Why Speakers Earn $30,000 an Hour - Confessions of a Public Speaker

by Scott Berkun
Confessions of a Public Speaker book cover

This excerpt is from Confessions of a Public Speaker. In this hilarious and highly practical book, author and professional speaker Scott Berkun reveals the techniques behind what great communicators do, and shows how anyone can learn to use them well. For anyone else who talks and expects someone to listen, Confessions of a Public Speaker provides an insider's perspective on how to effectively present ideas to anyone. You'll get new insights into the art of persuasion, based on Scott's 15 years of experience speaking to crowds of all sizes.

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It's 7:47 a.m. at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, so early the sun is just starting to rise. It's an ungodly time and place for any writer to be outside. Writers aren't the most well-adjusted people, and it's telling that our preferred means of interaction with civilization is throwing paragraph-shaped grenades at people from behind the safety of a laptop. I know few writers who love mornings, and the doorman at my hotel - who wears a bright blue sailor's uniform as part of the nautical-themed thrill ride that is the Argonaut Hotel - is clearly on my side. He waves down a cab for me and gives a half smile from underneath his tired eyes, a smile that says, "Doesn't it suck to work this early?" Anyone who finishes the night shift with a sense of humor is a good man indeed. Or perhaps I just look like trash this morning and he finds my appearance entertaining. Maybe it's both.

People talk about sunrises as if they were magical things. Yet here at Fisherman's Wharf, the morning fog forming a glorious orange blanket around a late-winter sunrise, no one except the doorman, the cab driver, and me is awake and outside. You know why? People are lazy. Even if there was a sunrise at 7:47 a.m. as brilliant and soul-stirring as a wall-sized J. M. W. Turner masterpiece, a sunrise giving out hundred-dollar bills and tomorrow's lottery numbers, few of us would be out to see it. Most of the things we say are so wonderful and amazing lose without a fight to an extra hour of sleep. We'd wake up, think it over for a few moments, and fall back into the comfort of our dreams. Sleep deprivation is a curse of the modern age, a problem born from our technological things. Before Edison's light bulb, we averaged 10 hours a night; in 2009, we average nearly half that. And this means, when it comes to sunrises, judge people by what they do, not what they say.

On this morning the sun is putting on quite a show, but where are all the sunrise lovers? They're not with me out on the street. They're sleeping, just as I would be if I could. The truth is public speakers everywhere would have an easier time keeping their audience awake if more people actually slept well the night before. If the ascension of our nearest star, the source of all energy and life on earth, the universal symbol for all that is good, happy, and hopeful can't get people out of bed, what chance does a speaker have?

In all honesty I love the sunrise…it's the getting up to see it I hate. Sunrises are transcendent when viewed through a hotel window, from a comfy bed, when I'm not expected to do anything for anyone for hours. My professional problem is that public speaking is often scheduled hundreds of minutes on the wrong side of noon. And on the days I'm lucky enough to get top billing for an event, I earn an additional chronological treat: the keynote means I'm to set the tone for the day, a challenge that - given our limited understanding of space and time - requires me to speak before anyone else. All this explains why, at 7:48 a.m. on a Tuesday, I am showered, cleaned, shaved, pruned, fed, and deodorized, wearing a pressed shirt and shiny shoes, in a cab on my way to the San Francisco waterfront. Like the gorgeous light from the sun still conquering the clouds over the San Francisco Bay outside my cab window, this morning is both great and horrible, a thrill and a bore. It's an amazing way to live, as I get paid to think and learn and exchange ideas - all things I love. But I'm far from home, going to a strange place, and performing for strangers, three stressful facts than mean anything can happen, especially since it's the worst of all times for my particular brain - early morning.

