On Getting Paid to Speak

In response to a thread on a private mailing list, a prominent woman in tech wrote this fantastic rundown of the details of getting paid to speak, including which speaker bureaus represent which kinds of speakers. We are re-posting an anonymized version of it with her permission in the hopes that with better information, more women will get paid fairly for their public speaking. Paying women fair wages for their work is a feminist act. This advice applies primarily to United States-based speakers; if you have information about international speaker bureaus, please share it in the comments!

Question: I’m interested in speaking with [members of the private mailing list] who either speak via a speaker bureau/agency, or otherwise get paid for their speaking gigs. I have done an absolute ton of speaking in the past few years (including several keynotes) and I know I’m at the level where I could be asking for money for my speaking, and I also need to reduce the amount I sign up for in order to focus on my own projects. So I’m on the market for an agency and would love to hear numbers from other folks who charge for giving talks. I know several women who ask for $1000-$2000 plus travel costs for engagement, but would love to know if that is typical or low as I definitely do know dudes who get much more.


PS this was a very scary email to write! Asking for others to value your work as work is really difficult!

Answer: I have a lot of experience with this & have done a lot of research. The main U.S. bureaus are:

  • The Leigh Bureau, which represents Nate Silver, Joi Ito, danah boyd, Tim Wu, Don Tapscott, Malcolm Gladwell, etc. Leigh tends to represent so-called public intellectuals, and to do a lot of work crafting the brand and visibility of their speakers in well-thought-out laborious campaigns. It tends to represent people for whom speaking is their FT job (or at least, it’s what pays their bills). Leigh does things like organize paid author tours when a new book comes out. Being repped by Leigh is a major time commitment.
  • The Washington Speakers Bureau: Jonathan Zittrain, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair, Katie Couric, Lou Dobbs, Ezra Klein. These folks specialize in DC/public policy.
  • The Harry Walker Agency: Jimmy Wales, Bill Clinton, Larry Summers, Steve Forbes, Bono, Steven Levitt, Cass Sunstein. These folks tend to rep celebrities and DC types: busy people for whom speaking is a sideline.
  • The Lavin Agency: Jared Diamond, Anderson Cooper, Jonathan Haidt, Lewis Lapham, Steve Wozniak. Lavin does (sort of) generalist public intellectual think-y type people, but is way less commitment than e.g. Leigh. Lavin reps people whose main work is something other than speaking.

(There are probably lots of others including ones that are more specialized, but these are the ones I know.)

I went with Lavin and they’ve been fine. The primary benefits to me are 1) They bring me well-paying talks I wouldn’t otherwise get; 2) they take care of all the flakes so I don’t have to, and they vet to figure out who is a flake; 2) they negotiate the fee; and 3) they handle all the boring logistical details of e.g. scheduling, contractual stuff, reimbursements, etc. I mostly do two types of talks:

  1. The event organizers approach me, and I send them to Lavin. About 80% of these invitations are just [stuff] I would never do, because it pays nothing and/or the event sounds dubious, the expected audience is tiny, I have no idea why they invited me, or whatever. But, about 20% are people/events that I like or am interested in, like advocacy groups, museums, [technical standards bodies], [technical conferences]; TED-x. If I really like the organizers and they are poor, sometimes I will waive my fee and just have them pay expenses. (Warning: if there is no fee, the bureau bows out and I have to handle everything myself. Further warning: twice I have waived my fee and found out later that other speakers didn’t. Bah.) If I get paid for these events, it’s usually about 5K.
  2. The event organizers approach Lavin directly, requesting me. These tend to be professional conferences, where they’re staging something every year and need to come up with a new keynote annually. These are all organized by a corporation or an industry association with money — e.g., Penguin Books, Bain, McKinsey, the American Society of Public Relations Professionals, the Institute of E-Learning Specialists, etc. I do them solely for the money, and I accept them unless I have a scheduling conflict or I really cannot imagine myself connecting with the theme or the audience. These talks are way less fun than the #1 kind above, but they pay more: my fee is usually 25K but occasionally 50K.

For all my talks I get the base fee plus hotel and airfare, plus usually an expenses buyout of about $200 a day. A few orgs can’t do a buyout because of internal policies: that’s worse for me because it means I need to save receipts etc., which is a hassle. Lavin keeps half my fee, which I think is pretty typical. In terms of fees generally, I can tell you from working with bureaus from the other side that 5K is a pretty typical ballpark fee that would usually get a speaker with some public profile (like a David Pogue-level of celebrity) who would be expected to be somewhat entertaining. The drivers of speaker fees are, I think 1) fame, 2) entertainment value and 3) expertise/substance, with the last being the least important. The less famous you are, the more entertaining you’re expected to be. Usually for the high-money talks, there is at least one prep call, during which they tell me what they want: usually it’s a combination of “inspiration” plus a couple of inside-baseball type anecdotes that people can tell their friends about afterwards. The high-money talks are definitely less fun than the low-money ones: the audiences are less engaged, it’s more work for me to provide what they need, everybody cares less, etc.

When I spoke with [a guy at one agency] he told me some interesting stuff about tech conferences, most of which I sadly have forgotten :/ But IIRC I think he said tech conferences tend to pay poorly if at all, because the assumption is that the speaker is benefiting in other ways than cash — they’re consultants who want to be hired by tech companies, they’re pitching a product, trying to hire engineers, building their personal brand, or whatever. Leigh says they’re not lucrative and so they don’t place their people at them much. The real money is in the super-boring stuff, and in PR/social media conferences.

Hope this is useful!

We certainly found it useful. Here are some additional resources which came up in the mailing list thread:

3 thoughts on “On Getting Paid to Speak

  1. Elizabeth

    Soapbox is a speaker’s rep firm that specializes in feminist speakers; they rep Anita Sarkeesian, Gloria Steinem, Catharine MacKinnon, Latoya Peterson, and Julia Serano, among others.

  2. Pingback: Cross-post: Start your own b(r)and: Everything I know about starting collaborative, feminist publications | Geek Feminism Blog

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