Navigating the World of Virtual Speaking Fees

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At this point in the lockdown, we’ve all experienced our millionth Zoom call — and the fatigue has set in. But while meetings and family get-togethers have shifted (mostly seamlessly) to Zoom and other virtual platforms, one industry that’s faced some uncertainty and confusion is also one of the most hard-hit: the event industry. And with the shift comes a lot of questions: How do we navigate the challenges of online events? What are the advantages? And, perhaps most interestingly, how should speakers be compensated during this unprecedented time? I personally have only ever done speaking engagements for exposure, and as I build a platform for myself have never asked to be paid. And in the past several months, I’ve moved several planned events to online platforms, from more informal #Connect4Women happy hours to the She4All Pitch Competition finals (a partnership between Berlin Cameron and Luminary). It was tough to get the tempo down and figure out my setup at first, but I’ve gotten more used to hosting as the pandemic has worn on.

And yet, the pressing issue of speaking fees keeps coming up in conversations. Because an online event might be different than an in-person one, but still requires plenty of preparation (and different KINDS of preparation) than a live speaking gig: You have to consider everything from your lighting and camera placement to how to handle the chat function to how to pass the baton to speakers or audience members with questions — often with very little in terms of eye contact.

“The speakers who come across well virtually aren’t necessarily the ones who do well on-stage,” advertising guru Cindy Gallop told me in one of the conversations that sparked the idea for this article. “They’re entirely different skill sets.”

So how should speakers and companies navigate these new waters? After chatting with several industry professionals on both sides of the equation, here’s some advice for both.

FOR SPEAKERS 

Know your worth. Negotiating a fee is ALWAYS a tricky situation, whether it’s IRL or a Zoom event. “The only way to get paid to speak is to refuse to speak unpaid,” Gallop says frankly. She also adds, Now that we’re being bombarded with virtual everything, the winners will be people who deliver quality speakers and quality content – the cream will rise to the top.”

Think about why you’re doing the event. Sometimes brand exposure, or gaining new customers, might be a higher priority than the speaking fee itself. “Is it more valuable to get the exposure, or the extra $1,000?,” Vanessa Bennett, founder of Dynamo Girl, asks. “People in different industries will answer that differently. Sometimes, if I speak for less but I gain 500 people for my newsletter, expanding my reach might be more valuable than the cash that I’m negotiating over.” Jennifer Justice, founder of the Justice Department, adds, “The best negotiation position is the ability to walk away. Figure out why you’re doing it, and if you really do need the exposure, the conversation is over. But if they’re paying other people, they should be telling you that.”

Consider all of the factors. “Personally, I think that speaking fees can be complex,” says Kristy Wallace, the CEO of Ellevate Network. “I always factor in 1) how much work is going into the development and practice for my presentation 2) will the speaking opportunity benefit me in other ways such as brand exposure or new clients and 3) will the speaking engagement benefit organizations that are mission-aligned to my values.”

Approach your negotiation honestly, but with empathy.  “Remember that the event organizer is having a very difficult time as well. You’re already dealing with people who are under stress because this is not what they had envisioned,” says Laura Mignott, founder of the experiential agency DFlash. “Open with a degree of empathy. As someone who produces events, if someone asks how I’m doing, you’re going to get a better response.”

Know your limit. “Sometimes if I do a certain number of pro bono a year, I’ll say I’ve reached my max because I can’t do them all for free,” says author and speaker Erica Keswin. “I then try to think of some alternatives: The company can buy books or share the email list. Those things can have real value.”

FOR COMPANIES

Quality content should come with a price. As with anything, you get what you pay for — and high-quality speakers translate to high-quality content. “Companies need to think about what they’re normally compensating for, and how much they value the content,” Bennett says.

If an event is sponsored, that makes more of a case for paying your speakers. If I have a sponsor that is paying for the event, I will pay the speakers before I put any money into our own pocket.  Sometimes it’s a struggle to get sponsors to really pony up beyond the hard costs of an event. Since those hard costs don’t exist now that events are virtual, speakers for sponsored events should be compensated.

Be thoughtful about your virtual events. The landscape has changed, so your event should, too. As Gallop says, “This is not about taking events and just throwing them online, it’s about rethinking about how to engage with your audience.” And just because an event is virtual doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable. “There’s no excuse that you’re diminishing content because it’s on Zoom,” Mignott says. “If you heard Meg Whitman on Zoom, is it any less impactful? Your accessibility to the speakers is actually a little bit closer when the events are curated carefully.”

In a couple of months, the conversation may change. “I’m perfectly fine with a reduced rate or honorarium right now, but if we have this conversation three or six months from now, we really need as an industry to start honing in on the rates,” says Keswin. “Right now speakers are being flexible because we’re coming from a standpoint of survival. The world is starting to go back to normal, but the speaking world isn’t.”

Now more than ever is the time for inclusion. “Everyone’s at home, so you can’t say you couldn’t get a hold of a particular person,” Mignott says. “The smart brands know that inclusion and diversity are a cultural imperative when people are at their most vulnerable. The talks should be reflective of that.”


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