One of the questions I'm asked most is what my speaking fee is for any given event. I don't often have a "stock" answer. Why?
This is a more complex question than we might initially think. What's really being asked of us are two separate questions:
- How much value do we bring to the event? (from the conference point of view)
- How much is that value worth to us? (from our point of view)
To answer these questions, we must first understand speaker value.
The Value of a Speaker
- Audience: the right audience is valuable to sponsors and the event. The audience must include at least some target customers who might buy products and services from sponsors, as well as afford the event's ticket prices. A great roster of speakers can attract a valuable audience through speakers' individual networks and promotional efforts, as well as their knowledge.
- Sponsors: the right sponsors bring in the money needed to run an event. Without sponsors, an event can't grow or even afford to pay its speakers. A great roster of speakers provides prestige to the event and reassurance to sponsors that the event is credible.
- Speakers: the right speakers bring value to each other. A great roster of speakers provides a community for the speakers to network and learn from each other.
The role of speakers is to provide credibility, networking opportunities, and reach. That's the value that I and many others provide. Our speaking fees scale with the value we provide: the more credibility, networking, and reach we bring, the greater a fee we can command.
How to Value Your Speaking Role
The next logical question is, what's the monetary number on the value a speaker provides?
I recently attended an event with these ticket prices:
- 150 attendees at $3,000 each: $450,000
- 5 top-tier sponsors at $25,000 each: $125,000
- 10 middle-tier sponsors at $12,500 each: $125,000
- 15 low-tier advertisers at $10,000 each: $150,000
The event grossed $850,000. The hotel hosting the event cost approximately $150,000 for space, catering, labor, etc.; this particular hotel chain's event costs average $1,000 per attendee.
If we re-examine the holy trinity, attendees don't generally show up at a conference to hang out with sponsors. Attendees come to hear speakers. Thus, the portion of the proceeds above - $450,000 out of the $850,000 gross - is what the speakers are principally responsible for.
Let's say this event had 20 speakers in total. Deduct the cost of hosting the attendee - $1,000 per person for this hotel chain - and speakers would generate a net revenue for the event of $300,000.
Each individual speaker is responsible for generating $300,000 / 20, or $15,000 in attendee revenue.
That's the cap, the ceiling of what you can reasonably ask for as a speaker in this example, because the profit from sponsorships/ad sales is directly dependent on the event's sales team and not you, and they are solely entitled to that profit for their work. Event attendees cost money, and without those expenses there would be no event for us to speak at. Thus it's reasonable to ask for a percentage of the net revenue for attendees as a fee.
Obviously, there are many mitigating factors in this equation. The more speakers there are, the less any one speaker's contribution to the overall attendee population. The same event with 40 speakers would mean each speaker would only generate a maximum of $11,250 in attendee revenue. All speakers are not created equal, too; some speakers command a higher fee because they bring in more attendees than others.
With the onset of the pandemic, event budgets have dropped precipitously; many events have moved to free models just to hold onto their audiences. As a result, if an event isn't collecting money, chances are they won't be paying speakers, either. Read on to decide whether an event is worth doing for free or not.
How to Value The Event
Many event planners, as noted in comments on previous editions to this post, make the very valid point that the event provides value to the speaker as well. While "exposure" is an overused and often misunderstood term, there is value to being on stage and in the public eye that we should discount.
For example, suppose we're speaking to a crowd that's valuable to us. Say we're a famous coffee shop owner speaking at the Annual Coffee Lover's Convention. (all fictional) This conference has exactly the audience we value as customers. If we, being savvy coffee shop owners, know our business cost of customer acquisition, and we know the response rate of an audience, we could discount our speaking fee by the likelihood of new customer acquisition from the event.
Using the previous speaking fee cap of $15,000, if 150 people are in attendance at the audience and we know from past appearances at events that we could harvest 10% of the audience as customers, and our cost of acquisition outside of speaking is $50 per customer, then we could reasonably discount our speaking fee:
- 15 customers x $50 = $750 saved in customer acquisition costs
- $15,000 - $750 = $14,250 discounted fee
If we want to kick it up a notch and we've done the hard work of calculating customer lifetime value, then we might have math that looks like this:
- Customer cost of acquisition: $50
- Customer lifetime value: $250
- Net customer value: $200
- 15 customers harvested per event x $200 net customer value = $3,000
- $15,000 - $3,000 = $12,000 discounted fee
This approach relies heavily on analytics and insights. We must know our effectiveness as a speaker in acquiring customers from events, measured with tools like web analytics, marketing automation, etc. We must know our cost of acquisition outside of speaking. We ideally would know the lifetime value of our customers. If we're speakers as a profession, we should be measuring on the number of new speaking opportunities (and their revenue value) from previous events.
It is entirely possible that an event's audience is so valuable to us from an acquisition perspective that our speaking fee should be expenses only; for virtual events, this may mean speaking entirely for free.
How do we value an event we've never spoken at before? If we understand the audience, who is at the event, we could reasonably infer our performance from previous events to similar audiences. For example, I've seen many of the same faces at B2B marketing events; I've seen many at social media marketing events. I could baseline my likely outcome from a new event based on previous similar audiences.
How to Increase Your Speaking Fee
Re-examine what speakers do for events. We provide value through our knowledge - the reason audiences attend. We also provide value through our reach, how many members of our audience we can convince to attend the events we speak at.
To increase our speaking fees, we must pull one of those two levers - knowledge or reach. We improve the value of our knowledge through continued self-improvement; however, from an event perspective, we improve the value of our knowledge through accessibility. A speaker who stays at an event for more than just their speaking slot is more valuable to the event. Consider offering knowledge packages as part of your speaking fee, such as:
- Breakfast/lunch/dinner with you (at virtual events, these would be private roundtables)
- "Office hours" / 1:1 short consultations
- Separate Q&A periods
- Book signings/author chats/AMAs (if you have a book)
Any of these activities helps to justify a higher fee because our knowledge is available to the conference's attendees for a longer period of time.
We improve the value of our reach through the growth of our own personal brands. I don't create a weekly email newsletter or daily social media and blog posts purely for the fun of it (though it is fun). I operate these channels as part of my personal brand to increase my reach and engagement, which I can then offer to conferences for additional speaking fees/fee upgrades. For example:
- Speaking fee + on-site advertising
- Speaking fee + promotional video
- Speaking fee + newsletter inclusion
- Speaking fee + social media postings
Any of these activities helps to justify a higher fee because the conference is leveraging the power of my reach to audiences they may not necessarily have access to.
There's a third hack many speakers overlook: speakers don't necessarily have to be paid by the event. Depending on your reach and network, a company can sponsor you directly to speak at an event. If you do speak on behalf of a direct sponsor, remember to disclose your affiliation per FTC guidelines, and know that some events may discourage direct sponsorships. (generally speaking, if an event is paying you, a third party shouldn't be, because it's potentially cannibalizing from their paying sponsors)
Your Speaking Fee is Your Choice
Your speaking fee is at your discretion. Offer fees commensurate with the value you provide to an event, and understand the economics of events to understand how much the event is likely not to offer.
- Say yes to events which offer an equitable exchange of value.
- Say yes to events which don't pay if you believe you'll obtain equal or greater value in other forms.
- Say yes to events you genuinely care about and want to see succeed, regardless of value.
- Say no to events which take more value than they give.
I hope this explanation of how to set your speaking fee is useful and helpful to you if you're considering a speaking career.
Disclosure: this post first appeared in 2012 and has been updated and upgraded over time. The most recent addition reflects the changed nature of events during the pandemic.
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