The Job of Teaching

Why you aren’t getting paid for your workshops and how to fix it

To start being well-paid as a facilitator, you need three pieces in place:.

  1. Skills: Your design and facilitation skills are sufficiently good

  2. Relevance and value: People want to learn what you’re offering to teach them

  3. Exposure: And they know that you’re available to do so

If any one of these three is missing, then you won’t get paid. (Or at least nowhere near as regularly or as much as you would like.)

Your first task is to figure out what you’re missing.

Everyone starts by blaming a lack of exposure. It’s incredibly tempting to believe that you’ve already got the skills and that you’re teaching something people really care about (after all, you care about it, so why wouldn’t they?). And this might, in fact, be the problem. But if the problem is elsewhere, then you can lose an almost infinite amount of time trying to improve your website, your bio, and by calling in favours asking for introductions to potential clients and events (who never seem to need you at this particular moment).

(Note that in this post, I’m mostly talking about getting hired and paid to teach by a client or event. But you can also always cut out the client, organise your own events, and sell tickets yourself.)

In the early stages of your career, getting teaching gigs is almost completely dominated by the opinion of the people who have watched you teach. You’d be surprised how often event organisers attend other events, and these special spectators will then—assuming you’re skilled and relevant—either invite you to their own event or personally recommend you to another organiser.

So here’s how you start to debug where the problem is (followed by some suggestions about how to fix each issue):

  • If you’re hustling your way into teaching opportunities, but are not getting invited back (or invited to other events), then the problem is in your skills. This feels bad, but is actually great news, since it’s the easiest to fix.

  • If you’re getting recommended or invited, but it falls apart during the organisation/proposal stage, then you’ve got the skills, but are low on relevance. In other words, you haven’t found a set of topics which are exciting and worth learning for that particular audience.

  • If you have zero opportunities to get on stage, then the problem could be any of the three issues, but you need to fix your exposure to figure out what to improve next, even if that means teaching for free (should you ever do that?).

Let’s look at the fixes in reverse order. If you have no opportunities to even try to teach, then you’ll need to hustle a bit to try and get some. There are a few options for this. The quickest is to reach out to existing groups (like meetups and universities) and offer to give a short mini-workshop as a part of upcoming class or event (asking for a 10 or 20 minute slot inside a larger session is much easier—at first—than asking them to run a special session just for you). It’s normal, at the end of an unpaid session (after you’ve given lots of value to the audience), to let them know one quick way that they can help you, if they’d like to. In this situation, you’d just tell them that you’re interested in running more workshops, and to pass on your details if they know anyone relevant. Other options (although slower) are to build an online presence or to start running your own events. However you do it, your goal is simply to generate enough opportunities that you can figure out exactly where your problem lies, and to continue fixing it from there.

If clients and events are starting to talk to you, and then going silent part-way through, then it’s likely that whatever you’re offering to teach isn’t relevant and valuable to their particular audience. This usually points toward a fairly mundane problem with your client communications and how you describe yourself. You might want to brush up on how to write a good event blurb, the two email workshop proposal, and understanding the fears of event organisers. If you’ve got those basics under control, then you might need to shift your topic (usually by improving from vague “topics” to sharp Learning Outcomes) or shift your audience from a group who only kinda cares to one who really feels the pain. And remember: one rejection doesn’t mean anything about you or your offering. All it means is that it wasn’t right for that particular person. Try not to draw big conclusions until you’ve hit this wall with at least a couple of different organisers.

I’ll close with a story about the hardest to accept (but easiest to fix) of the three: a shortage of skills. I have a friend named (not) Mary. She’s a great businesswoman and an insightful thinker on the culture and incentives of sales teams, which is highly valuable to a certain type of audience. She’s also a great networker, and was able to quickly find a handful of opportunities to run unpaid (or poorly paid) workshops. After six months or so, we were catching up when she asked for introductions to more event organisers. This raised a mental red flag for me; given the amount of time she’d recently spent on stage, the invitations should have been pouring in. To confirm my suspicions, I went to watch one of her workshops, and the verdict was clear: she just wasn’t good enough (yet). She was a great speaker, but a bad teacher. She didn’t have a good grasp of the fundamentals of workshop design. And this was hard for her to realise, because she was wildly successful in other areas of her life, and was extremely advanced in skills that were closely related to teaching, but which weren’t quite teaching. But once she knew that was the issue, she was able to intentionally focus on intentionally improving her design and facilitation skills. And as she got better, she soon hit the tipping point that you’ll eventually reach as well, where every workshop she taught ended up in her getting invited back to teach two more.