You've seen them floating around. Those event ads promising that if you pay $349 and give six hours of your time, the host will magically transform you from a no-to-low-gig speaker to one commanding five-figure (or even six-figure) speaker fees.
As someone who spent three years on the speaking circuit and left it earning a five-figure fee per keynote, those ads make my skin crawl.
The hard truth is this: The pros out there pulling down large speaker fees didn't get to where they are from a weekend workshop. They've spent years invested in their speaking careers. Decades invested in their trade. And they remain invested.
If you're curious about what it really takes to book 20+ gigs a year and consistently command a five-figure speaker fee per keynote, the pros below have generously agreed to pull back the curtain on their process.
Get ready to get humble, because there's no Easy Button when it comes to booking with big dollar fees. You have to do the work that makes you worth it.
Tip #1: Invest in video.
Scott Stratten, an entrepreneur and author, has been on the road for many-a-year. His bureau Kepler Speakers keeps him busy with 60 keynotes per year, with speaker fees at $20-$25k per engagement.
His speaking career began with 30 unpaid speaking engagements. This led to another two years of speaking in exchange for orders of his book.
It took Stratten another two years escalating his rates and skills to break the five-figure speaker fee mark. He's learned the hard way what works and what doesn't.
His number one tip for aspiring five-figure speakers? Invest in video.
“No one would buy an album without hearing some songs first," says Stratten. “No one books a speaker without seeing something first, either."
Big fees mean bold—and consistent—performances, and video can help prove you can consistently deliver, justifying your fee.
—Scott Stratten, entrepreneur and author
Brett Culp is a documentary filmmaker who delivers over 30 keynotes a year at a fee of $10,000+ per gig . (He's also represented by Keppler Speakers.)
As a filmmaker, Culp is an expert at using visuals to tell—and sell—a compelling story. Your speaker demo reel will evolve over time, right alongside your experience, he says. Make sure your video keeps up with your skills.
“In the beginning, you will be refining and sometimes reinventing yourself every 12 months. You need marketing assets that can be regularly refreshed as you are becoming more self-aware and learning what works for you," says Culp. “After you've presented 50 or 100 keynotes, you will have more clarity about your brand as a speaker, and you are ready to make a bigger investment."
And what does that "bigger investment" look like?
“If you want $15,000 keynotes fees," Culp says, "you probably need to spend $15,000 on videos and have a variety of cuts."
His collection includes two highly edited videos that express his story and core message: one is 90-seconds long and the other goes for 8 minutes. He also has an additional five videos that are strictly keynote excerpts with no music or flashy editing.
Stratten takes video one step further with the help of social media. Within the past 18 months, Stratten broke his keynote footage down into short, consumable social media clips, using the popular square letterbox format seen widely across Facebook. With over 15 million views on his video, “What Old People Mean When They Say 'Millennials'," his playbook may be one worth emulating.
Tip #2: Learn to negotiate.
Connie Podesta's a been a fixture on the speaking circuit for over 30 years, at 60 engagements per year. (Her speaker fees range from $20,000-$25,000 per talk.)
Podesta runs solo without an agency, which means she's learned how to negotiate over the years to ensure that full five-figure fee keeps coming in—a perk she admits to liking.
“Too many speakers leave serious money on the table because they can't stand firm on their fee and immediately discount or give away the store," says Podesta. “I've become an expert negotiator and can turn a no-fee job into a full-fee job."
To amp-up your negotiation skills, savvy speakers arm themselves with testimonials, endorsements, high-production-value video marketing and the willingness to say “no." These tools put together can help speakers command what they're worth, without having to say it themselves.
Carrie Wilkerson, author of The Barefoot Executive, globetrots with 30+ gigs per year and her speaker fees range starts at $10,000. She emphasizes the power of letting past clients, audience members and marketing materials making the case for her fees.
