How to Gently Tell Off Anyone Asking You to Work For Free

When you get that request to work for pittance, I mean “exposure,” here’s how to say no.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #404

To respond to the exploitative hacks of the world, don’t say “No!” Instead, respond with a properly-structured counter-proposal.

I’m taking the time to come speak for Jaime. I’m giving away my work for free. That’s a guaranteed 100% downside for me in time and cost, not to mention the value of my material. My upside is this wonderful, ephemeral “exposure.” It’s like a Unicorn, without the rainbows.

Jaime, the 6-billion-dollar woman, has asked me to provide known, high-quality work. She has ample evidence that I will deliver, proven by tens of millions of podcast downloads, packed auditoriums for speaking engagements, webinar attendance records, and paid books and articles. 

She is taking no risk, and gets guaranteed upside. My presence will help make her conference a great success and make her look like a star. And if the exposure turns out not to be very valuable, well, too bad for me. It’s no skin off her bionic back.

You Can Measure Outcomes

But exposure can be measured. We can use surveys, click-throughs, repeat visits, lambs sacrificed, all kinds of measurements. But Jaime is offering “exposure” without measurement. Indeed, if she measured the value of her exposure, she might find out it’s worthless. Then she’d have to face the fact that she’s an exploitative hack. The fear of this knowledge keeps her from even thinking about measurement.

But we are fearless! We can structure a deal that lets each of us bet on the value of what we promise. If we both do what we claim, everybody wins. But if one of us falls short, they’re the one that takes the fall.

Don’t Get Mad; Make a Counter-Proposal

To respond to the exploitative hacks of the world, don’t say “No!” Instead, respond with a properly-structured counter-proposal where they take the risk they’re asking you to take. If you’re nervous about sending a counter-proposal, don’t be. They’ve already valued your time at zero, so you have literally nothing to lose.

Let’s turn to Jennifer Lawrence for inspiration. She signs a contract for Hunger Games 9: Just Desserts. The movie company promises pay in return for her acting. If she flakes, the movie company doesn’t pay her. If the movie company flakes, she still gets paid. We can apply this to “exposure.” Because capitalism. Because fairness. Because ethics. Because J-Law.

The restructured deal is simple. Jaime pays me, I give a great presentation. She claims the exposure is worth something. So we agree on a measure—number of CEO business cards acquired, number of follow-on coaching engagements that come from the engagement, etc. If she meets the measure, then I return the cash and take the exposure. But if the measure doesn’t get met, then I keep the cash, I’m fairly paid for my work, and she gets to accept the fact that her exposure isn’t actually worth anything. 

When you propose this to Jaime, she’ll almost certainly say “No.” After all, she isn’t really trying to be fair, she’s trying to exploit you, and she knows it. That’s why you also end the proposal by saying, “If you would rather not take this proposal, then that will, of course, be a clear demonstration that you don’t truly believe in the value of your exposure. In that case, I urge you to look in the mirror every morning and be filled with self-loathing because you’re nothing but an exploitative hack.” No, just joking! 

You really say, “In that case, I urge you to reconsider making this offer to others in the future.” Because you would never want to be as crass as she is.

If you’d like a copy of an actual civil letter that lays out this counter-proposal suitable for using as a template, just visit getitdoneguy.com/exposure. Please use it to your heart’s content, and then some.

If my rant wasn’t enough, check out science fiction writer Harlan Ellison’s rant on the topic of “Pay the Writer.” It’s a hoot.

Next time you get a request for free work, don’t say yes. Don’t say No. Make a counter-proposal that makes each party responsible for delivering on their half of the promise.

This is Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and Facebook. I run webinars and other programs to help people be Extraordinarily Productive, and build extraordinary careers. If you want to know more, visit SteverRobbins.com/

Work Less, Do More, and Have a Great Life!


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.