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Talking About Your Speaking Fee

While inquirers will very often start by inquiring about your “standard” fee, there are too many unknowns early in the exchange, and numbers have a way of locking you into a result prematurely.

On the other hand, inquiring venues want to know the cost even though they may not yet be ready to provide important information about the scope of work that cost is supposed to cover. They want to have some idea if a speaker’s fee will even be possible for them before spending a bunch of time discussing what they view as details.

Rather than talking numbers right away, a smarter approach is to find out as much as you can first. You can hold off the inquirer’s desire for a specific number by providing a range and explaining that you will convert this range to a specific quote as soon as they can answer your questions about what they want you to do.

Tell the person you are dealing with that you’ll need to be very clear on the what and when regarding all expectations of you, then you’ll need to check travel schedules, and THEN you’ll be able to give them an exact fee quote. Using a range in the meantime leaves room for additional tasks, conference schedule changes, and/or travel issues that emerge later in the process.

Usually venues want to lock down their keynoter early. The problem for the speaker is that the venue often won’t have decided at this stage the other aspects of their overall event program that would allow them to pin down exactly where and when they might find it helpful to deploy their star speaker.

This is a dilemma. There are lots of ways to maneuver to partially accommodate the desire for a fee quote without committing to a specific number you might regret later.

You should when you first provide a number range narrow your “all inquiries” range based on what you do know (more on developing your fee range below). If your range for any and all inquiries is $5K-$15K – for everything from the local to the half-way-around the world – you can probably narrow the range to $7500-$12,500 for a non-local but in-country talk.

You may also be able to tell them that you can narrow the range further with just a little more information (being specific of course), even while leaving some gaps to be filled in later.

You can also give the inquirer a firm quote for a single talk by itself, explaining that you’d be happy to extend your visit and do additional things, but these additional activities may, once they are identified and understood, require a revised quote to account for the additional time and effort.

The importance of knowing your exact schedule can be a difficult thing to get venues to understand (especially if the person you are dealing with is not an event planning professional). Most speakers are happy to add simple activities immediately adjacent to their talk if it does not impact their travel. A speaker will usually accommodate additional activities, such as receptions or book signings, that happen just before or just after a talk without any increase in fee (because the impact on their time and effort is small).

This can be challenging to work through, however, because small details can matter a lot to you but seem entirely inconsequential to an event planner. You are willing to participate in a reception at 4 pm and catch the last flight home that evening for no additional charge beyond the fee for your afternoon keynote. You would want an additional $2500 to attend the same reception at 5 pm – only one hour later – because that timing would mean missing the last flight that evening and flying home the following day. That such a minor change would require them to pay for an extra half-day of your time can be difficult for those planning an event to understand. For a speaker, on the other hand, the issue is very simple. If an event planner is going to reschedule in a way that costs you an extra half-day, that time isn’t going to be free.

Avoid Making Assumptions

Most speakers, while not saying so explicitly, will want to charge a big highly profitable business a lot more to give a talk than they would want to charge to give a talk to a local non-profit. While this is certainly a reasonable intention, it doesn’t always fit the facts. Sometimes the seemingly small non-profit will sponsor a very well funded speaker series underwritten by a major donor. You may think they cannot afford a good fee, but they can. On the other hand, you may get an inquiry from someone in a big corporation only to discover as the discussion progresses that the inquiry is from an inside-the-organization activist who, while making a difference, does not have a big budget. So hold off on jumping to conclusions, and try to find out what the actual situation is.

If the inquirer is a non-profit organization or a unit of an academic institution, you can often get some idea about whether they can afford your fee by looking at their organization. If they have a big staff, a well-known board or advisors, and past events with large and/or influential audiences and “big-name” speakers, then these things should be taken as indicators (inconclusive as they may be) that the level of speaker fee they will see as within their budget might rise to the level that you would need. This type of information can usually be found online before you even reply to their first message (or at the latest, before you have any substantial communication about your fee). It is usually smart to find out at the very beginning with whom you are dealing organizationally.

Along similar lines, it is a good idea to know (if you can) how the individual you are dealing with relates to that organization’s speaker budget. Budgets are sometimes locked, and unchangeable by the person with whom you are dealing. On the other hand, you may be dealing with someone who has both an approved overall budget AND the discretion to move money around (so long as they stay within their overall budget). While it may not be comfortable to ask about all this too directly or too quickly, be alert for clues.