“My stage photos and videos are worth more than a thousand words," Wilkerson says. "There is a special credibility with audience shots and arena shots that cannot be denied. Testimonials, references and social media feedback is valuable too...but nothing says 'She can command a big audience' quite like a photo of me addressing a full arena. It's a tremendous value and conveys value beyond what I can say with words."
Tip #3: Invest in coaching for content and performance.
I'd venture to guess that you'd be hard-pressed to find a five-figure speaker who doesn't believe in the power of coaching. Even the best invest in coaching for both content and performance skills.
Vinh Giang, a speaker, entrepreneur and magician, is a road a warrior with over 70 events per year. He commands speaker fees of $15,000-$20,000 per event. Those kinds of fees demand next-level performance skills. Giang found his next level with singing and theater training, but not for the reasons you might think.
“I didn't do singing classes to become a singer. Nor did I do theater to become an actor," says Giang. "I did these two things for the sole purpose of discovering all the bridges that link singing to speaking and theater to speaking."
His voice teacher told him that most people go through life speaking in one key and that successful performers use several keys to tell a story. His theater instructors taught him that his entire body is an instrument and how to play it through improvisation. Theater training also helped Giang learn how to physically manage complex situations on stage with poise.
When he first started speaking, Giang says, “I just thought that you open your mouth and speak and that's that! There's just so much more to this instrument that we all have."
Neen James, an attention expert and keynote speaker with an average of 45 gigs per year in the $15-$20k range, isn't shy about getting coached for content, either.
“I've allocated two days a month to working on the craft of speaking with coaches who help me strengthen my keynotes, stretch my platform skills and keep me accountable for constantly honing my craft," says James.
She has a powerful piece of advice for the speaker who craves breaking the five-figure mark: Your skills must match your fee.
“When you consistently achieve the $10,000+ speaker fee mark, bureaus start to pay attention. This means your performance standards need to be higher and you need to look, sound and feel like a $10,000+ speaker," says James.
For James—along with Podesta, Stratten and Giang—this means consistently creating new intellectual property, publishing new books and having multiple polished keynotes that deliver on both performance and content. A speaker's keynote structure, content and overall performance dictate their industry stature. There are no shortcuts to fulfilling the structure/content/performance trifecta.
Tip #4: Cultivate relationships with fellow speakers.
There's one skill on which all of the above speakers agree: It's imperative to build relationships with fellow speakers.
From speakers who command speaker fees higher than you've ever dreamt of commanding to those who are your equals, these relationships are an irrefutable key to all six of the above speakers' paths to bigger fees and consistent bookings.
Word-of-mouth marketing from your peers is one of the most powerful tools a speaker has in her toolbox. When you're booking over 20 engagements per year, you'll receive requests for gigs that simply don't work with your schedule. What's better than being able to refer a colleague?
By building and maintaining relationships with fellow speakers, there are two heroes in every referral situation. You get to be the hero for solving a client's problem when you're already booked for their event dates. And secondly, your colleague gets to be the hero by solving your client's problem through delivering a whopper of a performance that leaves an audience and event organizers delighted.
While it might, at first glance, seem like keeping the enemy (a.k.a. your competition) too close for comfort, your speaker-to-speaker relationships don't just add to your fees. They can add to your skills.
Consider creating a mastermind group where you and your fellow speakers can ask questions, share stories, trade tips and even send out calls for referrals when they don't personally fit a client's needs. Here, you'll find a support system among kindred spirits who know your hustle, as well as learn the truth behind what it truly takes to consistently command five-figure fees.
Here's there inside scoop on commanding higher speaker fees: There are no shortcuts. Every professional above has a career and intellectual property, personality and polish that makes them worth their five-figure-per-event fee.
Scott Stratten offers this simple, yet powerful, bit of food-for-thought for the aspiring high-fee speaker: “Events pay for keynotes and don't hire speakers, they hire experts who speak."
You're already the expert. Become the one who speaks.
Read more articles on presenting.
Photo: Getty Images; Courtesy of Scott Stratten, Brett Culp, Carrie Wilkerson and Neen James
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