Should you pay for an outside speaker?

A potential client asked me – we’re not sure it makes sense to pay a speaker to come to us. What’s your argument? And so, I sat down and wrote this.

Clearly I’m biased, since I make a good part of my living being hired to speak.

However, back when I was a manager it was rare I hired someone merely to come talk to my team.  Same for consultants. The amount these people wanted seemed outrageous. I also had the sense I’d failed if I had to bring someone else in to teach, explain, motivate or do whatever it was I’d be paying them to do. I believed I could, and should, do all things and fill all roles as their boss.

I don’t believe this anymore – it’s entertainingly arrogant – but I did back then.

But I do know this. People listen differently to outsiders. Their ears and minds are more open. And if open minds and better ideas are what you seek, bringing an interesting, live, passionate person into your group is one easy way to do it.

Here are my arguments for hiring speakers:

  • People listen differently. The same message you have given 10 times before to no avail, will be heard differently from an outside expert. People listen differently to outsiders and lend their ideas more consideration, or at least different consideration, than insiders. The package ideas come in changes how those ideas are judged.
  • It brings fresh thinking to your world. Whatever I, or other good speakers, say, it’s unlikely to be the strict party line. Part of my value is how many places I visit – I see everything. I’m a trafficker in ideas and I get around. People hear ideas born from a wider perspective, and are provoked to consider new attitudes, questions or ideas than they had before. Even if they disagree, they’ll have more confidence in whatever it is they do believe after hearing a well spoken outsider offer a different view to test theirs against.
  • People are more willing to ask questions and voice opinions. There is a freedom in talking to a visitor. Asking a vistor makes it safer to ask certain tough questions. It can spark conversations that are hard to start, or that people are afraid to talk about.
  • It raises morale. If the speaker is good, or high profile, people feel you care.That you’re interested in continuing their growth and education.  The group, or company, scores morale points simply by you taking the time/money to arrange to have someone come in and talk with them. If you could get U2 to play at your next team meeting, even people who don’t like U2 would feel something positive that you took the time to make that happen.
  • It’s a bargain. If I say something that makes people 1% or 2% more effective in how they approach their work, that’s a big improvement. What else gives that kind of impact in a short amount of time? If the average salary in the room is $100,000, and there are 40 people there, that’s $4 million in annual investment by the company. If I can make them 1% more effective when they return, that’s worth $40k.  (I don’t buy this exact math, but there is a similiar math at work). There is a huge range in what it costs to hire a speaker, but $5k to $10k is in the mid range for a lecture-type experience.
  • It’s cheaper than sending people to conferences.  Instead of sending people out to events, and paying conference and travel fees, bringing a speaker in reverses the expenses. You pay travel for one person, and bring them to your entire group. Your folks don’t get the immersive,  multi-day travel experience a great conference can provide, but they do get a self-contained injection of fresh thinking and different perspectives they can take right back to work with them. They can also choose to spend more time with the speaker if they want, or if they’re bored, go back to their desks. They can self select their level of interest, unlike a conference where they may be stuck wandering through afternoons of mediocrity.

And here are my arguments against:

  • Many experts are lousy speakers. I’ve seen them and so have you. They talk about themselves. They are boring or arrogant. They ramble and wander to places no one cares about. They don’t teach or listen. There is no law that says the higher profile an author or expert is, the better they are at engaging audiences. Many are impractical in their thinking and don’t care about how hard their suggestions are to put into practice.  Many speakers are simply not very good and don’t provide much value.
  • Many are self involved/promotion focused. For many people speaking is solely promotion for other things – their books or their consulting firms. So they don’t see the speaking/teaching as the product, they see it as an advertisement for their real products, despite what you’ve hired them for.
  • Speak and run (in a can). The best teaching happens in smaller groups, but the higher the profile of the speaker, the more likely it is they show up, lecture to a huge crowd, and leave, never learning much about you, your people, your problems. It’s also less likely they’ll be interactive, as they’re fond of giving completely one way lectures. It’s always more fun for me, after the big fancy lecture, to get with a small, fun, high energy group at a whiteboard and make it a confab. See if we can put my ideas into practice, or collaborate on whatever it is they’re trying to do. Not a course where it’s my agenda, but something the students drive after hearing me talk for awhile.
  • Speakers can’t solve the tough problems.  If a speaker is amazing, it’s still only speaking. Speaking and doing are two different things. After the lecture someone has to do something different than they did before, and that’s what a speaker can not do for them. It’s silly to expect the arrival of a speaker to change the bad behavior of a VP, or the dysfunctions of a team, because it can’t, but some guru types promise this and more. I’m the first to tell potential clients about what problems I can and cannot solve. I can inspire, I can give ideas, I can coach and can tell how others have solved problems, but I can’t do it for you. However, a good speaker is one of the few ways to inject some momentum for change into a culture. There is a reason many of our heroes are known for their speeches (JFK, MLK, Lincoln, Gandhi, Jesus, etc.) Good speakers give people something to talk about that’s safe to criticize, or be inspired by, and can be the fuel for progress leaders have been waiting for.
  • Sometimes you can find good speakers for free. There’s no doubt about it – there are great people in every field who aren’t famous, but are just as knowledgeable as those that are, and are better speakers/teachers than the famous people. But for some of the reasons above, they’re harder to find, and they don’t have the same impact on morale that someone well known or famous in some way.

