Cheat Sheet For Hiring And Paying Professional Speakers

Rinku Sen – Pop!Tech 2009 – Camden, ME. Image by kris krüg.

Sometimes hiring and securing a professional speaker can feel like navigating a maze.

New jargon, terms, conditions and clauses can be confusing, especially if you only secure speakers once or twice a year. Dealing with a speakers bureau or agent can feel daunting. Few meeting professionals know that it is perfectly acceptable to negotiate.

Here is a cheat sheet to help you with understanding the basics of speaker fees.

Free Speaking For Exposure To The Audience

Many organizations pitch to the speaker bureau or speaker “Our audience is perfect for you as they hire many professional speakers. Most of the speakers that have spoken at our conference get spin-off business from our attendees.”

Do the professional speakers at your event really get paid spin-off business?  Do you have documentation to share with the potential speaker to prove it?

Some organizations feel that because their event is a cause, the speaker would surely want to donate their time and services. The pitch in this case is emotional, trying to move the heartstrings of the potential speaker or entertainer.

One of the things I learned from hiring so many professional speakers is that they get hundreds and sometimes thousands of offers to speak for free. Imagine them sitting down at a dinner table once a month and going through hundreds of requests to speak for free. Your request is in a pile of similar requests and the majority of those requests will be denied.

It’s time for organizations to stop trying to secure free professional speakers and start budgeting for good audience experiences. 

The Speaker’s Investment In Time, Knowledge And Experience

Here is a general rule of thumb when considering how many hours it takes a speaker to prepare a presentation. For new presentations: every one hour of presentation requires a minimum of eight hours of preparation. For topics presented before, one hour of presentation requires three hours of preparation. Webinars typically require double the amount of preparation as speakers will double the number of visuals they will use.

So how much should you pay speakers? How much should you budget to cover speaker fees?

1. Industry Speakers With Free Registration.

Identify the hard costs per person to attend your event. Calculate that amount per industry speaker that receives free registration and include it in your budget. Consider travel, lodging and expenses too.

2. Industry Speakers Known As Experts And Average Presenters

Industry insiders that are considered experts and have presentations that are rough around the edges receive from $250 to $1,000 per day. This is appropriate for people with solid content and average presentation skills. Some organizations offer a stipend to offset expenses including travel and lodging.

3. Industry Speakers Known As Experts And Great Presenters

These industry people are known as specialists and experts, who have strong messages, a well-known name in the community, excellent and fresh content, and fantastic presentation skills. They typically receive from $1,000 to $4,000 a day.

4. Rising Professional Speakers

These people make a living as facilitators, presenters and trainers. They have enough demand that they can charge a higher fee. They usually represent the best new and veteran professional speakers in their field. They often receive from $4,000 to $10,000 a day.

5. Specialty Professional Speakers On The Verge Of Marquee Status

These professional speakers have a specialty niche area or some type of new fame. They may have published several books. These speakers often receive from $10,000-$25,000 a day.

6. Marquee Names

These people are considered superstars. They are household names with some type of fame. They are not typically known for their speaking ability. Actually some of them have poor to average presentation skills but their celebrity status eclipses their inability to present. On the other hand, some of them are fantastic presenters. These speakers (examples include athletes, ex-presidents, Bill Gates, Anthony Robbins, Barbara Walters, etc.) receive from $25,000 to $300,000 to present.

Why should conference organizers at a minimum cover industry speaker registration fees? What do you think about conferences that require speakers to pay to present?


  1. says

    If you belong to the association, it’s part of giving back and visibility to speak at their events. Comping registration is a nice touch IF the association can afford it – not all can, so be kind to the ones who don’t, as the tradeoff might mean that registration fees would have to go up instead.

    If the speaker if not a member, then obviously comping the registration is pretty much expected if they normally would not attend. And face it, there are so many associations out there, we cannot afford (in time & money) to be members in them all nor go to all events.

    I would think that #3 in the list above would not normally attend the event if they were not presenting and can probably afford to pay the registration fee anyways.

    But offering a donation to a speaker’s chosen charity is a nice touch if you can’t pay their full fee – then they get the charitable deduction at least.

    It’s a balancing act – get a big name speaker and draw more attendees but those speakers do have to pay for themselves in the long run.

    Patti Pokorchak, MBA
    Speakers With Impact! +1 416-253-9974
    Making your event – exceptional, educational & entertaining — results guaranteed!

    Member of CAPS – Canadian Association of Professional Speakers
    To find the world’s leading futurists ………

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Interesting thoughts Patti. Thanks for adding them.

      You state that comping the registration is a nice touch IF the association can afford it. In your opinion, why are associations securring speakers for their event? What’s their goal?