Making it to the venue is the first challenge a speaker-for-hire faces, and let me tell you, it's often a bigger challenge than the lecture itself. The lecture I know well since I created it. I have no one to blame if it stinks. And when I do finally arrive at the room I'm to speak in - even if it's the worst room in the world - I can try to adapt to whatever problems it has. But until I get to the room, until I make my way through the airports, cities, highways, conference centers, office complexes, and parking lots, I can't begin to get ready. Being in transit means, psychologically speaking, you are in the purgatory of being almost there. Unlike lecturing, where I feel in control, it's the things I can't control that create stress - like the taxi driver getting lost, the traffic jam a handful of miles from where I'm supposed to be, and the confusing corporate and college campuses impossible for visitors like me to navigate. How could anyone know Building 11 is next to Building 24 on Microsoft's main campus, or that the Kresge Auditorium is hiding behind Bexley Hall at MIT? From experience, I know there is nothing worse than being in the strange territory of very close and surprisingly far at the same time.

When I arrive at the Fort Mason complex, the venue for this particular Tuesday, I discover, as my taxi roars off, I'm far from where I need to be. Fort Mason is a sprawling Civil War-era military base, recently converted into a community center (see Figure 3-1). The word complex is apt. My instructions say to find Building A, but there are no signs, and, more importantly, no normal looking buildings, only endless rows of identical barracks, towers, and narrow parking lots. The Fort Mason Center has one major flaw: it skipped the conversion. It still looks like a place designed to kill you, not welcome you to fun community activities. There are fences, gates, barricades, barbed wire, and tall stone walls with sharp corners.

For comparison, there's a military museum in Kiev with two decommissioned World War II tanks at the main entrance, painted top to bottom with fun, peaceful swirls in bright rainbow colors (see Figure 3-2). Now that's a conversion - one day a death machine, the next a happy, silly plaything. Fort Mason, on the other hand, looks like a place the Spartans would say is too spartan. They'd demand a row of shrubs and fresh paint before they'd even consider moving in.

Trying to find my way, I stop at the front gate - which is what I do instinctively at gates near things looking like military bases - and only after long moments standing like an idiot do I realize I'm free to enter. No ID or white flag required. The gate is for cars, which explains the strange look from the guard: I'd been standing in the car lane the entire time. I wander aimlessly through the complex, surviving several dead-ends, wrong turns, and unlabeled parking lots, trying not to imagine snipers in the towers above, until I find Building A and happily step inside.

The event at Fort Mason is run by Adaptive Path, a Bay Area-design consulting company, and I know these folks well. They've hired me before, and I say hello to friendly faces. I soon meet Julia, one of the event organizers, and after a brief chat she hands me an envelope. I know that inside is a check for $5,000, the fee for my services. I want to open it and look. My brain still thinks in 15-year-old terms of money, where $100 is tons and $500 is amazing. Anything over that simply does not exist in the surprisingly large 15-yearold part of my mind. I want to look inside, not because I don't trust Julia, but because I don't trust myself. I'm baffled at how adults pay other adults so much for doing boring, safe adult things. My childhood friend Doug drove his mom's Cadillac over the big hill on the wrong side of the entrance to the Whitestone Shopping Center in Queens at 60 miles per hour - with all of us screaming in the back seat - for free. He risked all of our lives without payment, other than his own insane but infectious pleasure. Meanwhile, bankers and hedge fund managers make millions playing with Excel spreadsheets, an activity with zero chance of bodily harm, save carpal tunnel syndrome. They earn more in a year than the guys who put the roof on my house, paved the road that leads to it, or work as firemen and policemen to protect it will see in a lifetime. It's curious facts like these we'll have to explain twice when the aliens land.

In the movies, gangsters are always opening briefcases and counting money, but in real life, no one does this. It's awkward, strange, and slimy. Money for Americans, a culture cursed by our unshakable Puritanical roots, is loaded with lust and shame. Yet, our modern corporate culture values the accumulation of financial wealth above all else. The resulting contradiction causes much of what's wonderful and horrible about America. I suspect many of you jumped right to this chapter because of its title, or noticed it first when you skimmed through the table of contents. Not because you're evil, but because we're fascinated and revolted by money at the same time, especially regarding work that seems superficial, like public speaking. I know I'm paid for something that, in the grand scheme, is not Work. It's work, with a little w, but it's not shoveling coal, building houses, or fighting in wars, which earn the capital W. I will never hurt my back, ruin my lungs, or lose a limb as a public speaker (unless I lecture at a convention of drunk lion tamers). And despite the many questions that come to mind when Julia hands me that check, I cram it into my bag and head for the lectern where I can get to work.