Many authors, today and throughout history, made much more income from speaking to groups than from their books. When it’s done well it has a potency you can’t get from books, or the web, or anything else.

Have you ever hired a speaker to come in to your organization?  If you have, how do your notes compare to the above? If you haven’t, who or what would make you change your mind?

8 Responses to “Should you pay for an outside speaker?”

  1. Phil Simon


    Great list. To me, this is the most compelling argument:

    People are more willing to ask questions and voice opinions. There is a freedom in talking to a visitor. It

  2. Kimberly Blessing

    I’ve hired many speakers in the past and will continue to do so. However, I’ve never hired anyone to speak and run — I’m looking for people who will spend some time examining the subject matter in the organizational context before presenting, and then also spend some time helping the team develop solutions. So, I see each speaker as a consultant.

    In order to ensure we don’t get duds, I send members of my team out to see potential presenters speak elsewhere — either at conferences or peer companies. I also ask for referrals.

    My current organization employs a nice approach — outside speakers are paired with internal speakers. In many cases, the internal speaker could present alone, but as you’ve noted, the external speaker garners greater respect, which lends credence to the internal speaker’s point. It does require some preparation, but it gives the external speaker greater perspective — which hopefully serves them elsewhere!

  3. Scott Berkun

    Kimberly: Thanks for the post.

    Effectively a keynote outside speaker, on an internal event with lots of internal speakers, is what you’re talking about. A lot of what I get asked to do is this sort of thing.

  4. Ricardo Patrocínio

    We had a couple of speakers in my company, and I totally agree with your points. For some reason, people listen better to people from outside the organization, specially if they are from abroad.

  5. Kaala Souza

    Love the list! Seen it, heard it and done some of it on both ends of it :). I really like “People listen differently.” When a company brings me in to speak we take some time to figure out where my message and their need connect. When we find it we see it’s usually not a new thing- in fact it’s the same thing they (the managers/leaders/executives that are hiring me) have been saying for a while. I figured out that it’s just like talking, talking and talking to your kids. Sometimes, somehow the message just gets communicated more clearly, fully and more powerfully when someone else says it. Thanks for taking the time to list this out. Aloha from Hawaii!

  6. Pawel Brodzinski

    I’ve never paid outsider for speaking gig. And I’d still be reluctant to do so. Actually I agree with most of your point but majority of speakers I’ve seen fall to one of categories labeled “not worth paying (that much).”

    Having said that I’d definitely hire you Scott if I had a budget. That’s how it should be done by the way – speakers should be cherry-picked if you want to get more value than you would at conferences.

    I wouldn’t hire most of industry celebrities – for the reasons you point: it is most of the time one-way communication.

    By the way: great post. I think it would be a good idea to follow-up the post discussing how to find those less-known speakers.

  7. Dick

    Scott — I’ve never been able to convince my management to spring for the overhead dollars and bringing you (or equivalent) would eat a major chunk of my training budget for the year. It’s very hard to justify in my circumstances (engineering organization). It’s also the main reason my own speaking engagements have been free or almost free–I love sharing with the same kind of groups but they can’t afford you either.

  8. Julie

    Great post, Scott. As a professional speaker who goes the extra mile to give value to a company, it’s frustrating to constantly hear that they don’t pay speakers. But there are always 2 sides and I like to hear them both to be able to figure out a win/win solution.


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