  2. says

    I agree with much of what you are saying, Jeff, but there are a number of organizations that legitimately have no budget to hire a speaker. Whether it is because the organization has no additional funds or that the CEO just doesn’t value hiring a speaker as much as the event organizer does.

    We posted an article a while back about 12 Ways to Get Compensated for Speaking (Other Than Cash). These are win-win situations that might give organizers and speakers ideas on how to work with one another.

    Some ideas…
    – Ask for/Provide a professional quality video tape
    – Ask for/Provide a write-up in the organization’s newsletter
    – Use your audience as a source for leads.
    – How about a free weekend?

    The full article is at!—12-Ways-to-Get-Compensated-For-Speaking-%28Other-Than-Cash%29&id=1950662

    With that said, I am all for organizations paying speakers for their services. It creates a much smoother planning process before, during, and after the event. To say the least, time IS money.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Thanks for reading and adding a thoughtful post. I agree with you that there are definitely times when a speaker may see the conference as a business investment. And your ideas are definitely worthy of consideration.

      Here’s how I consider it: If I’m going to speak for free, it’s going to cost me about $1,500 for travel, lodging, expenses and registration fee for the conference. In addition to that, I’m going to invest at a minimum eight hours developing the presentation, visuals and handouts, eight hours roundtrip travel (we’ll assume I can get there in half a day) and about two hours for presenting. So I’m investing $1,500 and at least 20 hours of time.

      What is the host organization giving me in return? And is my investment of $1,500 and at least 20 hours of my time worth speaking for free? Or in exchange for one of the ways you suggested? That decision will be made differently by each speaker.

  3. says

    well jeff thank you so much for sharing this insight and expertise, i am going to read it again. this in itself should be a webinar– i hope everyone who runs an event with speakers will read this. I often find that those who wish to hire me (or any other pro speaker) have virtually no awareness of what their side of the deal consists of; most people simply lack experience, and often all they are thinking about is the lowest possible fee rather than the highest possible exchange of value. I always want to be fair, but it’s hard to be an advocate for both sides. all sorts of things can affect the fee (of course some speakers are immovable, others not): how far one has to travel, the size of audience (and therefore potential back of room book sales), the kind of profession(s) represented (and potential for deriving future business), time of year, how far in advance you are booking, are there free accommodations in a fun locale (one group got atlantis resort to donate a week’s stay as part of my fee once), and so on, these can all be factors in fee negotiation, esp if you can’t pay the retail fee.

    in others words, there are many many solutions to your speaker problems. price is (or should be) the smallest part of the relationship. pro speakers are (or should be) problem solvers– so get them involved in solving yours. If they truly believe in their message, they are eager to have any chance to share it. but if you truly believe in their message, you should be able to find a way to pay for it :-)


    • Karen J says

      Thank you, Justin, for “… hard to be an advocate for both sides”! So true.

      Also, this should be spread far and wide: “If they truly believe in their message, they are eager to have any chance to share it. but if you truly believe in their message, you should be able to find a way to pay for it.”

  4. says

    Some great comments here, and very valid points of view. It also depends where you are in your speaking career. You go from free to fee.

    I advise speakers to quote whatever it is that they feel 100% confident in charging and can say without any twinges or meek looks. Remember you can always negotiate down and add more value but you can’t go up. But you have to be in the value ballpark of similar speakers too.

    Associations book ‘big name’ speakers in order to attract more attendees to their events, even if they’re not that great of a speaker. We do live in a celebrity culture and names attract.

    Personally, I find that I get most of my long term changes through speakers that have the bio rather than the name. I relate to them more as normal human beings and I know that I can aspire to their level of success.

    How does that sound to you?

    Great discussions! Thanks.

    Patti Pokorchak, MBA
    Speakers With Impact! +1 416-253-9974
    Making your event – exceptional, educational & entertaining — results guaranteed!

    Member of CAPS – Canadian Association of Professional Speakers
    To find the world’s leading futurists ………

    • Jeff Hurt says

      I like what you said, “Often all they (meeting profesionals) are thinking about is the lowest possible fee rather than the highest possible exchange of value.” That is a great statement and your other thoughts about the factors all speakers face is perfect. Yes, we need more information and education about hiring professional speakers so everyone comes to the table informed. I also appreciate your follow-up comment to Patti. Another gold mind of insight.

      As the event professional that hires speakers and entertainers, I’ve never seen a speaker that actually sells out an association conference or event. Until someone can show me data that a marquee name drives sales for conferences, I remain skeptical. And that comes from someone who has hired the big names. I believe that its a combination of things that actually get a person to register for an event, not just a headliner.

