Getting Paid to Speak

Posted on by Rachel in advent speaker tips.

I’m a web developer, I wouldn’t offer to build a company a website for free, speaking is the same deal.

Public speaking comes in many different forms, as we know from looking at the variety of slide decks uploaded to Notist. Many public speakers essentially present as part of their job, we have teachers who present to students, and those who speak in order to help raise awareness of a particular charitable cause. This post however is aimed at those who speak, or hope to speak, professionally.

When speaking becomes some or all of your job, it is work that you need paying for. Some speakers have a profile that can command a very high fee, but what about the rest of us?

The cost of a one hour talk

The thing about speaking is that while you might spend 30 minutes or an hour on stage, that might represent two or three weeks of work on the talk, plus the years of work that made you the person who could give that talk.

You also spend one or more days at the conference, an event which may expect you to be present and available for attendees. One or more days of travel each side, and depending on the distance a day of recovery from that travel. When you hear of people being paid large fees for speaking, and do the math, it turns out they are getting less than the hourly rate they could get for doing their job, for that time.

If you are to make speaking part of your job then it is worth working out the actual cost of delivering a talk, just as you would work out the costs of delivering anything else in a business.

But what about the exposure?

Often organizers will try to encourage people to speak for free or very little due to the “exposure” offered by their event. It may be that you are on a book tour and can sell books, or the event puts you in front of a very specific audience. Only you can make that judgement. However weigh these opportunities up against the real cost of attending before saying yes.

As Vitaly Friedman notes in his article Don’t Pay To Speak At Commercial Events,

“On a personal note, throughout all these years, I have rarely received consultancy projects from “exposure” on stage. More often than not, the time away from family and company costs much more than any honorarium provided.”

Ask for payment

In many industries, including my own, it is reasonably common for event organizers to only offer a fee when asked. I dislike the state of affairs as it results in those who are “in the know” getting paid when others do not. However because it happens, you need to make sure that you ask for your fee up front.

Most of my speaking requests come in via email, usually asking abouut my availability. At that point I will ask what the event is offering speakers by way of expenses and payment. I approach the subject with an expectation that I will be paid, and have a rate sheet that takes into account whether the event wants a completely brand new talk, or something already presented.

Whether you are willing to negotiate your price is up to you. On that subject I listened to a really interesting interview between Tim Ferris and Seth Godin, where they discussed the concept of your fee being “full price or free”, as in people either pay the full price for your services or the event is something you are happy to give your time to as a volunteer and so there is no charge. No in-between, no messing about.

Conferences with “no money to pay speakers”

There are not-for-profit, community events which may run on a shoestring budget in order to be able to keep ticket prices as low as possible. As a professional speaker it is likely that you will be happy to volunteer some of your time to these events, and you can make that choice on a case by case basis. I like to try and speak at community events when I can, as there will often be very different audience at those events when compared to the bigger commercial conferences.

My rule is that if the event is commercial, and either directly making money via ticket sales and sponsorship, or is essentially a promotional event for a company, then speakers should be paid too. I’m a web developer, I wouldn’t offer to build a company a website for free, speaking is the same deal.

Help out newer speakers

Make sure that speakers new to the circuit are aware of the need to ask for payment and expenses, and encourage them to do so. Events only get free work if people are willing to do free work. The more people who share information about conferences that are not treating people well, or who are only paying people when the issue is pressed, the less able these events are to get away with it.

Advent speaker tips: this is part of a series of tips for public speakers that we’re posting throughout advent. Check back daily during December for more.

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