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What’s Your Speaking Fee?

A row of deer garden statuaryI’m going to guess that most of us didn’t go into academe for the money. Given the market forces at play in hiring in higher education, you might have been tempted to not even negotiate when offered a job. (Of course, you should always negotiate.) Perhaps that’s why questions about money are often difficult to answer when we encounter them.

Recently, I’ve been flattered to receive a number of invitations to give talks or lead workshops. While some of these engagements are compensated with simply the costs of travel and lodging (or perhaps just lunch, if crossing town), some of them come with an honorarium. Sometimes those extending the invitation have a budget already in place and have simply told me what they’re able to offer. But sometimes I’m asked, “What’s your speaking fee?” And that’s when I suddenly feel like a deer in the headlights: “Will asking for X make me look greedy? Will asking for Y make me look naïve?”

But it shouldn’t be that way. We are, after all, not simply professors but members of a profession. (And yes, not all of us—especially me—are professors, but the line works better that way.) When we’re asked to speak and offered an honorarium, it’s because the person or organization doing the inviting recognizes that we know something or have expertise that their colleagues or institution would benefit from knowing. It’s okay to get paid for that.

To help you get over what might be an initial reluctance to name a number, here are a few points I suggest weighing as you try to determine what your speaking fee is:

  • Consider the fact that although you’ll be giving, say, just an hour-long talk that you will have to spend several hours—if not a whole day each way—traveling. In other words, if you recoil at asking for X for that 60-minute talk and Q&A, realize that you’ll be spending much more than an hour on the visit and taking time from your other work.
  • Consider the preparation that you’ll have to do for the visit? Will you be leading a workshop that you’ve done previously? Will it be a brand-new talk, on a subject that you’re just exploring? If it’s the latter, you will again be putting in a lot more time than simply that one hour.
  • Consider whether your speaking fee should always be the same or whether it should flex according to the group or institution inviting you. A group of grad students asking you to come to speak will probably have much different resources than the chair of a department at Princeton. Likewise, small state schools or consortia might not be as flush as R1 universities.
  • Consider asking colleagues or friends about what they charge for speaking fees. Your discipline might have common practices that you’re not aware of.

After considering these points, you should do your best to set a number that you think is fair in that it will appropriately compensate you for the time and effort that you’ll put into the endeavor. And I think it is best to set a number. While it might seem kind to respond to the invite with a friendly worded note that you’re “happy to work within the group’s budget,” I think that groups that are asking really do want you to tell them that number. So don’t be shy! If you’re worried that your fee is higher than they might be able to pay, you can always say that the fee is negotiable.

Finally, I’ve found it helpful for me to set a base rate for myself. That way, I have a number from which to start these internal conversations. The base rate is subject to adjusting up or down due to any of the considerations above, but at least I’m not flailing about trying to think what that number might begin to look like.

It should go without saying that once you’ve negotiated a fee, that it’s incumbent on you to do your absolute best to be as amazing in your presentation, workshop, or consultation as you can possibly be. I learned a great lesson when I was able to host Edward Ayers two years ago. Before each meeting or meal that we’d scheduled for him, Ed would ask me, “Okay, what do you need me to help you do with this person?” And then he tried to advance the goals of our Center. When I’m visiting someplace new, my goal is to be as helpful as he was to us.

And it’s also worth remembering that just because you’re invited to speak or lead a workshop, one need not accept. In fact, it can be helpful to your sanity to remember to just say no to invitations on occasion. Having the base rate might even be able to help you decide when an opportunity isn’t right for you. Still, speaking engagements can be a great way to stretch yourself and meet people from whom you can learn and grow as well.

What do you consider when setting a speaking fee? Let us know in the comments!

Edits: A few post-publication edits were made to improve clarity. BC

Lead image: headlight / CC BY-SA 2.0

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