      Thank you for adding some great insight about hiring professional speakers. I’m with you that a professional speaker’s bio can be the perfect calling card, especially when the speaker is not well known. Thanks again for your feedback. We need more exchanges like that.

  5. says

    @Patti, your comment tells the truth, and brings up something that has bothered me for a long time, and that is the nearly universal tendency to rely solely on an outside entity to “sell” an event.

    It’s actually a relatively recent phenomenon where presenters have given all power of “brand” over to guest artists and / or speakers. I see it not just in events, but in publishing and in the classical music world as well.

    Granted, if you are doing a one-time event, the name is how you sell it. But while it does take time to develop brand as an event maker, if you consistently deliver a good experience, at some point your customers will start to trust you to unearth unknown talent. It’s the long way around, but if you take the shortcut and constantly rely on big names, you will be forever in thrall to outside forces of people who HAVE taken the time to develop a brand.

    One name that comes to mind is Ed Sullivan. Many of the “acts” on Ed Sullivan were relative unknowns, but we watched the show every week because we knew we would see a lot of good stuff. Ed’s sense of the next big thing was the brand. We trusted him to spot rising talent.

    All too often I have seen the same thing in the orchestra business, where orchestras become overly reliant upon outside “star power” rather than building their own fan base.

    Once you get a “rep” for having an eye for the best new rising talent, your event can start to command its own brand identity. For a lot less money. Of course, you need to have an eye for new talent, and the guts to risk presenting them. Ah, there’s the rub.


  6. says

    jeff, this and your glossary are great stuff. i encourage you to put this all in one spot and call it, i dunno, a primer for first time hirers of speakers or some such so i can link to it on my website. it would save me a lot of time and trouble.

    fact is, in many organizations you have new hires, part timers, volunteers, or newly elected officers who have never hired anyone (much less a speaker) before. you speak with the power of experience, and a foundation of fundamentals like this would be a boon to everyone. – jl

      • Karen J says

        Hmm, my first reply evaporated?

        Does that suggested compilation post exist, Jeff? How about a link here in these Comments – *this* one is still getting traction…

        • says


          First, thank you for commenting and adding to the discussion. It is greatly appreciated.

          Second, our blog is set so that the first comment you send to us must be moderated, meaning approved. The only reason we do that is that it catches spam that got through our spam filter. Once your first comment is approved, your other comments get posted in real time.

          Third, we never really created the compilation post and put this information in one place. We recently moved our blog/website to this new site so now’s the time for us to consider it.

          I’ll talk with staff and see what our options are. It might be worth putting into a free ebook and adding some additional thoughts.

          In the interim, VCC has done research along with Tagoras in the past three years called The Speaker Report. It’s on organizations practices for industry and professional speakers. As suspected the research shows that hiring a marquee name does not lead to an increase in registration. However, it does lead to putting butts in seats onsite from those that attended.

          Thanks again!

  7. says

    What a great discussion and I wish there were more people who appreciated – for lack of a better phrase and no disrespect – the ‘no name’ speakers — the ones who aren’t quoted everywhere every time their topic comes up. Don’t you get tired of hearing from the same old MBA profs and famous authors?

    My pitch is: right speaker for the right audience. I find out what the learning outcomes are and then match the right speaker to that outcome. Pretty simple and it works.

    Example: Bill Clinton BOMBED last year here in Toronto as it was the wrong venue for him. They couldn’t give away tickets, never mind charge big $$ for them. But he’s been great at the Power Within kind of talks and audiences.

    So what you’re saying is true – relying on a big name doesn’t guarantee the success of an event.

    One of my opening keynote speakers, Warren Evans, states that he will have attendees happy that they came to the event by the first coffee break! Plus they’ll be saying that this is a must-attend event for next time too.

    Now isn’t that the kind of speaker that event planners should be looking for? And now you know how my company got named.

    As for fees – you get what you pay for! The professional speaking market is quite the democratic system – don’t you think?

    Patti Pokorchak, MBA
    Speakers With Impact!

    Follow me on Twitter +1 416-253-9974
    Making your event – exciting & educational — results guaranteed!

    Member of CAPS – Canadian Association of Professional Speakers
    To find the world’s leading futurists ………

  8. says

    I never knew speaking at a conference took that much effort and preparation time. It’s true that most people expect he speaker to do it for free. I never thought of how unfair that was until reading this article. I like that there are different price ranges for every budget.


  1. Are there any companies that specialise in helping find speakers for events?…

    Absolutely – thank you for asking. They’re called Speakers Bureaus and they’re located all over the world. They organize speakers by speaker type, topic of expertise and fee. If you can share where you’re located, you might get a bit more feedback o…

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