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How to ask to get paid to speak

Spoken Nerd

New speakers often feel awkward about asking for a speaker fee, and some conference organisers take advantage of this by not offering you one. Some don’t even offer reimbursement for your travel costs.

They’ll continue to do this as long as we still accept it – so here’s my advice for making sure you’re properly remunerated for your time and effort.

First of all – here’s how I would respond to someone inviting me to speak at a conference :

Hi xxxx,

Thanks so much for inviting me to speak at xxxx conference, it looks like a great event and I'd love to be a part of it.

My fee for 2014 is £xxx, plus travel and accommodation, with payment in full 14 days before the event. If that works for you then let me know and I'll book it in.

kindest, 

Sometimes they’ll come back saying that they don’t have budget, or make you an offer. It’s at that point that I ask, very directly, usually in one sentence.

What is the capacity and ticket price for the event?

I usually don’t even put any niceties around this question, which may come across as a bit mean, but I like to think it makes me sound confident. Some simple maths will then enable to you figure out if they can really afford you or not.

Bear in mind that conferences are very expensive to run. That said, spending £100k on a venue and then not paying speakers is a choice, not a lack of budget.

Trying it on

Many, many conferences will put pressure on you to accept a lower fee, or no fee. They’ll tell you that it’ll be a great opportunity for you, or ask if your company will cover the costs. Please do not accept this. Any professional conference should be able to pay their speakers.

Some are so cheeky that they’ll tell you that you’re saving the price of the entry ticket. Like you would ever pay for a ticket if you’re a speaker! This is guaranteed to make me mad.

How much to ask for?

This is probably the hardest question. I think an absolute minimum would be around £200 – at this point it’s more an honorarium than anything else and it’d probably cover your extra expenses – airport transfers, meals, incidentals etc. So you’re still not really getting paid.

Any decent conference should offer all of their speakers around £500 – £1000. Higher profile speakers can get £2000 – £5000 (I’m somewhere in this range). So-called ‘web celebrities’ could get more than this, maybe up to £10,000. And famous people (like Wozniak) could get many times more than this.

Non-profit

Some organisations are non-profit events, running reasonably priced conferences. I’m much happier to negotiate down or even waive my fee for those events. But always ask about the nature of their non-profit status.

Some conferences are run at a loss by a company that is none-the-less gaining huge benefits and exposure. You can be pretty sure that the organisers are getting their usual salary – so why should you do it for free?

And look out for events that have major corporate sponsors.

So check the ticket prices, nature of the organisation, and what happens to the profit if there is any, then make a judgement on that.

Community events

Some conferences are genuine community events that are run by passionate people and low ticket prices. Often they’ll be able to at least cover your expenses, but sometimes in exceptional circumstances, I’ll support these events by paying my own way.

Reaching out

Naturally most of this assumes that the conference has contacted you, and this does put you in a stronger position. If you have to reach out to events, then you may have to sell yourself a little harder, and compromise a little more. But having the confidence to ask for a fee is also part of marketing yourself and makes you look professional.

You are the product

Please remember that you are the product that conferences are selling. So it is more than fair that you get some of that income for the considerable time and commitment that you are investing.

Just say no

When I was starting out I would do any event if my costs were covered. I think I did 50 events one year! These days I insist on getting paid for my time so I speak at fewer events – I have to refuse bad offers. But that’s OK, it’s a natural filter.

There are really really nice ones

Please don’t think that all conference organisers are horrible – there are probably just as many really well-run friendly conference organisers.

Speaking is a fantastic chance to share what you’ve learned and meet your peers. I absolutely love it and would recommend it to anyone who likes to talk. Good luck!

[UPDATE] Also check out this great post by Jenn Lukas on how to set your speaker fee.

17 replies on “How to ask to get paid to speak”

I love this post.

> Like you would ever pay for a ticket if you’re a speaker!

THIS drives me crazy. The confs that make speakers pay for a ticket, is out of control. I get if it was product pitch stuff, but UGH. Those are terrible! I’ve seen it a lot in Higher Ed conferences. So freaking lame.

Thanks Jenn! I think I could have been clearer – what I meant to say was that I hate it when conferences say “We can’t pay you but you’ll get a free ticket!” like it’s a benefit.

