How to determine the value of a speech

Paid speaking is one of the key ways adventurers can make money after the event. The prices some 'motivational' adventure speakers can command may seem ludicrously high for one hour of work, while for others it can feel impossible to make the jump from free speeches to paid ones. The same speech may command wildly different fees depending on the audience - from adventure festivals to school to corporates. Speakers sharing a stage at the same event may be earning very different amounts. 

To understand speaker fees, you need to know how clients think about value from speakers, and what the norms of the industry are. 

Results from   The Business of Adventure survey .  In answer to the question  "What is your experience with giving speeches about your adventures?"  11% have done paid school talks, 16% have done paid talks for outdoor clubs or adventure groups, and 13% have done paid corporate talks.

Results from The Business of Adventure survey. In answer to the question "What is your experience with giving speeches about your adventures?" 11% have done paid school talks, 16% have done paid talks for outdoor clubs or adventure groups, and 13% have done paid corporate talks.

What is the ‘fair value’ of a speech?

It is not easy to work out what is speech is worth. It is not as if you can count up the cost of the parts that went into the creation of the ‘product’ and then add on a 10% mark-up. 

There are two possible ways you can put a dollar figure on the return of a speech.

  1. Certain kinds of speakers may be delivering that kind of technical training that would let them say: "pay me X because I guarantee an improvement of sales numbers of Y in the next six months." It is unlikely that an adventure speaker will ever be in this position.
  2.  Some conferences use big-name speakers as a drawcard, both to attract individual delegates to pay tickets and to attract event sponsors (who are looking for exposure to those delegates). The numbers involved can be substantial.
    An AARP Convention (the US association for folk over 50) can attract over 10,000 attendees, from a membership base of over 35 million. If a convention ticket costs $90, that adds up to $900,000. If a well-known speaker can swell their attendance by thousands, the value from that is quantifiable. 

However, plenty of adventure speakers are hired for in-house corporate events, where there is no such value calculation. You aren’t bringing them work-related training, and the audience has to be there anyway. While the speaker is bringing value to the event, it is not the sort of value that comes with a specific number attached. 

Speakers aren’t paid for their time, speakers are paid for the value they bring.
— Debra Searle

What is the value of your time?

You could say you are being paid for 45 minutes of your time, in which you get to stand around and talk about yourself and your adventure. You are probably doing that for free on a regular basis to friends, family and anyone else who will listen. Why should that now be worth thousands of pounds? 

You could say you are being paid for the culmination of the years of preparation and execution that made your adventure possible. But no one speaking client is a sponsor, they are not paying for your project in retrospect.  

To add to confusion, different markets pay different prices for exactly the same product. You might give the same speech to a school audience and then to a corporate audience, yet be paid more for the latter by a factor of 10! (Literally, as in £/$/€ 500 versus 5,000).

At different times in your career, the same speech may be worth different amounts. If you come into the market off the back of a highly news-worthy achievement, the price you can command may decline as your “15 minutes of fame” fade into history. 

Despite the existence of some general industry norms, different clients may have very different budgets, and very different expectations. Where one client may react to  your quote with horror, as in “who are you to think you are worth that much?!”, another may say “is that all?” (giving you the sinking feeling that you’ve definitely left money on the table).

Professionalism moves you from being paid in the hundreds to being paid in the thousands. Fame moves you up to tens of thousands.

Skill vs Fame vs Professionalism

Different speakers may be paid very different prices to speak for the same amount of time on the same stage to the same audience. It’s about who they are, as in what perceived value they bring. 

Within categories of outdoor or adventure achievement, the highest speaking prices may not be commanded by the best athletes or the most extreme achievers. (This can be annoying to people who believe they are 'better' athletes. But speakers fees, like brand ambassadorships, are not a reward for outstanding achievement, the way an Olympic medal is. Each requires an entire second skill-set, largely based around effective communication. Not every top-end outdoor athlete wants to or is able to master that second field.) 

Within the overall corporate speaker market,  being ‘better’ (a more engaging speaker, a better stage performer, providing more value for the audience) will push your fee up. But eventually you are leap-frogged by speakers who may not as good on stage, but who are a whole lot more famous than you are.

Put in broad generalisations: 

  • Professionalism moves you from being paid in the hundreds (£/$/€ ) to being paid in the thousands.
  • Fame moves you up to the tens of thousands.
  • Worldwide fame takes you to hundreds of thousands. (The closest any adventure speaker gets to this category is probably Bear Grylls.) 
Results from   The Business of Adventure survey .  50% of respondents are keen to move from free to paid speeches. 8% listen corporate talks as their main source of income. 

Results from The Business of Adventure survey. 50% of respondents are keen to move from free to paid speeches. 8% listen corporate talks as their main source of income. 

Discounting Doesn't Help  

This is not a market in which discounting your ‘product’ automatically gives you an advantage over your ‘competitors’. There are two key ways in which a higher fee is advantageous (apart from the  money in your pocket!) 

1. Your fee indicates your 'value' 

Despite the amorphous nature of the market and the product, there are industry norms. Price yourself too low and you’ll get less work, because the clients who are used to paying the higher prices will assume you aren’t good enough and won't book you.

2. Low fees cut you out of the speaker bureau market  

Washington Speaker Bureau fee bands

Washington Speaker Bureau fee bands

The adventure speakers who command higher fees generally find at least 50% of their work through speaker bureaus. 

Speaker bureaus source speakers and facilitators for corporate clients. They make their money by retaining between 20% and 33% of the fee paid to the speaker. It will take them much the same time to sell a 'cheap' speaker as an 'expensive' one. In fact, the expensive one may easier to sell, because the corporate client will have heard of the name.

If your fee is too low, their cut will be too low, and they won’t work with you. Bureaus seldom work with speakers who charge less than £2,500 / US$5,000. (Fees tend to be higher in the US than in the UK / Europe.) 

A great speech is your best marketing   

Despite the disadvantages of discounting, almost all speakers find their best marketing for speaking is giving great speeches. Any speaker who gets 50% of their work from speaker bureaus, is generally getting the other 50% from referrals from previous clients.

Because a bad speaker on the stage of an annual convention can be disastrous for the career of the event planner, they are conservative in their choices and lean heavily on referrals from trusted sources. Put your price too high, so you don’t work often, and you lose the referral momentum. 

This creates another problem for adventure speakers - if you are often away and so unavailable each time a client or a speaker bureau requests a date, some other speaker gets that job and you never build the momentum to run a successful speaking career. 

If each adventure brings you serious media coverage, that doesn’t matter. You having recurring bites at the “15 minutes of fame” and clients and bureaus are clamouring for you each time you come home. 

However, many speakers are catapulted into the speaking market off the back of an adventure that caught fire with the media for reasons to do with luck - they were in the right place at the right moment. Or it may come off the back of one multi-year epic adventure that they don’t want to have to repeat. They may never manage to generate the same level of media interest again. 

If you are never available to take speaking engagements because you are off doing smaller adventures (or working as a guide, or holding down a proper job), you will fall out of the market. Virtually every speaker is replaceable. 

Of course each speaker is convinced of the uniqueness of their story, and indeed the client may desperately want you! But the truth is the date of the conference is set by many factors, none of which are about your availability. For them to let you dictate the date it is either small event, or you are very famous.  

If you can ’t do their date, there are dozens of other speakers out there talking on roughly similar themes who can. To the client, the climber / sailor / cycle tourer / polar traveller / human-endurance adventurer are all roughly interchangeable. 

How much are adventure speakers actually earning? Read our next blog post.

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