started becoming popular, people worried that it would destroy our sense of community. If anything, it’s actually helped us find a better community of people we like and want to get to know.

What those nay-sayers didn’t know is that this has been a continuing complaint about television, radio, air conditioners, cars, and the loss of front porches on our homes.

Instead, think about those weird and esoteric things we love to do (or our kids love to do). When I was a boy, in 1977, my weird thing was beer can collecting. It was only by accident that I discovered there’s a whole community of people who loved collecting beer cans. Now, thanks to the Internet, you can find websites, a national organization, regional groups, and conventions all over the world devoted to this one interest.

There are marble collectors, anime cosplay fans, people who love vintage baseball, punk rock knitters, wood carvers, first edition book collectors, fan fiction story writers, typewriter collectors, and anything else you can think of. The Internet has given us our tribes and brought us together in a way that front porches and neighborhoods ever could.

Watch the TEDxFortWayne video to see why the Internet may be giving us a better community than we’ve ever had before.

Four Language Errors That Make You Sound Pretentious

There are some grammar errors people insist on perpetuating (not you, you’re awesome!). Some are just common errors that we all make. But others are errors people make in the hopes of sounding smarter or somehow official. (Think government talk or cop talk.)

I heard the first error — “an historic” — on NPR the other day, and thought of all media outlets, this one should know better. And it actually annoyed me so much, I not only shouted at the radio — “A historic, dammit! A historic!” — I wrote this post.

So here are four language errors people make that sound a little pretentious.A unicorn rearing back atop the Falcon Square Mercat Cross in Inverness, Scotland.

1) It’s Not An Historic

Just because you heard them say it on the BBC doesn’t make it true. The reason you say “an” anything is if the next word starts with a vowel sound. Not even a vowel — a vowel sound.

An apple. An MBA. An honorable profession.
A unicorn. A universal truth.

Say “historic” out loud. What sound does it start with? “H.” That’s not a vowel sound. Unless you’ve got a cockney accent, you didn’t just say ‘istoric. The only reason you’d say “an historic” is if you dropped the H sound in front of the word.

And since you’re not an 18th century bootblack, you’re going to keep the H and say “a historic.”

2) Bemused is not Amused

This is a tricky one, because “-mused” is the root word. People seem to think bemused is a form of amused, like it made you chuckle or smile slightly.

It isn’t.

Amused means you think something is funny. It means you found it slightly humorous. Bemused means confused or bewildered. It means you’re cocking your head like a puppy hearing a weird noise.

Bemused is not one step above amused. It’s not “more amused.” There certainly will never be “cemused.”

Just remember, bemused = bewildered.

3) You Don’t End Your Sentences With a Preposition EVER

Regular readers know that I hate and despise the “don’t end your sentences with a preposition” rule, because it’s wrong. However, not everyone got the memo, and some people are just mentally locked in to this idea. So I don’t begrudge the people who write this way, because they were bullied into thinking this is correct.

But if you speak that way, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It makes you sound like you’re trying too hard to be grammatically correct. But even most die-hard word nerds don’t speak like they write. They end their sentences with prepositions. They use slang. They have weird accents. But they don’t try to speak correctly all the time like an overenthusiastic school marm.

The most famous example is Winston Churchill telling an aide who misapplied the preposition rule to a speech, “this is utter nonsense up with which I shall not put.”

If you contort your brain and vocal cords to speak like this, you sound stilted and overly formal.

When you talk, end your sentences with a preposition, if that’s the way you would normally talk. If you’re not comfortable doing it, try to figure out a different way of saying what you wanted to say.

Like adding, “you know?” at the end.

4. Stop Saying “Myself” When You Mean “Me”

A lot of people say “myself,” when they mean “me.”

“Please email your questions to Bob or myself.”

I heard this a lot during my state government days. I think people did this to sound smarter or more official, but it’s wrong, so it negated any effect they were going for.

Using “myself” in most cases is almost certainly the incorrect usage. There are a few times you can use it — as a reflexive pronoun or an intensive pronoun — like “I see myself in the mirror” (reflexive) or “I built the workbench myself” (intensive) but that’s it. You would never use “myself” as the object or subject of a sentence.

Wrong: Give the cookies to myself.
Wrong: Myself baked some cookies.

The best way to see whether or not to use “myself” is to remove the other person — Bob — and see if the sentence makes sense: “Please email your questions to me.”

In this case, “email your questions to myself” just sounds wrong, so you know to use “me” instead.

We’re starting to learn that a lot of our hard-and-fast grammar rules are changing, either because common usage is rendering them unnecessary, or because they were never right to begin with (see #4 above). If you can avoid these, you can feel morally superior to people who make these mistakes in an attempt to sound smarter than everyone else.

I feel that way myself.

Photo credit: ranil (Flickr)

Three Ways to Overcome Presentation Technology Hiccups

You’re setting up for your presentations, the room is filling up, and Bzzzzzz — the projector isn’t working.