Thankfully it’s very rare to actually be expected to pay for your ticket as well (although more common in academic circles apparently – weird!).

DANG!!!!! Some conference organizers make speakers pay for their own conference pass? WOW! I am speechless. They should be running a conference. At Circles, speakers never pay for their travel, lodge and pass. Plus, if you have spoken before, then it’s most likely you will never have to pay to come to a future event unless you just feel like you need to support the conference.

From my experience in academia (astrophysics), yes, even speakers pay the conference fee. However, this is generally out of a dedicated budget or grant, so we don’t pay out of pocket unless we attend an unusually large number of conferences.

Also, it’s worth noting that at these conferences, typically half-ish of the attendees are also speakers. It’s really quite a different scenario from other conferences.

We have been asked to speak at a conference. Unfortunately my partner agreed before I had the chance to ask the “reimbursement”. We get a CREDIT towards our registration fee for each talk. In the end WE have to pay. We lose 3 days of work here at our office (so potential business and customers) plus pay ourselves for travel, and lodging and we still have to pay. When I spoke at great lengths to the conference gal about it, she was shocked. She said many presenters said they didn’t want paid or have their registration discounted in anyway, they were GLAD TO DO IT. I ended really sounding like the bad guy.

YOu pick my brain, you pick my pockets. Suckers work for free. Is the party conference planner getting paid? THeir boss? Spare the “exposure”/”visibility” nonsense–all an greenhorn come on to attract low-tier “talent” and saps willing to work for free–as if someone in the audience will hire you based on that oh so amazing chat. Listen to Harlan Ellison–pay the writer speech–spot on! Spare the academic, “non profit” fuddy duddy free/gratis nonsense. Look at their 990 tax forms–many have tons of money, 6 and 7 salaries for “directors” CONsultants, etc…they certainly have money. Do they pay the food, the venue, the AV, the marketing, yet NO money for the most impt element–CONTENT?! Spare the non–profit schtick. WHen their non -profit toilet clogs up, do they send in the free plumber? And, NO travel/accomodation do NOT count as the remuneration. That is part of it in addition to the fee for creating, refining, delivering a great chat and being peppered with tons of questions afterwards. Most of whom are freebie/moochers looking for free this, that the other, with NO intention of payment of drawing up an MOU.

Seb this is a great post – for what it’s worth, the first time I got paid to speak, it was by accident. You can read the story here (I think it’s pretty funny actually): //speakingontheside.com/becoming-a-public-speaker/ [Editor’s note – warning, book plug here 🙂 ]

I think you are definitely proposing the right attitude. If you do the math (or the maths, if you’re in Britain 😉 it takes a *lot* of time to prepare a speech, practice it, travel to the event, etc. when you could be doing other things. Speakers need to recognize their time is valuable and should be compensated.

This can be very overwhelming and scary, though, which is why your suggestion of starting small and working up in fee makes sense. That’s how I did it and moved from smaller fees to “medium” fees. Also, when you turn down a very small fee or a free conference ticket, the confidence boost you get can be very powerful – and spur you to get paid to speak the next time. -Jeff Greene

Hey Seb,

Did you not get to the point where people are prepared to pay you by first appearing for free, then building up experience and contacts? You are an engaging speaker so it is worth paying you to speak. I on the other hand and still a fledgling speaker and probably won’t be paid.

Regards,
Jez

Hey Jez, see the paragraph “Reaching out”. There were exceptions but on the whole I would at least get my costs covered. I think having the confidence to ask that is a good way to market yourself.

I’m not an academic, my point of view is as a professional speaker speaking at industry conferences. I find academic conferences a bit of a racket but I don’t really know anything about them to be honest.

There’s definitely a difference between academic and non academic conferences, and a big grey area in between.

High profile academic conferences are a way to disseminate your results and build your reputation. It can be a real privelege to speak at them, and everyone is expected to pay. Others not so much. And if you’re at the top of your game giving the keynote, you can usually get an honorarium. Some base their business models on offering everyone a chance to speak, and getting them to pay.

The rule is if you are invited to speak, ask about funding. If you apply to speak, you will be expected to pay. If you are invited and expected to pay, laugh that out of town.

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