How To Get Paid To Speak

Many people attend lectures at events and think: “I could do better than that.” And they might be right. What they don’t realize is the ability to give a good presentation is different that earning the reputation required to be invited to give it. I write and speak for a living and get asked often how the business works. Here are the answers:

1. Create demand. The world has a surplus of people who think they can do a good job speaking to crowds.  This means the market is a demand market, not a supply market (Writing books or making music function the same way). Unless your particular story has great appeal, say perhaps because you won five gold medals at a recent Olympics, or you’ve been on a spate of talk shows lately, there is no general demand for you. This has little to do with your ability. You might be a great expert in your field and the best speaker in this galaxy, but it will require many people seeing you speak times the reputation of your abilities to spread. This can take years. It did for me. Plan to put in the time.

There is no magical “speaker circuit” waiting for you to jump on so they can pay you (the term speaker circuit comes from the 1800s when there was far less competition for entertainment). Certainly if your fame is high enough there will be many large events that want you to participate in them, but their interest in you will have to be earned.

My story of creating demand is simple. I quit my job in 2003 to try and write books. A straightforward way to promote a book is to give presentations about it. I reached out to organizations I knew and asked if I could come and speak, for free, about the book. I gave dozens of lectures. My first book sold well (selling books is harder than writing them) and so did the second. Soon I was invited to speak at places, and eventually the demand was high enough that I was paid to be a speaker. This blog helped people discover my work, and connected people who attended my lectures to my books, and people who read my books to my lectures. 1400 posts, 100s of lectures, and six books later you have what you see today.

2. People are interested in speakers for reasons other than their speaking ability. Speakers are often hired because of their story, or the value of their name, not because of their speaking talents. When someone wins the Nobel Prize, they’re asked to speak at many events, even though the Nobel Prize is awarded for reasons that have nothing to do with eloquence. This is counterintuitive, as it means people are paid to speak not for their speaking skills, but for people’s interest in their knowledge or personality. It’s unfair, but we are not a rational species. More people will come to hear Lady-Ga-Ga give a talk about the life story of Scott Berkun, than will ever come to hear Scott Berkun talk about Scott Berkun. It’s how the world works.

3. To grow interest in your work start in your profession, your school, your neighborhood, or anywhere you have credibility. Most cities have local industry groups that often have events where speakers are needed. You don’t instantly generate demand. You grow demand, starting with a niche (perhaps your profession) where you are known and respected, and grow from there. This also means you won’t be paid for awhile. Pay comes with demand. If no one is asking you to speak anywhere, why would you expect to be paid? You have to do some selling before you can do any earning. Have a website with an email mailing list so there is a way people can sign up once to follow you (Social media works too, but a mailing list has no intermediary, unlike Twitter, Facebook or other services).

4. Seek out 3 events you are qualified to speak at and introduce yourself. Organizers struggle to find good speakers. If you pick events in your community, you may even know some of the organizers. Study their event. Look at the topics, styles and speakers they tend to have. Then pitch them on a specific talk that would fit their event, with a specific title and description. Briefly (one short paragraph) list why you are qualified to speak and include a short video of you speaking at a similar event. Make it easy for them to give you a chance (don’t skip the ‘study their event’ part). If you get turned down, ask what experience you’d need to be accepted next time. Look for Ignite or Pecha Kucha events, where many speakers are needed for a single event, as first chances may be easier to find.

If you can’t find events you think you could speak at, you have two choices: give up or start your own. The latter is much more interesting. Create a better event where talented people like you who don’t fit well elsewhere can shine.

5. Do whatever necessary to be an active speaker. The more often you speak, the more speakers and organizers you will meet. If you’re active, and good, they’ll start reaching out to you. If all else fails, post a ten minute lecture of yours on Youtube every week. There is no excuse for not being active and gaining more experience.  Ask friends and speakers you admire for feedback and work to improve. The truth may be you are not as talented as you think. That’s ok. The sooner you sort this out the better.

6. In your field, how is your work known? If your work is well known, requests to speak will follow and be easier to ask for. I’ve written popular books about creativity, management and communication, which has led to demand for me to appear and speak in those fields. I know nothing about being a lawyer or a doctor, which is why I’m rarely invited to speak at the events those professions have.

7. Building an audience is easier than ever in history. Between a blog (free), a youtube account (free),  facebook and twitter feeds (free) and cell phone with a video camera (free-ish as you already have one), you can start right now showing your abilities and building interest in your ideas and talents. How much are you investing in spreading word of your work? If its near zero, the world isn’t the problem –  your lack of investment in your own talent is the problem.  People can’t find you if you aren’t trying hard to be found. If you’re good, the time invested will pay off. Your best advantage is your community and network who, if properly motivated, can help spread word of your talents.

8. Your fees are based on the market. If no one is asking you to speak, don’t worry about rates. It’s irrelevant. If you are getting asked to speak, the pay range is anywhere from $0 to $100,000 for a single lecture. There are too many variables to give a simple number. Some events only pay travel costs (e.g. TED) or a free ticket to the event. For a select few truly famous people some events pay a years salary for the average American  for a 60 minute lecture. Speakers, like many forms of talent, are paid for their value, not their time. You can ask the organizer what the average fee is for the other speakers at the event and use that as a baseline for what you’d like to be paid.

9. Most events don’t pay anyone. This forces (even famous) speakers to decide if the exposure of the event is worth not being paid (most appearances on television or radio, including premier prime time talk and news programs, are unpaid, yet most famous people gladly appear). Some events pay all speakers the same fee, others pay the keynote speakers, who perhaps have a larger role in the event, more than others. TED and other high profile events often don’t pay anyone anything, only covering travel or a free pass to the event. There are too many events for different situations for there to be a singular standard. In the end, how much demand there is for you determines what fees you will feel ok walking away from. If you are thinking long term, the opportunity to speak to any big crowd, even if it’s for less than you want, is likely a win.

For more on the business of public speaking:

[note: this is heavily modified excerpt of my previous post, how to become a motivational speaker]

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