Professional speaking can be a highly lucrative business. Because it can be, it is also highly competitive. It’s not easy to break into the ranks of the best-paid speakers, and the expectations are very high for those who do.
Where do you fit in? I’ve posted many times about how the speaking business works and how to create a career in it. This post is about fees. How much should you charge?
The answer is complicated because of the interplay between your status – how well you’re known, how much demand there is for your speaking – the budget for the event, and a third aspect you might not have thought about: the perception of quality.
Here are some markers that will help you think about it. I’m assuming we’re not talking about free speaking, speaking for “honoraria,” speaking for expenses or travel, or the like. That is a huge part of the overall speaking marketplace, but not my subject today.
1. If you charge less than $10K per speech, speaker bureaus won’t be very interested in you. That’s because they take a percentage of your fee, and once we get below $10K, that percentage gets too small to be worth it. There are honorable exceptions to this rule of thumb, but it’s an important break point to think about. Speaker bureaus control an ever-shrinking percentage of the market, but they’re still an important part of the paid speaking world.
2. The fee you charge becomes a perception of quality – and that’s the most important aspect. A typical conference budget for 500 people and two days is on the order of $1.5M to $2.0M. A keynote speaker as a line item in that budget is less than a coffee break. So the actual amount you’re charging is not that big a deal to the conference organizer. It is a big deal to you. So don’t be too ready to cave when the person on the other end of the phone says, “We’d love to have you speak, but we don’t have any money. Can you speak for a free pass and expenses?” What they mean is, in my budget I’ve allotted $X and don’t want to shift money around because that will mean chicken instead of steak on the first night. Your fee is a proxy for quality to the conference organizer and the world, so it’s important to set a number that’s high enough – and not ludicrous.
3. New York Times bestselling authors can command $40K and up per speech. If you don’t have a bestseller, or moral equivalent, than you need to set your fee somewhere south of that number. How far south depends on demand, celebrity, etc. – and that perception of quality you want to establish.
4. You should establish a set fee for expenses. It’s difficult and time-consuming to get your travel expenses refunded after an event. Organizers are often slow to respond, especially if the event loses money! So create a set fee for travel, and announce that as an addition to your speaking fee: “I charge $17.5K per speech and $1.5K for travel east of the Mississippi, $2K west, and $10K overseas.” That’s just a hypothetical; your experience will vary. Oh, and invoice for a 50% deposit before the speech. That’s a good check to see if the conference has the money.
5. Or you could become a politician. A recent article detailed the fees certain politicians charge for speaking. They are substantial. Bill and Hillary are right around $200K. Al Gore is a relatively modest $100K. On the Republican side, George Bush comes in at $110K, and Dick Cheney $75K – $100K. I guess he can’t charge more than his former boss.
What you charge is a complex calculation involving your status, your demand, and the quality you want to project. How have you made the sums come out? I’d be delighted to hear your experiences in the tricky world of paid public speaking.