I'm worth $5,000 a lecture, and other speakers are worth $30,000 or more for two reasons: the lecture circuit and free market economics.1 People come up after I give a lecture and ask, "So when did you get on the lecture circuit?" And I respond by asking, "Do you know what the circuit is?" And they never have any idea. It's a term they've heard before, despite the fact it's never explained, and it somehow seems to be the only reasonable thing to ask a public speaker when you're trying to seem interested in what he does for a living. Well, here's the primer. Public speaking, as a professional activity, became popular in the U.S. before the Civil War. In the 1800s - decades before electricity, radio, movies, television, the Internet, or automobiles - entertainment was hard to find. It explains why so many people sang in church choirs, read books, or actually talked to each other for hours on end: there was no competition.

In the 1820s, a man named Josiah Holbrook developed the idea of a lecture series called Lyceum, named after the Greek theater where Aristotle lectured his students (for free). It was amazingly popular, the American Idol of its day. People everywhere wanted it to come to their town. By 1835, there were 3,000 of these events spread across the United States, primarily in New England. In 1867, some groups joined up to form the Associated Literary Society, which booked speakers on a singular, prescribed route from city to city across the country. This is the ubiquitous lecture circuit we hear people refer to all the time. Back then it was a singular thing you could get on. "Bye, honey, I'm going on the circuit, be back in six months," was something a famous lecturer might have said. It took that long to run the circuit across the country on horses and return home. Before the days of the Rolling Stones or U2, there were performers who survived the grueling months-long tours without double-decker tour buses, throngs of groupies, and all-hour parties.

At first there was little money for speakers. The Lyceum was created as a public service, like an extension of your local library. It was a feel-good, grassroots, community-service movement aimed at educating people and popularizing ideas. These events were often free or low priced, such as 25 cents a ticket or $1.50 for an entire season.2 But by the 1850s, when high-end speakers like Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain dominated the circuit, prices for lectures went as high as $20 a ticket - equivalent to about $200 a seat in 2009. Of course, free lectures continued, and they always will, but the high end reached unprecedented levels for people giving speeches. In the late 1800s, it was something a famous person could do and earn more than enough money to make a comfortable living, which is exactly what many famous writers did.

Soon the free market took over. Air travel, radio, telephones, and everything else we take for granted today made the idea of a single circuit absurd. Lecture series, training conferences, and corporate meetings created thousands of events that needed new speakers every year. Some events don't pay, even charging speakers to attend (as it's seen as an honor to be invited to give a presentation), but many hire a few speakers to ensure things go well. For decades, there's been enough demand for speakers that speaker bureaus - talent agencies for public speakers - work as middlemen, matching people who want to have a lecture at their event and speakers, like me, who wish to be paid for giving lectures. If you want Bill Clinton, Madonna, or Stephen King to speak at your birthday party, and you have the cash (see Table 3-1), there is a speaker bureau representing each one of them that would like to make a deal with you. Which brings us pack to whether I'm worth $5,000.

