ABCs of Speaking: Chapter F – Fee or Free? (Speaking Models)

Why do you want to become a speaker? Is it because you have a powerful message you want to share with the world? Or, maybe because you recognize that being the one in the front of the room providing training or information automatically establishes you as an “expert?” Maybe you just like being the center of attention.

Whatever your reason there is no doubt that being a speaker can establish you as an expert and as someone to which people should pay attention. Even if you don’t want to be a full-time professional speaker we have already talked in the introduction about all the awesome reasons to become a speaker.

Speaking for Local Organizations

If you are speaking primarily to establish yourself as an expert in order to directly or indirectly promote your primary products or services then chances are most of your speaking engagements will be of the free variety. If you are speaking for local organizations like Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Club or others then your time in front of the room will be non-compensated time and you probably won’t be able to make any direct sales at the actual event.

And there is nothing wrong with this type of speaking. It is a marketing tool for your organization and through careful tracking of where your new business comes from you will be able to tell whether the speaking that you are doing is proving profitable or not. I frequently deliver content-only sessions for various conferences simply for the sharing of information I know will help the audience and will establish me as the expert.

Getting “Paid” Even When Speaking for Free

Even if you are a non-compensated speaker there may be other ways you can be “paid” by the organizations you speak for. Here are a few other ways to get paid when speaking for free from Bryan Caplovitz of

  • Ask for a professional quality video tape
  • Have them buy your product (book, CD, resource kit) instead.
  • Request a testimonial on the organization’s letterhead
  • Ask for a write-up in the organization’s newsletter
  • Use business cards to your advantage
  • Use your audience as a source for leads
  • Get a professional photo shoot showing audience reaction

But, if you are going to opt to take on speaking as your full-time profession you are going to have to determine which speaking model you want to pursue. Neither is mutually exclusive and you may end up with a hybrid model over time. But, it is important to understand the primary two models when you are getting started, which we will call “Fee” and “Free”.

The For “Fee” Speaking Model

In the “Fee” speaking model you are paid a pre-determined amount by an event promoter to come and speak at their event. This fee can range anywhere from literally nothing when you are starting out and just trying to gain experience up to the tens of thousands of dollars or more when you reach the big time. Commonly known as “Keynote” speakers, there are thousands of people worldwide who make their full-time living delivering keynote presentations for corporations, associations and other groups.

The big name celebrity speakers that command fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, are usually celebrities first and speakers second. Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Colin Powell are great speaking role models we can all strive to emulate, but know that they are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to fees. But do dream big.

As a for “Fee” or “Keynote” speaker your speaking income is your speaking fee primarily and your speaking fee alone. Typically, the event promoter will also cover your travel expenses including airfare, transportation to and from the hotel, lodging and meals. Your individual negotiating skills will determine what above and beyond the norm you are able to get.

If you have a book or other relevant materials you may be able to get the promoter to agree to purchase one for every attendee at the event. So even though you may not be allowed to sell from the platform you may have the opportunity to generate a little extra income from book sales. Again, how good of a negotiator are you?

Be sure to study other speakers in your area of expertise to get a feel for what they are charging for similar speeches. You will find most have a range of fees depending upon the topic and other factors. You need to decide if you are going to compete on the basis of price (not recommended) or quality. Make sure you have an outstanding value proposition for any event promoter for whatever fee level you decide on.

The For “Free” Speaking Model

There is a second kind of speaker, called the “Free” speaker and if you are able to sell effectively from the platform then this is the speaking model you may want to follow. In the “free” model a speaker is brought in by an event promoter to speak to their audience for no up front compensation.

In this model your compensation comes in the form of a split of the product sales you make at the event. You pay your own travel expenses usually and both the promoter and you are gambling, in a sense, that you will sell enough from the stage to make the time you are given in front of the audience profitable for both yourself and the promoter.

Most of the events of this type are multiple speaker events lasting anywhere from two to four days. So you are usually competing with many other speakers over the course of the event for a share of the wallets of those in the audience. But, if you bring real value to an audience and you have an outstanding offer for continuing education, products or services then you can make significantly more money as a “Free” speaker then you can as a “Fee” speaker.


You Can Make Significantly More Money as a

“Free” Speaker Then You Can as a “Fee” Speaker


I have a colleague who has sold as high as $995,000 in products from the platform at a single event. Even keeping in mind that the traditional split of the sales you make at an event is 50/50 with the event promoter, in this case my colleague pocketed a mere $447,500 for one ninety minute presentation. Not too shabby!

Some promoters offer different splits so always be sure to carefully read any speaker contract before you sign it to make sure you fully understand the terms and conditions associated with working with a particular event promoter. I have seen some cases where the back of the room sales split was 60/40 or even 70/30 in favor of the promoter so be aware.

In a typical 50/50 split the norm in the industry is to have the credit card transaction fees for orders absorbed by the promoter and the hard product costs associated with fulfillment of the sale borne by the speaker. But again, this is another detail of which you should be aware in advance so there are no misunderstandings with a promoter.

There are some rare cases where an event promoter that is paying you a fee to speak may also allow product sales in the back of the room. And I have seen scenarios where a non-savvy promoter has allowed the speaker to have 100% of their back of the room sales in addition to the speaking fee they received. Again, this is rare but always nice to have happen.

Fee or Free? It can be a tough decision for many speakers and you will have to decide which model fits you if you want to be a full-time professional speaker. The real money for the speaker who can sell effectively is in the “Free” model. But the burden is on you to sell to be paid and that may or may not be consistent with your personality and mindset.