The Job of Teaching

The Job of Teaching

If teaching is your job, should you ever do it for free?

If you asked me the same question about freelancing (design, programming, etc), then I would say: no, never. But running workshops is different, and it often does make sense to give it away.

If you’re freelancing, clients will try to low-ball you by promising that you’ll benefit from the intangible perks of building your portfolio and gaining exposure. But in the case of freelancing, they’re lying, and neither benefit is real. For example, you can gain portfolio/skills just as easily (and on your own terms) by simply working on hobby projects (while documenting & sharing the process as you do so). And unless the client is willing to devote active PR effort to the results of your work, then the promotional benefit doesn’t really exist unless you decide to do it yourself.

In other words, the appeal of working for free is supposedly to gain these two benefits:

  • Portfolio and skill-building

  • Exposure and dealflow

It doesn’t hold up for freelancing. So what makes workshops behave differently?

First, gathering an audience is hard work, and you can’t exactly hone your skills (or build a portfolio of teaching experiences) without one. So if someone has done the hard work of putting together a group of people who want to learn from you, then it may well be worth the effort to show up and teach, even unpaid.

Second, the world of events is surprisingly small, and it’s common for folks who organise their own events to also show up as attendees at others. So—unlike freelancing—giving an unpaid workshop does offer a certain amount of guaranteed, natural exposure.

(If you’re doing plenty of unpaid gigs, but still not getting paid invitations, then you may want to read about why they aren’t paying you and how to fix it.)

One complication appears if you’re already getting paid, but are still interested in occasionally doing unpaid work. Being too random here can undermine your pricing (“But Jake said you taught at his event for free…?”). The solution is to draw a line in the sand, where you always do one type of teaching for free, but never do another without being paid. For example, your line in the sand might be based on who is in the audience (e.g. schools and universities are always free, but conferences and corporates are always paid). In my case, I draw the division based on interactivity, time, and travel. If you want me to give a lecture of up to one hour, and if I’m already in the right city, then I’m always happy to come by and do the best job possible, completely for free. But if you want me to talk for more than an hour, or to travel, or to make it in any way “workshoppy” (i.e. interactive), then I’m going to bill at my full rates. This sort of clear “rule” will hugely simplify your proposals and negotiations, while allowing you to build your skills, portfolio, reputation, and dealflow. And of course, that all helps you increase your teaching day-rates.

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.

The Job of Teaching

Negotiating your teaching fees (from “we don’t pay” to “so that’s €10k?”)

Here’s the secret to negotiation: do the work ahead of time so that you can calmly tell them what you need, and then happily walk away if that doesn’t work for them. This basically boils down having a clear price sheet (even if it’s just in your head) and a line in the sand about what you want to do for free vs. what you need to be paid for. And then having the confidence to state it plainly.

(The email excerpts in this post are real, but I’m rephrasing and blurring some details to avoid making it obvious which events they’re from. I’m also grabbing samples from several different-but-similar email threads to further anonymise and illustrate the point.)

Here’s a fairly common excerpt from an invitation to speak and run a workshop at a big conference (1000+ attendees). The pattern is to promise to be extremely good hosts, offering all sorts of perks as a way to compensate for being unable to pay:

We are a small conference with a very limited budget, based in a small country. But it's also a country of spectacular beauty, great sandy beaches, and plenty of sunshine! :) We have a great heart, we're full of passion, and we really want to change things in this part of the world.

This is a good and common setup. It’s going to be great! You should be there! The email will commonly continue by offering a variety of fun (but non-financial) benefits:

As organizers we will provide and fully cover:
- Arrival and departure flights
- 5-star accommodation during your stay
- Guided tour (if you want to)
- Assigned person to help during your stay

This is all very generous, and they are being legitimately kind with both the invitation and the offering. And this is where new facilitators/speakers tend to screw up. In their head, they’re thinking, “This would be amazing exposure. And it would be so much fun, too! I would happily do this for free, but let’s see if I can get a little bit of money for it, just in case.” What follows is an extremely awkward “negotiation”, where you’re asking for money, but it’s clear to both parties that you aren’t actually willing to back it up. This type of conversation is not fun, and it makes you seem extremely weak, since you keep asking for stuff and then backing down. In almost every case, you’ll walk away, head down and holding nothing at all.

Here’s my advice:

  • If you’d be happy to do it for free, then accept the invitation with grace and excitement, do it for free, and enjoy your time there

  • If you need to be paid, then tell them as plainly and clearly as possible what number you will need, and politely decline if they can’t provide it

Here are the key quotes from the next couple of key emails:

Me: “Thanks so much for thinking of me and for the kind invitation, but I’m not doing unpaid conferences at the moment.” (having and using a walkaway)
Conf: “Oh, now I get it, I'd totally missed the part about speaker fee. Can you share with me how much it costs to get a session from you?”
Me: “It's €5k/day (plus travel/accommodation). I'd also be happy to run smaller workshops during the day when I'm going to be giving the keynote.” (not haggling, just telling him)
Conf (a week or so later): “We are all set with conference dates. Here is what’s in my head right now. The keynote would be on [date]. And the next day, you would run a full day workshop. And if this works for you, speaking fee would be €10k?”

I agreed, and then we arranged a call to decide on exactly which Learning Outcomes would be most valuable for attendees. (The addition of a second billable day was obviously just a happy little accident.)

If you can’t walk away, then you can’t negotiate. It’s really that simple. So decide on your price sheet and then use it—calmly and confidently. Of course, sometimes they’ll be unable to meet your needs. And that’s okay! Here’s an excerpt from another invitation which I received at roughly the same time:

Me: Good to hear from you and thanks for the invitation. The dates are free and I could certainly join, but I only travel for paid teaching. In general it's  €5k/day, plus travel and accommodation.
Conference (a week or two later): Sorry for my late reply. I was doing my best to find a budget for your trip, but I failed. Unfortunately, we can't accept your speaking fee, which is a bit out of our budget. Hope to invite you next time!
Me: Thanks for checking and letting me know. Wish you all the best with the event :)

So that’s that. I cleared the potential dates from my calendar and moved on with my day. I wanted to show this “failed” example to be clear that this isn’t some sort of rhetorical tactic. It’s not about convincing or tricking people. It’s just about knowing what you need, letting them know, and then politely declining if that doesn’t work for all parties involved.

If the idea of “losing out” on potential exposure seems like a fool’s errand at this point in your career, then you might want to drop the pricing altogether and focus on teaching for free until you feel that you’ve got more demand than you can handle. That’s how I got started, and it’s how everyone else gets started to. And once you’re ready, then spend the time to decide what you need, create a price, and give yourself permission to tell people what it is.