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Why ‘never speak for free at events’ is bullshit

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Every now and then, a recurring tweet shows up in my timeline. It will be someone complaining about being asked to speak for free at events and doing it ‘for the exposure.’ These complaints usually get a lot of support in the form of likes, retweets, and people replying “You should NEVER speak for free!”

I don’t agree at all. That’s why I’d like to offer a different perspective on things and explain why ‘exposure’ can be worth it and the upside of speaking ‘for free.’

But first, why is my perspective worth sharing? Because I’m both a paid speaker who refuses to speak for free, and I’m an event organizer who asks speakers to… speak for free.

Does that sound like a contradiction? Let me explain why it isn’t.

The wonderful and opaque world of speaker fees

Let’s begin answering a fundamental question: how much does hiring a speaker actually cost? Frustratingly, there’s no single answer except: “it depends.”

The fee I charge for my speaking gigs is plus or minus 100 thousand euros. That’s not ±100K, but between -100K and +100K.

That’s right. I’ll happily pay 100K to have a 5-minute speaking slot in the middle of an Apple keynote next to Tim Cook.

But, what if you want me to speak on a different continent in two days for an oil company, about a subject I’ll have to do a lot of research for? And for an audience that would rather be somewhere else? Yeah, I’ll probably ask to be paid at least 100K.

So my speaker fee ranges from -100K to +100K depending on the circumstances. The same goes for pretty much every paid speaker in the world — including you.

What about a professional speaker whose profile clearly states, “My speaker fee is 100K”? Well, I can assure you that’s not the fee they get — or even demand — every time they speak, because it all depends on the circumstances.

Of course, there are hundreds of personal factors that influence a speaker’s fee, but these are some of the most common questions that I’ve seen affect people’s decisions:

  • Is it a 100% new talk or one I already did?
  • Is it a 20 person audience or a 1000 person audience?
  • Is the audience a group of students or the board of a Fortune 500 company?
  • How busy am I that week?
  • Am I promoting myself or the company I’m invited by?
  • Is it close to my home?
  • Is it outside my regular work hours?
  • Is the event about a topic I like?
  • Is it a private or open event?
  • Is it one talk or is there a chance I’ll be invited more often?
  • Is there a chance my company will end up doing business with this company?
  • Do I like the company that’s asking me?
  • Will I learn or gain something by attending this event?

When I’m invited to speak at an event, my agent calls them and tries to figure out the deal. She’s aware of my preferences and knows which events I like and which ones I’d rather avoid. 

She has access to my schedule and knows that if it is an interesting event, outside working hours, close to my home, and one that I don’t have to prepare for, I’m more willing to charge a lower price. 

But if she knows the talk will be an energy drain, for a company I don’t like, in a week where I’m busy, in a place I don’t like going to, she will know to quote them a higher price than usual.

It really does depend

One time I got asked to speak at a corporate event, and their budget was about 25% of what I would ask in similar circumstances. 

So did I decline? No. 

What I got instead of my normal fee was a guarantee that I would be backstage for an hour with their CEO. This was a Fortune 500 company, and the prospect of having real one-on-one time with their CEO for an hour was worth more to me than money.

At our next conference (TNW2021, September 30 to October 1 in Amsterdam, be there!) we’ll have close to 200 speakers on stage — but we get about 5000 applications from people who want to speak.