The presentation you and your friend have spent a few hours working on is down the toilet, because your computer and the projector aren’t talking to each other. That happened to me and my friend, Dana M. Nelson, as we were getting ready to speak to the MWBE Central Indiana Resource Fair.

Erik and Dana speaking about social media and personal branding. This is the only photographic evidence we have.

We plugged in my computer — I always insist on using my Macbook, because it “always” works — but the projector wouldn’t detect it. Cords are plugged in properly, and everything should be running, but no dice. We plugged in Dana’s computer, and nothing. Hers is a Windows machine, so we decide to blame the projector, and go on with the presentation.

“We weren’t going to talk about a lot of tools today,” we tell the crowd, “but you still may want to write stuff down.”

Dana and I have given enough presentations that we were able to unplug the projector, shut it off, and just start talking. The facility staff brought in another projector about halfway through, and we managed to plug it in while we were talking. But it wasn’t even necessary. How so?

Here’s why and how we were able to manage our presentation so easily, despite not being able to show the gorgeous presentation we had worked so hard to create.

1. Don’t use a lot of text on your slides.

This is a given anyway: if you have more than 5 – 7 words on a slide, that’s too many. Keep your text limited to headlines with a large photo that takes up the entire background. Remember, people are there to see you speak, not read what you wrote. If they wanted to do that, they would read your blog. They’re there to watch you.

If your presentation relies on those visual elements and will fail without them, then you’re not speaking, you’re reciting.

Our slides only had headlines, so we just used my laptop as a reminder of what we were going to talk about next. And since the slides were basically functioning like bullet points — “Social media is not about selling” — we could talk for several minutes about that point without ever having to refer to any other words on the screen.

2. Don’t rely on online technologies for your presentation.

That means don’t create online Prezi presentations and leave them up there. It means don’t upload your presentation to Slideshare and assume you’ll access it through someone else’s computer. It means don’t include embedded YouTube videos hoping they’ll come through on your slide deck.

Basically, if you think you’ll need wifi to give your presentation, change it. Download your Prezis, copy your slide deck to a USB stick (export it to PowerPoint if you’re running Keynote for Mac), and download your videos. (I hope it goes without saying not to download copyrighted material.) Try to run everything off of your own laptop, not over wifi. Apparently there were some issues in getting the wifi to work in our area, so if we had depended on it for our own presentation, we would have been dead in the water, not even able to access the deck so we could remember our 10 secrets.

3. Know your stuff cold.

Dana and I have been speaking about social media for more than three years. We know this material so well that we could just start talking about it at the drop of a hat. Scramble up our slide deck, and we could have gone on without batting an eye. But that comes with talking about social media and personal branding for years.

If you don’t have the luxury of having years, or even months, of experience, then start studying for your next presentation. Write about the different points of your material, especially on a blog. Discuss it over lunch with friends. Tell them about the subtle nuances of a particular topic. Say your presentation out loud in the car to and from work. And then write about everything some more. Boil everything you want to throw on a single slide down to those five words, and then learn 3 important points about that particular concept.

If you can recite this information cold, it won’t matter if your projector is working or you can’t get wifi. All you need is your laptop and your slide deck so you can use it to keep your place in your presentation. If you don’t have that, write your main points out on a piece of paper and work from that.

As long as you prepare for things breaking down and you know your stuff cold, you’ll give a killer presentation, regardless of what may happen.

Photo credit: Kyle Lacy (Instagram). Thanks, Kyle!

Five Tips to Being Productive While You’re on the Road

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, with speaking gigs and client meetings, and I’m finding it harder to be productive, especially when these are all day trips, and the time I would normally spend in a hotel or a coffee shop is instead spent driving to or from my events. I’m also a regular entre-commuter, carrying my office in my backpack and working wherever I can find a coffee shop with free wifi.

While days like this mean a lot of evening, night, and weekend work (and a lot less sleep), there are some ways I have found I can still be productive while I’m out and about.

  • Get someone else to drive. When Paul and I drive anywhere, we take turns driving, so the other can get some work done. Get a friend or colleague to drive you to an appointment, or once you’re a big shot making a few thousand bucks for a speech, hire a driver. Do some work while the other person drives, and don’t be afraid to say “I can’t talk right now, I have to get this done.”
  • Keep projects “in the cloud” on your laptop. When we’re driving, I can tether my mobile phone to my laptop and get some very slow, basic wifi. This means that loading websites, answering emails, and writing blog posts is painful and I just give up. Instead, I write email responses and blog posts on my laptop and upload them when I get to a coffee shop or my destination. Since our writers turn in their submissions via Google Docs, I download them before I ever leave, make the changes, and upload them when we get to our next stop.
  • Paul Lorinczi, president of Professional Blog Service

    Paul's working on our new monthly email newsletter.

