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Is This a Scam? Part 3: The “Perfect” Speaking Engagement

You've been invited to speak! But is it an outstanding opportunity or too good to be true? Here's how to find out.

In this, the third of our series on finding legitimate opportunities, we’re going to have a look at how to spot a speaking engagement scam. If you missed the first two, click here for Part 1: The Podcasting Edition and Part 2: The Award Edition!

Speaking can be good, if not great, for our careers and our business success. It helps you connect with prospective customers, partners and investors and is often an important part of a thought leadership program or general marketing campaign. Speaking engagements can help you gain a reputation as an expert. Or maybe you’re building a business as a paid speaker (and you occasionally take unpaid engagements because there is some other compensation). Speaking gives you the opportunity to share your story and demonstrate your competence.

Until you get sucked into a bad speaking opportunity. Keynoting a less-than-worthy event associates you with the organization. Erstwhile attendees may blame you if the event is truly awful.

Let’s define “bad” opportunities.

Here are some examples:

  • The hidden fee: You find a Call for Speakers. You carefully craft a customized abstract for the audience demographic, fill out the form with all your social media links, contact information and your biography, upload your headshot and immediately get a return email with a sponsorship form or an invitation to pay for your slot on stage.
  • The speakers are the audience: You are sailing along, minding your own business, when you get an unsolicited invitation to speak in Paris. Oo-la-la. Pay your own way there. Book a two-night stay for yourself and your partner. Buy a $2700 ticket to the event and show up to discover that the entire audience is other speakers who also bought tickets. No one seems able to locate the organizers.
  • Not really an event: You’re invited to speak at a conference on “Small Business”. The proposed agenda sounds very vague, but it’s early days yet, right? As you work with the conference organizer, you realize the organization is simply building a giant website full of quality content, speaker abstracts, slides and recorded features that will eventually drive a lot of website traffic but with no real benefits for you. The conference itself may never happen.
  • Low-quality events: Some events are quick let’s-make-a-buck ventures without much forethought or planning.

What makes a legitimate event model and speaking engagement?

Let’s talk about legitimate event business models. Events, like speakers, have different business models. Event organizers have a right (like everyone) to be compensated for their work. Events with business models allow them to make money that could be used to compensate speakers.

Here are some examples of event business models:

  • Selling tickets
  • Sponsorship
  • Grants
  • Belong to a well-heeled organization that supports the event
  • Rent out booth space or sell space on the tradeshow floor
  • Charge the speakers to speak
  • Take a portion of the business the speakers do from the event

Direct sales events and paying to speak

All are valid business models for the right speakers, even some of the events that charge speakers to pay. This kind of event could be a consortium approach to covering event expenses. It could be an event where speakers pay for stage time to get a high-quality video of themselves speaking. Maybe this is a direct sales event, the kind of event that allows speakers to actively sell from the stage – consulting services, masterminds, memberships, books and products.

Direct sales events are organized specifically to move product for the speakers. And often direct sales speakers pay to get time on the stage and to compensate the organizer for a portion of the expenses. But to a speaker with a different business model, they could see it as a scam. “What? Pay to speak? Never!”

So, what makes an event or speaking engagement a scam?

A scam event:

  • Hides fees or misrepresents them.
  • Doesn’t provide an accurate portrayal of the audience (or sometimes any information on the audience).
  • May not do any marketing to attract attendees.
  • May not offer true value or adequate compensation for the speaker’s investment (whether it is time or payment).

Signs that a speaking engagement or event is a scam:

  • You are being marketed to. Grandiose promises should make you suspicious. The old “If it sounds too good…” adage usually holds true.
  • If the event has no audience information or the audience information is too vague or general.
  • If the topics are too broad. “Real” events have focus.
  • The event or organization has little to no history. You should be able to find information on previous speakers, exhibitors or attendees. (Note: Some event organizers will cannibalize the previous year’s website, but you can still go to the web archive to see last year’s event info.)

Getting the hard sell about participating in an event as a speaker? It never hurts to ask around. Be careful about the stages you commit to. Remember that your reputation is at stake.

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