How to negotiate your speaking fees and get hired

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

I’m a terrible negotiator.

Either I give away the farm (“Why Yes, I’d love to fly red-eye to North Dakota and speak for free to 80 dairy farmers.”)

or stick to my guns and end up with nothing.

But other times, and with a bit of creative negotiation, there’s an opportunity to make it work for both you and the client.

In my BOSS (Business Of Speaking School) speaker training program I cover 8 ways to negotiate with your client. Some simple, some require you to have product – all possible.

Before I get to those, let’s have a look at mindset.

Either way, I win

My father used to say the best time to buy a house is when you don’t need it. At the time, that made about as much sense as “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains.”

What he meant was a desperate buyer (or seller) is a poor negotiator. On the other hand, if you believe whether you get the deal, or don’t, you win, you’re likely to negotiate harder.

Enter the empty calendar syndrome.

Empty calendar syndrome

In BOSS we talk about the “empty calendar syndrome.” It goes like this…

Your prospect is asking for a deal. You’re looking at an empty calendar and thinking how amazing it would be to, say, eat three meals a day.

So you take whatever their offer.

But, let’s be clear – it might be that was the best deal possible. Certainly, I’ve spoken many times for free or for a nominal amount, simply because the client didn’t have a bigger budget and I wanted to speak to that audience (see below how to make up your fee with book and handout sales.)

The trick to avoiding the empty calendar syndrome is to create a campaign calendar, complete with time blocked for travel and holidays, attending conferences, and campaigns to promote your business (I’ll cover that strategy in a future post.)

For now, let’s talk about your fees and fee integrity.

Fee integrity

Imagine you really need a new car. You’ve decided the model and head to the showroom. After listening to how wonderful it is (“It has real, fake leather seats!”), the salesperson announces the price.

You love the car, but not the thought of Ramen noodles for the next 3 years, so you grimace and start to walk away.

“Okay, okay,” sales the now-desperate salesperson, “let’s take $3,000 off that price—will that work for you?”

Suddenly, the sticker price is meaningless–”the price” is now an over-inflated, artificial amount open for negotiation. That’s what happens when you mess with your fees.

Fee integrity means you don’t mess with your fee, but if push-comes-to-shove and you need to drop your fee, you get something in return.

With fee integrity and your “Either way I win” mindset firmly locked in, let’s look at 8 ways to negotiate your fees (in each case I’m assuming a $3,500 fee.)

8 ways to negotiate your fees

  1. Multiple bookings

Perhaps the easiest negotiation is a volume discount on multiple bookings. Like most businesses, it’s to our advantage to get more sales from one client, so we discount the additional bookings.

For example, if you discount your second presentation (on Day 2 of the same event, or for some future date) by 20%, your overall discount is just 9% (Ah, the magic of percentages.)

  1. Include a breakout

One strategy I use frequently is to include a breakout (or “concurrent”) session. Clients love this option – they don’t have to hire and pay travel for an additional speaker and delegates get to go “deeper” on your content.

I only do this if the keynote and breakout are on the same day – if on the next day, I charge my full fee again, or, if necessary, offer a discount à la #1, above.

  1. “Sponsor” the event

Here’s an odd one. A prospect wanted me to keynote at their conference and over a period of some 4 months she would call with an update. Finally, the client called to confirm the booking but added she would have to find another sponsor to cover part of my cost. If she could do that, we were good to go.

I know how hard it can be to find sponsors and I didn’t want another month to go by only to discover she’d been unsuccessful and I lost the booking.

So I called her back to announce I would be her “sponsor”! I would agree to pay $1,000 to sponsor the convention, I get paid my full fee (remember fee integrity?) and all the ducks are happy.

At that event, I sold enough books and licenses to my Time Freedom Formula course that I made up double the sponsorship amount.

  1. Shared travel

Travel is expensive. Even though I slum along in economy (unlike colleagues who insist on business class), a typical bill comes in at $800-$1,000. When I get push-back from a client on fees I sometimes offer to “share” travel expenses – often to the tune of 50% shared –  I might justify it by saying I have other clients I can work with in the area.

While it won’t be a deal breaker for their overall budget, it’s one way to give up a little without losing much.

  1. Sell books in advance

I know most audiences will buy my book, but what if everyone walked away with a book? On a couple of occasions I have pre-sold books for all the delegates in lieu of a fee. I still charge travel, shipping and taxes, but no fee. Here’s how it works.

Assuming you did a typical self-published book printing, your cost per book is about $1.50 to $2.50 per book. Let’s assume 200 delegates, that’s a cost of $500 at $2.50/for everyone to go home with your book.

Retail on those books is, say $20, so their cost, before shipping and taxes, is $4,000  (clients always think of book prices at list price, never as the cost of manufacturing: if it’s priced at $20, they’re prepared to pay $20.)

Voila! I get paid $4,000 for the books, all the delegates go home with a book to remember me by, and, after the cost of printing, I net $3,500 – my original fee.

  1. Emcee and keynote

Similar to including the breakout, you can also volunteer to emcee the event. I think it’s a rare breed who has the combination of humour, attention to detail, and spontaneity to pull off that gig, but if you can, the event planner will love you.

  1. BOR sales

Perhaps the most obvious way to negotiate your fee is to simply drop it in return for permission to sell back-of-room or gain referrals for future work in the room. For example, if your goal is long-term consulting contracts, you may want to trade fees for a chance to present to the right audience of decision-makers.

In the example I show here, the speaker agrees to drop the fee to $3,000 and makes up the difference by selling 30% of the room (200 delegates X 30% = 60 books) their book with a margin per book of $17.50 and nets $1,050 (60 books X $17.50 = $1,050).

  1. Handout sales

And finally, my favourite way to negotiate your fee – sell handouts. I’ve been doing this for many years and for the right client it’s a real win/win. Here’s how it works.

When my client asks about handouts (note this mostly applies for seminars, for keynotes I might supply a simple 2-page guide to take notes on) I remind them that far too often delegates don’t take handouts with them. That’s not helpful for their learning or transferring the lessons learned to their work or life.

I then suggest that I supply high-quality, coil-bound, colour handouts for a nominal cost. “Wouldn’t you prefer,” I ask my client “to see delegates value the lessons learned and take their handouts with them when the seminar is over?” Here’s how the math could play out.

Assuming your handouts cost $6 (obviously you might get yours cheaper) and you charge $12, with 200 delegates you have a margin of $1,200 you can use to negotiate with.

At the end of the day, if you want to be in front of audiences you need to know how to negotiate. Some clients have tight budgets and need your help making it all work, others simply like to get a deal.

Remember, you always have permission to accept their offer, negotiate or walk away – either way you win.