  • Plan for work breaks. I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Columbus, Indiana, on the way back from giving a talk in Lexington, KY, to write this post, because we had some client work to take care of. Yes, we could just keep going, but we’re about to head north into Indianapolis’ rush hour traffic, and by delaying now, we’ll miss the bulk of the 5:00 rush. It also lets us get some work done so we don’t have to deal with it when we get home. Why slog through rush hour traffic only to do some more work when we just want to relax? Normally, we try to plan a 30 minute break in our longer trips so we can stop off and handle any surprise client requests — publishing a blog post, sending a Facebook message, responding to a tweet — that come in while we’re in the car.
  • Make phone calls instead of emails. My efficiency-expert friends say to stay off the phone and send emails, because I can write a note in two minutes, but a phone call can take 10. But when I’m driving, I’ve got 2 – 3 hours before I get to my location, so why not kill some time on the phone? I get to make that personal touch with people I do business with, and I avoid the 10-email-exchange that we try to do to get a task out of our inbox and into the other person’s. In some cases, a phone call even lets us finish a project completely.
  • Plug your laptop in whenever possible. I’m watching my laptop slowly drain its battery to below 50%, and I remember that I didn’t plug in earlier when I had the chance. Whenever you stop for a quick break (#3), your time and productivity may be limited by the fact that your battery wasn’t charged previously. This also cuts your productivity in the car — if your battery dies, you and your companion are forced to talk about your feelings any topic that randomly comes to mind. One way to avoid this is to get a DC converter for your car, like the truckers use. Get a decent one at your local hardware store or a truck stop, and plug it into your car’s cigarette lighter, then plug your laptop into it. Some really good ones even have a USB charger so you can charge your mobile phone with your USB cable.

What are your tips? How do you keep productive while you’re in the car? Leave a comment and share your wisdom.

Random Thoughts on Writing a Book

I’ve finished my second book, Branding Yourself, with my good friend, Kyle Lacy, and am working on a third book on networking with Jeremy Dearringer, CEO of Slingshot SEO, an SEO company here in Indianapolis. I also have a couple other writing projects in the works, although those are still under wraps. I hope to have some news about those by Springtime.

But I’ve learned a few things about becoming a book author, things that I thought were easy, and things that I learned are hard.

  • Copies of the book Branding Yourself by Erik Deckers and Kyle Lacy

    In all my years, this is the 5th most beautiful sight I have ever seen.

    Writing a book isn’t really that hard, if you write on a regular basis. I used to think the advice “write every day” was stupid. “Who has time for that?” I thought. “I have work to do.” Turns out the work I was doing was writing anyway, and when I decided to write intentionally — to focus on new aspects of writing and become better at them — my writing improved.

  • Have a good editor. I learned a long time ago that while I’m a stickler about grammar and punctuation, I make a crapload of mistakes. Even though I catch them on second and third edits, I still usually find one or two that has to be fixed. Pearson just sent Kyle and me the “gathers” of the book. Individual chapters that we need to read over and mark any errors before the second printing. Believe it or not, with two writers and four editors, I found a couple errors. (What’s worse, they were mine!)
  • The hard part isn’t writing the book, it’s marketing it. In order to support the book, and sell copies, I’m starting to travel more to promote it during talks. Next week, I’ll be in Northern Indiana one night and Lexington, Kentucky the next day. I’m trying to do some paid speaking gigs, but am thinking about adopting Scott Stratten’s idea when he was promoting UnMarketing (affiliate link). Scott made an offer to any group: buy 100 of my books, and I’ll travel out to you. I’m thinking about doing that for anyone who buys 50 of my books, as long as you’re within driving distance. But compare that to writing. I could write at home, spend three hours, and knock out about 6,000 words, or almost an entire chapter. It’ll take me that long to drive to most of my speaking gigs.
  • Know your subject matter. Writing teachers love to say “write what you know” (which presents a problem for science fiction or fantasy writers). But this makes life so much easier when you’re writing a book. I remember struggling with a couple of chapters on Twitter Marketing for Dummies because I didn’t use some of the tools we were writing about. I had to spend a lot of time using them before I could write about them, which threw a huge monkey wrench into my writing schedule.
  • Have a writing schedule, and stick with it. John Grisham’s writing schedule, when he first started out, was to write from 7 am to 8 am, before he opened his law office. Christopher Moore’s schedule involves a lot of screwing around all day before he settles down after lunch and writes for 4 or 5 hours. Mine is to write at night, after the kids are in bed, and go for about 4 hours. Ignore the people who tell you to wake up early because mornings are more productive, or the people who tell you to stay up late because no one is awake then. Do what’s best for your body and your schedule. If you’re a night owl, stay up late. If you’re an early bird, get up and get that worm. But create a schedule and stick to it.
  • Shut off distractions. I love my Twitter network, and love chatting. But they are also the biggest interruption of my day, because they’re always more interesting than whatever I’m doing (even as I’ve written this post, I’ve sent 4 tweets). So when I’m writing, and have the willpower to do so, I shut off TweetDeck, close my Gmail, turn off the notifiers, and get to work. I can save myself 30 minutes of writing when I do that. My wife once asked me why I didn’t do that more, and I told her to “rephrase your question in the form of a tweet.”

Writing styles and processes are different for everyone. What are yours? Do you do anything special to get your writing done, to be more efficient and effective, or even to avoid distractions? Leave a comment and let me know.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.