Table 3-1. High-end speakers and their fees.3
SpeakerOne-hour lecture fee
Bill Clinton $150,000+
Malcolm Gladwell $80,000
Garry Kasparov $75,000+
David Allen $50,000 - $75,000
Patrick Lencioni $50,000 - $75,000
Ben Stein $50,000 - $75,000
Wayne Gretsky $50,000+
Magic Johnson $50,000+
Bob Kostas $50,000+
Ray Kurzweil $35,000 - $50,000
Roger Staubach $25,000 - $30,000
Dave Barry $25,000 - $30,000

My $5,000 fee has nothing to do with me personally. I'm not paid for being Scott Berkun. I know I'm paid only for the value I provide to whoever hires me. If, for example, Adaptive Path can charge $500 per person for an event, and they get 500 people to attend, that's $250,000 in gross revenue for Adaptive Path. Part of what will allow them to charge that much, and draw that many people, are the speakers they will have. The bigger the names, the more prestigious their backgrounds, and the more interesting their presentations, the more people will come and the more they will be willing to pay. Even for private functions, say when Google or Ferrari throws an annual event for their employees, how much would it be worth to have a speaker who can make their staff a little smarter, better, or more motivated when returning to work? Maybe it's not worth $30,000 or even $5,000, but there is some economic value to what good speakers, on the right topics, do for people. It depends on how valuable the people in the room are to whoever is footing the bill. Even if it's just for entertainment, or for reminding the audience of important things they've forgotten, a good speaker is worth something. Think of the last boring lecture you were at: would you have paid a few bucks to make the speaker suck less? I bet you would.

The disappointing thing is, for these fees, speakers often don't do very well. After all, they're not being paid directly for their public-speaking skills. The raw economic value proposition is in drawing people to the event, and it's more likely people will come to an event featuring a famous person - even one they suspect is boring to listen to - than to hear the best public speaker in the world if that's his only claim to fame.4 Two of the worst lectures I've attended were given by famous people: David Mamet (playwright, screenwriter, and director) and Nicholas Pileggi (author of Wiseguy, the novel Scorsese's Goodfellas was based on). Both occasions were author readings, which are notoriously boring and bad bets for good public speaking. Yet, in both cases, they filled their respective rooms impressively well. However, I bet no one in attendance got much from the experience of listening to them, except the right to say they saw a famous person speak, which perhaps is also worth something.

The challenge for event organizers, who have limited budgets and tough timelines, is to manage the three unavoidable criteria for picking people to talk at their events. They must find speakers who are:

  1. Famous or credible for a relevant topic
  2. Good at speaking
  3. Available

Two out of three is often the best they can do. It's common to see good speakers who don't have much to say, as well as experts who are brilliant but boring. To secure someone with all three often requires some cash, and as a result, I am one of thousands of people at the low end of a very high pay scale activity.

To put the numbers so far in this chapter in perspective, the average adult on planet Earth earns $8,200 a year (U.S. dollars). The average American makes about $45,000. Since you see your paycheck, you know exactly where you stand. I think it would be smart for corporations to put information like this on their checks - it would prevent many people from complaining about what they don't have.5 Almost half of the world's population doesn't have clean running water or reliable electricity, no matter how well they are paid. From a planetary view, if you're reading this book indoors, under an electric light, within walking distance to a stocked refrigerator or a take-out delivery menu you can afford to order from, and rarely find yourself worrying about malaria or dysentery, you are doing quite well. And if you're still not happy, compared to most of the galaxy, a place comprised of 99.9% dead, empty space, the fact you're even alive, and in the form of a species evolved enough to know you're alive, and educated enough to read books reminding you of how rare life is, makes you astronomically fortunate. We should be happy about this, but mostly it seems we're not.

Unfortunately, we know, care, and obsess more about the 10% of the world who earn more than we do, rather than the 90% who earn less. And although you might disapprove of my speaking fees, I'm no different from you. I'm well aware of speakers who earn more than me but who have less to say, and say it worse than I would. It's safe to say no matter where you stand, someone would be happy to be in your shoes, just as you'd be happy to be in someone else's. I know all too well that rock stars, movie actors, Fortune 100 executives, and professional athletes make millions annually just for endorsing things they had nothing to do with. If I'm overpaid, at least it was to perform a service where I risk getting booed off the stage. An endorsement is paid for liking, or merely pretending to like, something. It's not work in any familiar sense of the word, since it's a vague approval of work done by people the endorser has likely never met. Tiger Woods and LeBron James make $50+ million a year from endorsements alone, an annual income so large it's more than the average American could earn in 10 lifetimes. This cannot seem fair, and in a philosophical sense it isn't. They are not doing anything for the greater good. They are not educating children, helping the poor, stopping wars, or curing diseases. In fact, depending on what they're endorsing, they're likely increasing our desire for what we don't have, can't afford, and probably don't need.

