Getting paid to speak


(photo at TEDxConcordia by EvaBlue)

Just recently, a friend of mine asked in a group email about how to further her speaking career. Like me in 2006, she is getting asked to speak fairly frequently, but like me in 2006, she is feeling like it’s taking enough of her time and effort to start asking for remuneration for the task.

First off, with a few exceptions, I think everyone that speaks should be compensated for it. It is work and takes time to put together a good presentation. Compensation can come in the form of free marketing – say if you are the CEO of a company that is trying to get the word out, or in the form of residual income (consulting gigs). But most often (and in my case), I needed to get paid. I spent more time working on presentations and traveling to give presentations than I could consulting, so I required payment for my time.

In early 2007, I was out with a group of people and one of my favorite speakers, danah boyd, was talking about her agent. Upon further inquiry, I found out having an agent helped her get from unpaid speaker to paid speaker. So I asked her for an introduction and the rest was history. Over the next few years, I built a career speaking. I only ‘quit’ (I still do very occasional gigs if the situation is right) to do Buyosphere. But before I quit, I was commanding everywhere from $10,000-20,000 a gig. Not bad.

So, I had advice…and after I gave it, I was encouraged to post it here. So here it goes…if you want to get paid and make a career out of public speaking (assuming you are already speaking and people are responding well), here is what you need to do:

  1. Get video of your gigs. That was the first thing the agent I approached asked for. Thankfully, I had spoken at a few conferences who recorded their speakers so I had it readily available, but they will want to see your style and get proof that you are awesome (which you are, but nobody takes your word for it…and testimonials don’t count as much).
  2. Talk to people with speaking agents about their agents. When you get rave reviews, get an introduction through those people. Once again, they will ask for video. A strong slideshare showing and photos, etc. will also be helpful back up to support it. Be prepared to show them that they CANNOT pass you up.
  3. Even when people give you rave reviews, don’t sign anything until you figure out what the terms are. I got in trouble with this. Ask questions like, “What will you do to promote me and get me gigs?” “Can I book my own non-paying gigs that I want to do for a labor of love?” “How long is my contract?” Don’t sign an auto-renew.
  4. Know that for the first year of having your agent, they will probably book you into non-paying gigs. These gigs will probably cover your airfare and hotel, but not a speaking fee. Your agent will expect you to take them. Take them. You are proving to your agent that you can get good reviews and establishing yourself as someone to promote when they are approached by paying conferences. If you blow them away early, they will book you in paying gigs earlier.
  5. Know also that you will source many of your early gigs and pass them along to your agent for negotiation. This will feel like a bum steer, but your agent will get you a better deal than you would negotiate yourself (unless you are shrewd negotiator – I was not…erm…I AM not). Most of my early paying gigs came through my own promotion and leads, but my agent got me paid for them rather than not.
  6. Know that the standard rate the agent takes off of the top is 30%. You can get better rates, but 30% is pretty industry standard. I don’t know if I was selling myself short, but I always thought, “Hell, 70% of $15,000 is better than 100% of $5,000 or nothing.”
  7. Once you have shown your agent that you are totally marketable, get aggressive with your agency. I got aggressive with mine and they really pulled through. The partner at the firm flew up to Montreal to take me for breakfast and find out what I needed. Then they were booking me like crazy. I was making $15,000-20,000 a gig before I quit.
  8. Understand that $15,000-20,000 a gig is cheap for most conferences. Many of my peers were charging $75,000 a gig when I was charging $15-20k. Strive for the big rate!

I hope that is helpful. It was a lovely life that speaking life, but it was stressful and tiring and I had a dream to pursue. However, I’m glad I did it and it made me the brazen hussy I am today. But if you commit to it, you can make a really killer living at it.

And…FYI…I used to be afraid of public speaking…but that’s a whole other post.

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Categories: entrepreneurship, personal

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.

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8 Comments on “Getting paid to speak”

  1. February 10, 2012 at 02:31 #

    This is a great detailed post! Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    One question is how you deal with visa issues. For example, when you go to speak in the US, do you travel under some kind of work visa? If so, which one?

    • February 10, 2012 at 02:37 #

      I didn’t get a visa when I was speaking in the US. #1, I lived there on a TN1 from 2005-2009, so I was paying US taxes. #2, When I moved back to Canada I merely said I was attending a conference. I never got asked for any more information. It was probably the wrong thing to do though.

  2. February 10, 2012 at 05:15 #

    Inspirational for sure, saw the Steve Garfield RT. Saw SXSW tag, you speaking there?

    • February 10, 2012 at 05:18 #

      Yes! But that’s one of the ones I do for free because I love it. It’s my peeps. ;)

  3. February 10, 2012 at 15:47 #

    Dead on post my girl!!! Smart as always.

    I’ve never given a ton of thought to getting an agent and now you’ve got me pondering it.

    Hope our paths cross soon. It has been a LONG time since our little breakfast.

    • February 10, 2012 at 18:49 #

      Way too long!

  4. February 10, 2012 at 19:08 #

    This is fantastic; and your suggestions on how to approach the agent relationship in different phases really help (…haven’t worked with an agent before)!

  5. February 16, 2012 at 00:29 #

    Great post. Found you in the November INC. Magazine page 23.

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