Communicating Effectively

It is helpful to find out, again if you can, if you are dealing directly with the person who has the authority needed to make decisions. If the person with whom you are dealing has very limited authority, then they may simply be relaying the information you provide to someone else – sometimes to a committee – who will be making the decisions.

The quality of verbal communication from you to an intermediary and on to the decision maker(s) will often be quite poor. Your contact may not repeat accurately or effectively what you’ve said to them. In addition, they will sometimes add incorrect interpretations of what you have said, or answer the decision maker's questions incorrectly. Knowing all this can change greatly how much you rely on phone communication versus putting stuff in writing.

If you are dealing with a person with no authority, or if the person with whom you are dealing is inexperienced in working with speakers, then put your most important points in writing at each step. And, by the way, don’t take anything said verbally as being very conclusive about what level of fee their organization might be able and willing to pay.

For the uninitiated, it can come as a rude surprise to discover that the person you are dealing with not only has never done this before but can’t answer any of your questions. Nobody has told them what they can afford, what topics or interests have drawn their organization to you as a possible speaker, what other activities they might want from you in addition to your primary talk, or pretty much anything else you might want to know.

Their inability to answer obvious questions reveals their “gofer” status, and that can be uncomfortable. They know they should be able to at least give you some response to your questions, but to do so they would have to ask, and then likely wait, for real answers. So instead, they are tempted to pretend to know more than they do. They may say, “I think that fee range is workable” when in fact they have absolutely no idea if that is so. Their incentive is to keep you interested, to keep you willing to answer their questions, to keep you holding the date they want, and so on. So sometimes people will in effect string you along so they can assemble a nice looking information package, all the while having no idea if their organization will come anywhere close to your minimum fee.

Also, understand that if you are dealing with an assistant rather than a decision maker, the person who has not dealt with you is likely to feel less constrained to be considerate than if they were dealing with you directly. They will be less inhibited about changing their mind at the last minute and without explanation. The boss will just instruct the assistant, “Tell them we changed direction.” The lesson is straightforward. If you can communicate directly with the decision maker, that’s always best.

More On Using A Fee Range

So, start with a range, perhaps a big one. You can narrow the range incrementally as you better understand your scope of work and any related travel challenges (if that’s helpful to them). This way, you, and the inquiring venue, won’t discover after spending a bunch of time on other questions, that you are so far apart on fee (their maximum, your minimum) that there is not and NEVER WAS any chance this inquiry would progress to become an engagement.

Where you have significant doubts right away about whether the inquiring organization can afford your fee, you may want to provide a fee range quote earlier than you normally would just to flush out inquiries that have little chance of going anywhere. You have to balance the value of this against the value of avoiding assumptions.

Developing Your Speaking Fee Range

Think about your speaking fee range this way. If you were asked to give a talk to a venue local to you, if it was a good cause organization, if they only wanted one talk and nothing else, and if the audience and subject you could handle with very little upfront effort, what fee would make giving this talk worthwhile? Total time required of you: one half day.

At the other extreme, if you were asked to give an international talk literally halfway around the world, if the host was a large and very profitable corporation, if they wanted, in addition to a very unique talk, a half-dozen extra activities spread out over a couple of additional days, what fee would make this engagement worthwhile? Total time required of you: two advance prep days and five days for travel and on site activities.

For most speakers, the resulting range would be huge. For plenty of speakers, it could be something like $500 to $25,000. If you go through this exercise and develop your own personal range, remember that this is your private and theoretical range. When you actually quote a fee range, you should first narrow it as much as the knowledge you do possess allows.

You should never quote a range the bottom of which would be inadequate to meet your needs assuming a not-significantly-expanded scope of work. The range allows you to adjust your final quote upward to reflect the actual level of time and effort required (in addition to a primary talk), and it also allows you to factor in the viable travel options so that you can see if the venue’s schedule is going to require you to bump travel to additional days.

When you actually quote a range, say that you “generally charge a fee of between X and Y for this type of engagement.” The end points of the range you quote should shift from case to case based on the known facts. The span of the range should depend on the importance of the unknowns. The more important the unknowns, the more variation your range must allow for.

If people have heard that you’ve quoted a different range to somebody else, simply explain that your range quotes are highly varied because they are based on what you know and don’t know about each unique engagement. They are created as a transitional device to assist until the scope of work and travel issues are well enough understood to give an actual fixed number quote.

So, for an in-country talk requiring a two-hour flight, the same speaker with the theoretical range of $500 to $25,000 might actually quote a range of $5,000 - $8,000.

