The cost and potential of speaking engagements

Unless you are already mind-bindingly successful and in demand as a speaker, don’t count on being able to get people to pay you to show up and speak… or even speak for free.

Every client I have ever had makes one request that can never be satisfied: Obtaining speaking engagements.

It’s not that it cannot be done, but that the client either lacks the patience or resources to make fulfilling that request possible. So I thought it might be a good time to actually put down how those engagements actually happen.

First, one needs to understand that speaking engagements are generally offered 6 months before the event actually happens because events just don’t start spontaneously. Most of the planning stages begin the day after the event last occurred, subject matter is decided upon and the search for participants in the program begins. Who is chosen to participate generally comes down to the following:

1. Sheer luck.  

This occurs when a person originally selected to speak has to bow out at the last minute and there are no other options immediately available. I recently placed a client in an opportunity that literally arose 5 days before the event. We had to quickly put together a presentation that shoehorned the client’s technology into a narrow application and, while the talk was generally well received, several of the attenders made a point during Q&A to say that the technology really didn’t match the subject matter. It was an acceptable alternative to the organizers because they had a hole to fill. This doesn’t happen often. In fact it may never happen for a client. Don’t count on it.

2. The speaker is very well-known and in demand. 

One of the deciding factors on who gets to speak is that the main speakers will attract more people to the event. For example, Thomas Dolby, a musician and producer popular in the 1980s, was chosen as a speaker at a tech conference I went to a couple of years ago. He received a pretty good check and had all his expenses covered by the organizers for coming to the event and talking about how he had pioneered electronic music. It was a good talk, but he was well known by the crowd and was quite entertaining. The room was packed and enthusiastic. I have had clients that became well known after a few years int he business, but by then we had moved on to other clients. 

Unless you are already mind-bindingly successful and in demand as a speaker, don’t count on being able to get people to pay you to show up and speak… or even speak for free.

3. You have a non-promotional presentation of significant value to attendees of the event.

Many conferences invite people to submit ideas for presentations to a review committee. The committees receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of applications, but can choose only a few dozen. Those applications are screened for promotional material and technical importance. You also have to get by the bias inherent in the selection process, much of which will be run by people you compete with. 

I’ve been involved in this process with a dozen different organizers. One of them has the person in charge of PR for the event on the committee. This person also represents several companies that exhibit at the event. Unsurprisingly one or two of those clients gets a speaking slot every year. So most of the selections in these events have more to do with politics and money than merit. That brings me to …

4. Money, money money, money.... MONEY!

At one time, a keynote address was only one slot in the schedule. It was a coveted slot and events would labor to find someone who would do the entire industry proud. Then the organizers came to realize that the keynote was also something that CEOs of corporations would pay a great deal of money in order to get the slot.

Did you ever wonder why Bill Gates was always the keynote speaker at Comdex/CES? It’s because Microsoft always bought the largest exhibit booths. Apple also had several keynotes at Comdex before they backed out in favor of their own events, but one of the reasons they never came back was because they thought they were high enough that they shouldn’t have to pay. 

Microsoft has also downscaled their participation in CES, which is why Intel, with it’s large presences, got the keynote this year. So when it comes to speaking slots, money talks and innovation walks.

That doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money at an exhibit to get a speaking slot, but you will get more opportunities to speak when you buy exhibit floor space or sponsorships.

From this we can determine whether your PR/marketing folks can get you a speaking engagement:


  1. Highest potential - Fame and fortune. No cost but you probably don’t qualify 

  2. High potential - Pay your way onto the program 6 months in advance. Could as much as $100,000 so you have to determine if the value of the opportunity is worth that much. 

  3. Crap shoot - Submit a non-promotional tech presentation. Increase the odds by buying space or sponsorships. Ask if it is worth it first.

  4. Lottery ticket - Last minute program addition. No cost but highly unlikely.


So let me wrap this up. Speaking engagements are a good way to raise visibility, but they are not cheap or even free. If you have limited resources it may not be the best course. If you are good at speaking a better option is podcasting. If you have engaging content and aren’t selling stuff, you have a good chance of building an audience. If not, at least you will have made your CEO feel good about himself, and some days, that’s important.