How to pick a great speaker: the compensation I (6)

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Tony Blair - World Economic Forum Annual Meeti...World Economic Forum via FlickrShould we compensate our speaker and how much? (1)

One of the hottest issues we encounter – both in our talks with professional speakers and our clients – is the matter of compensation. Of course, we are running a speakers’ bureau, make a living from a percentage of the speakers’ fee, but the market for professional speakers is much bigger and it makes sense to differentiate between different groups of speakers. Not in all cases getting a paid speaker is the best solution.
We divide the market in three larger segments: 1. the market for speakers who pay to speak; 2. the free speakers; 3. the paid speakers.

You might have started to laugh, when you read that some speakers are willing to pay to speak, but for some event organizers this is a serious business model. What you have to do is create an event with an audience that is so interesting for – mostly – companies, service providers, law firms, auditors that they are willing to pay sometimes huge fees to address that audience.
Now, this fine as long as it works for all the stakeholders involved. But all too often I have attended this such conferences (as a journalist I got often free access) where the quality of the speakers was less than sensational and the audience was bored to death with promotional talks. Even more often, the audience was regularly not the one that was promised to the speakers. The organizers would then not only collect speakers’ fees, but also fees from sponsors in all sorts of degrees.
I trust that both other market segments are more interesting for the readers of this entry. When you are organizing an event and looking for a speaker, you have to make a clear choice for either of them, both have huge advantages and disadvantages that go beyond finance only.

Many of the speakers would share they knowledge and experience for free. That is not because they do not want to be paid, but because they cannot ask for money. That might be for a range of reasons. Let’s first look at the top-end of this market, say, the celebrity market.
The former British prime-minister Tony Blair can be an excellent speaker if he is really into it, but he could not ask for a compensation when he was still in office. When he left he joined the Washington Speakers Bureau and can ask for a fee. That is mostly a rule for public speakers belonging to governments or larger companies: when in office, they are for free.
It is of course great when you can get the Shanghai mayor Yang Xiong to deliver a speech at your conference, especially his appearance alone means so much more than what he is actually going to say. There are some drawbacks too. First, these people are very, very hard to get. You would need to have an excellent case to convince them to come. That counts double for Chinese politicians, who have over the past few years become very careful in accepting invitations from companies or otherwise events that even could have a commercial smell. Corruption might still be a problem in China, but unlike the booming 1990s politicians take much more care to keep their reputation spotless. Even the possible suggestion that money is changing hands, might be enough for politicians to back out.
A second problem in this league – and that goes beyond the politicians – is that of the “no-shows”: your main speaker does not show up. My feeling is that the problem in China is bigger than elsewhere, but that might be because if have seen so many desperate event organizers who have to tell their audience, they have a problem. People’s priorities shift so fast here in China, it is very hard to stay on the top of anybody’s priority list for a longer period of time.

“No-show” is much less a problem in the lower leagues of less famous speakers and you would need more often need them. How often are you thinking about inviting the British Queen-mother for a key note? In stead of the Queen-mother, you can invite her representative, the ambassador. There is a whole league of excellent speakers, who are happy to give their presentation for free, because their and your motives are compatible. They might see in your audience a group of potential clients. Or they have already a relationship with our company, as a supplier, a service-provider or even customer. They are often all to happy to solidify an existing relationship and there is no reason why you should not use that trigger if it is available.
Another category are the so-called membership organizations, chambers of commerce, business association, but also neighborhood committees who would combine a smallish budget with excellent resources of expert members, who can be gently blackmailed into giving presentations for free. A lot of these membership organization have a basis in sharing knowledge and experience and they would mostly rely on their membership and only in exceptional cases rely on external speakers.
In many of these cases, the market value for these speakers would be rather low. When they would ask for a fee, the market would disappear. These meeting are just to valuable to let them disappear for financial reasons alone.

(In edition 7: more reasons to pick a paid speaker.)

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