Clarity Regarding Topical Focus

Just as additional activities can increase the time you must devote to an engagement, so can topical requests. Initial discussions may cause a speaker to conclude that a talk can be given with minimal preparation time. Then, in subsequent discussion, the event sponsor says “oh, can you also discuss….” Requests that may seem minor to them may have a significant impact on your preparation time if you need to do research or prepare slides or other materials to incorporate the additional topical request. Just as with additional services, if these topic-related desires are known before you give a price quote, you can build them in. When they are added after the price has been settled, they can subtract from the profitability of an engagement.

Your Speaking Fee Range Applied

Once you have established your speaking fee range in theory (the absolute bottom and the top of the top), you will then have to translate this into a (usually) much-reduced range to provide to an inquirer in a particular case.

And every particular case is unique. Many comments have been offered above to keep in mind when discussing your speaking fee with an inquiring venue. Even experienced speakers are regularly “surprised” by post-agreement add-ons – a press conference, reception, meeting with leaders, pre-event meal, panel discussion, etc. The trick is to maintain a balance, both stylistically and substantively, between flexibility and attention to their needs and guarding your own time and resources carefully.

Talking with venues about your fee is an art. There are many techniques to help you deal with the process, but there is no formula. Each unique speaker must collaborate with each unique venue, and optimal agreements producing happy results for all concerned require flexibility and creativity on all sides. You will, over time, develop the techniques that work best with your personality.

Finally, there are other factors that may sometimes go into deciding your range quote and/or your final quote. Think about whether there are any special circumstances that would prompt you to consider a lower rate. For example, local nonprofits or schools might sometimes get a lower rate, or you might offer a lower rate to break into speaking on a new topic.

In addition, you may want to adjust your quote range up if you want the outcome to incorporate your intention to upgrade your flight class.

If the organization hiring you as a speaker wishes to publish your speech, post it on a website, sell or otherwise distribute audio DVDs, video recordings, or printed copies, use video clips online, or in any other way further utilize your presentation, that too is an additional service you will be providing them. The right to do these things does not automatically come with hiring you as a speaker. Under normal circumstances, you retain ownership of the copyright covering your material.

Many speakers freely grant additional usage permissions, or don’t object when they are presumed by the engaging venue, because they correctly recognize that such additional distribution of their work constitutes a benefit, and they are happy to see their ideas get this additional exposure. Also, speakers usually feel that these materials, when made available online, will help stimulate additional speaking inquires. Videos of you online giving a talk will not compete with you giving a similar talk in person.

One additional technique that is sometimes helpful is the all-inclusive quote. This refers to charging a venue one fixed amount and covering all expenses from your own funds. Using this approach, you don’t have to document your expenses (except for tax purposes) or submit for reimbursement.

Venues may not have policies covering this as such. If you are suggesting to them that an all-inclusive fee approach could be considered, you are saying that you’d just charge them for the speech and not charge them for the travel, and that your contract would not provide for the reimbursement of expenses. They won’t have a policy requiring you to submit for expenses if you don’t want to bill for your expenses.

The actual issue is whether the person you are dealing with has the authority, or can easily get the authority, to combine two line items in their budget (“speaker fee” and “travel expenses”) into one that they can then apply to your fee (with the agreement stating that you will not be entitled to expense reimbursement). What sort of expenses may or may not be required of you after you have come to this agreement no longer matters to the contracting venue.

Where this approach is workable within the day-to-day operating policies of the contracting organization, this can be a means of not leaving money on the table. The person you are dealing with may have a maximum fee and a maximum expense reimbursement allowance, and if they are kept distinct, it is very unlikely you get all of both. When you are working with someone who really wants to engage you as a speaker and who is just shy of having the funds needed to make it work, this idea will sometimes be embraced eagerly as the path to a win-win outcome.

As mentioned above, an all-inclusive fee is usually the best way, often the only way, to finesse the flight class issue.

It can also be a good way to deal with travel to other events just before or just after the event under discussion. You may finish a negotiation that allows your travel to be reimbursed back and forth to your home base, but after that deal is stuck, you may end up with travel plans that require you to travel to and/or from some very different location. That can make submitting receipts for reimbursement problematic. An all-inclusive fee can solve this problem.

Finally, conventional expense reimbursement leaves you with little if any incentive to economize on your trip expenses. With an all-inclusive fee, you keep whatever you save. This could motivate you to combine trips, stay with friends, eat more simply, or otherwise save money that you could then add to what you would take home from the engagement.

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