However, from another perspective, we all know people earn as much as they can argue for. If you're a fan of the free market, you must accept that if you feel underpaid, it's up to you to do something about it - the most free part of any market is you. You are free to quit and live in the woods like Thoreau. Or, start your own business where you decide how much you're paid. For me, this means if I ever want to earn as much for a lecture as Bill Clinton or Bob Kostas, I need to become way more famous by, in increasing order of desperation, writing better books, getting a better agent, or marrying Jessica Simpson. Of course, we are all free to complain about how unfair things are, as I am here. But let's be fair to people who earn more money than you think they should, including LeBron James, Tiger Woods, or even me. I bet if you picked an average American and his average job, and asked him using average language whether he'd rather be paid $100,000 instead of $45,000 for doing the same work, it's a safe bet that, on average, he'd say yes.

The only remaining defense for the speaker fees I'm paid is that I'm compensated for all the things everyone forgets I have to do in order to be capable of speaking. A keynote lecture to a large crowd takes about 60 minutes to deliver. Arguably this is more intense and stressful than the average office worker's entire week, but let's put that aside. To make and practice a new lecture takes two days of full-time work, which is 16 hours. Then consider my trip to get to the venue, including the security lines I have to wait in, the airplane flight I have to take, the cabs I have to ride in, the hotels I have to sleep in, and on it goes. Now many people can give lectures, and I'm not being paid simply for talking into a microphone. I'm paid for the decades of experience listed on my resume that, in theory, should make what I have to say interesting, provocative, entertaining, educational, inspiring, and whatever other adjectives the people who hire me mention in their marketing material. I'm good at teaching, which is uncommon and worth a few bucks, but lastly there is the ultimate factor: I'm paid to speak at one venue instead of speaking at another. When demand outweighs supply, there are fees to be paid. The more demand, the higher the fees.

The unspoken risk I run is having no salary. I have no pension. I have no extended contract guaranteeing me lecture gigs forever. This book could bomb or be destroyed in reviews, and my speaking career could come to an unfortunate and immediate end, which in the grand scheme of things would be OK. I didn't quit my job with the goal of earning $30,000 an hour - I quit to see if I could pull this off at all. And now that I have for the past five years, my goal is to see how long I can make an independent living purely on the merits of what I write and what I say.

1 In the interest of transparency and satisfying your curiosity, I average 25 - 30 lectures a year. Sometimes I'm paid as much as $8,000 depending on the situation. Maybe a third of those lectures are paid only in travel expenses or small fees, since they're self-promotional or for causes I'd like to help. Roughly 40% of my income is from book royalties and the rest from speaking fees. So far, I average around $100,000 a year, less than I made at Microsoft. However, I now have complete independence, which is worth infinitely more. I limit travel to once or twice a month, which means I turn away many gigs; I'd much rather have more time than money, since you can never earn more time.

2 History of Public Speaking in America, Robert T. Oliver (Allyn &Bacon), p. 461.

3 These fees were compiled from public listings on various speaker bureau websites. Most sites note that these fees are variable and may change at any time. See http://www.keyspeakers.com/ or http:// www.prosportspeaker.com/.

4 There is an annual competition for the world's best public speaker, but I bet you've never heard of the winners: http://www.toastmasters.org/Members/MemberExperience/Contests/WorldChampions_1.aspx.

5 I also think it would be good if salaries were made public, which is why I offered my fees and income. The overpaid and underpaid would be visible and more likely to be corrected. Or, total anarchy would ensue and civilization would end. Either way, it would be fun to watch.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, buy a copy of Confessions of a Public Speaker.