How Should You Compensate Event Speakers?

By • August 6, 2021

This post originally appeared on

It’s often said that people fear public speaking more than death. But the public speaking circuit, which dates back to the pre-Civil War era, is a robust industry. Some speakers with a strong personal brand can command six figures for a single speech! If a six-figure fee seems absurd, you’re not alone. Many organizations balk at speaker fees because they cannot justify it. Or they simply don’t have the budget to pay that kind of talent for appearing at an upcoming conference or meeting.

However, outstanding speakers are worth their price in terms of the benefits they confer on your event and your organization. Their reputation on your event schedule can increase ticket sales and lend more clout to your organization. Wondering where to start when it comes to paying speakers? Let’s review some common questions about event speaker compensation:

Do I have to pay all my speakers?

The speaker budget should be based on your event’s goals and target attendee numbers. Ask yourself the following:

  1. What’s the event’s purpose: Education, networking, entertainment, or something else?
  2. What type of speakers and program will help me achieve my attendee goal?

If you’re hosting an education-focused event that features dozens of speakers and presenters, it may not be feasible to compensate everyone. But conferences where networking and business meetings are the main draw and presentations are secondary might feature a handful of speakers. In those cases, paying for speakers could be more realistic – and paying those few would likely net your event better talent.

There are several good reasons to pay at least some of your event’s speakers. Famous speakers, whether they’re household names or industry-specific leaders, sell more tickets. Everyone likes being able to say they shook hands with (or were at least in the same room as) a celebrity. Attendees want to learn from the best. They want to feel entertained. They want to network with like-minded peers. A celebrity speaker will draw a large audience for all those reasons.

Famous brands also sell tickets. An individual might not be well-known in your industry. But if the company they work for is, that brand, along with its reputation for excellent work, can convince more people to attend your conference in hopes of learning something from a company that has it together.

If your organization is asking someone to deliver a keynote or a longer workshop-style session, you should consider compensating them. Keynotes and longer sessions usually require more preparation. Most professional presenters say they spend 10x the length of their speech practicing. These top-billed speakers are putting in many hours before they’re up on stage.

What if I can only afford a small honorarium?

If a speaker is asking for compensation and your association can only afford a modest amount, offer it anyway. The worst they’ll say is no, thank you. Or they might accept your offer. Speaker culture encourages presenters to ask for compensation, notes Kayal Rajendran, director of content for Digital Summit. “It’s an attitude of, ‘You need to at least ask. You need to know if it’s an option so you’re not leaving money on the table,’” she says.

Why would people speak for free?

It’s likely you’ll get some pushback for not providing speaker compensation. In these cases, it’s important to remind speakers that they’re building a reputation as a thought leader and generating quality leads by being on your stage. Most speakers will appear for these reasons.

If someone wants to expand their brand or business, they’ll often agree to speak without compensation. Otherwise they’d have to pay for the marketing they receive from appearing at your event. Others speak to fund passion projects or causes. Every potential speaker has a “why.” If not paying them is their dealbreaker, then that’s their dealbreaker.

Your organization has a “why,” too. It could be providing quality education for your attendees or drawing a large, profitable crowd your event. If your “why” matches up with your speakers’, you can offer a great schedule.

What else could I offer if the speaker says they must be paid to speak?

There are other ways to compensate your speakers. Many presenters will speak without a fee if the event will help them market their business or build their personal brand. People bestow a lot of credibility to those on a stage with a microphone! By hosting a speaker, your organization is saying, “We think this person is smart enough to teach you.”

You could cover the speaker’s travel and accommodations so they’re not incurring any costs to speak at your event. You could get creative with benefits like speaker-only invitations to meals or time with your CEO/executive director. Offer membership in your organization. Consider a barter agreement for a speaker to also be an event sponsor who co-markets the event to their community if your event fits that audience. Just ensure the benefits you offer are appropriate to the speaker’s line of work and needs.

Should we be honest about how we compensate speakers?

Yes. Speakers talk! They’re transparent with one another as they navigate the speaking industry. Your association should be transparent about your budget and process, too. Tell every speaker you consider hiring what your ability to compensate is. Be upfront about what you can afford regarding speaker fees, accommodations, a combination of both or something else. If someone finds out you shorted them on benefits you gave another speaker, you’ll tarnish your reputation and have trouble filling presenter roles at future events.

What if people want to pay us to speak at our event?

Be open to sponsored sessions! Your organization could earn some useful non-dues revenue for your mission. There are a few caveats to keep in mind about sponsored sessions, however. You must ensure their topics are relevant to your audience and that the session is not one big sales pitch. Work with a sponsored speaker ahead of your event to review their presentation and content. It’s not too much to ask to see their slides or other visuals along with a detailed outline of their speaking points. Your content standards for them should be the same as your non-sponsored sessions.

Limit the number of sponsored sessions so your attendees don’t feel like your event is “bought” or a marathon sales pitch. Restricting the number of sponsored presentations allows your association to charge a higher price for each one, too.

Should we work with a speaker agency?

Speaker agencies can help your organization find a dazzling speaker whose message perfectly resonates with your audience. When working through an agency, talk with the speaker before contracting with them so you can ensure their content and style is appropriate for your audience. Know that when working with an agency, you may end up paying more for a speaker because speaker agencies charge a fee for their services.

What’s the going rate for conference or meeting speakers?

That depends on a few factors including who you want to speak, when, and where. Vario offers this thorough breakdown of the costs associated with hiring a speaker for your event. Hiring someone with more speaking experience or celebrity will cost more. Their travel and accommodation expenses plus whatever A/V needs they request for audio or visuals will also increase your bill. Still unsure what popular speakers cost? This list from Priceonomics is a few years old but estimates the fees for hiring retired politicians, current businesspeople, athletes or other celebrities to speak.

Fairly compensating speakers takes thoughtful planning and an open mind about all the benefits your event can offer potential presenters. There are several ways to pay for speakers’ talent, time and effort. Consider all your options and your budget. Be transparent about your process. With the right combination of talent and budget, you will find your perfect lineup.


About The Author

Kelly Clark is the manager for online marketing at Naylor Association Solutions. Reach her at [email protected].