How (not) to hire a speaker

When you want to hire a speaker, your job is to provide the information that allows the speaker to make a decision — quickly and efficiently. That information ought to be obvious. If you waste the speaker’s time, you won’t close the deal.

What information does the speaker need? It’s simple:

  • Location (or virtual)
  • Timing (could be anything from “March 3, 2021” to “some time in the spring”)
  • Topic
  • Duration
  • Audience (both size and makeup)
  • Budget

Don’t be coy about any of this — concealing things makes it far less likely we’ll want to deal with you. And if your budget is zero, be up front about that, too — either the speaker will agree to work for you gratis, or they won’t, but at least they’ll know what the terms are.

How not to do this

Here’s an email exchange I had recently with a nonprofit that was looking to have me speak for them. I’ve obscured the names to avoid embarrassing the organization.

Subject: Workshop on ‘Tips for Writing Great Content’

Good afternoon,

My name is [redacted] and I work for [redacted, name of Jewish organization in Boston with a link].

We are looking to host a virtual workshop for “Tips for Writing Great Content (Creative and Professional)” in early February as part of our Leadership Development program for young professionals.

Do you offer such a workshop/session?  


[Name, repeated]

[Name, repeated again]

Education and Engagement Manager, [title focused on Jewish causes]

I almost missed this, since the subject line sounds like they want me to go to their workshop.

My correspondent included her own name (repeated three times in the email, along with once in the “From” field, so I wouldn’t miss it), the name of the organization, and the general topic and timing. She omitted the size of the audience, the duration, and crucially, the budget. Was this a plea to do something for free? I had to ask so I could figure out what they wanted. Here was my response:

Can you let me know a little more about your audience and what they’re seeking, so we can figure out if there is a way I can help you?

Can you tell me who referred you to me?

Would you like to go over pricing?

Her response:

Hi Josh,

This workshop is a part of our Leadership Development program. It is for young professionals looking to cultivate their content writing skills as professionals and personally. The writing can be anything from social media to articles and blog posts to professional emails. The audience will be composed of young professionals from Boston as well as Haifa, Israel. These are not marketing professionals, but they are young leaders looking to get noticed and be effective.

We’re looking for a 45-60 minute workshop for approximately 50-70 people. It would take place from 12-1pm on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Does this sound like a program you could provide?

I actually wasn’t referred to you by anyone – I did a general search related to content writing. You came up as one of the speakers at the Content Marketing Conference and it looked like you might be able to provide us with what we’re looking for.

I’m copying in my colleague [redacted] who is the lead organizer for this event.


[Name redacted]

Notice that the budget is still missing. I need to know this — if I’m going to spend time preparing, what value does my correspondent place on that time?

The “you came up as one of the speakers at the Content Marketing Conference” is a red flag. Now it seems as if they are sending out a mass invitation to a bunch of people they found on a speaker page. It costs nothing to do a little research about the speaker ahead of time and make it seem as if you chose them carefully. Instead, I’m left to wonder if they even know who I am.

My response:

I can do this but it is a significant amount of work to prepare.

To avoid us wasting time on both sides, can you share what your budget for this event is?

Finally, my correspondent coughs up a number.

Oh, I’m so sorry, I meant to include it in the last email!

Our budget is around $300-$500.

Any fee of $1,000 or less is best characterized as an “honorarium,” not a speaking fee — that is, “we’ll pay you a little to make up for your trouble.” I don’t know any professional speakers who work for this little. Hiding this until the third email makes it seem as if you’re embarrassed by it.

Also, what does “$300-$500” mean? A speaker will always want the maximum amount. There’s no point in quoting a range.

I might have done this for free, if the organization had made any effort to convince me that it was worthwhile. They didn’t. So this was my response:

That saves lots of time.

My fee for an hour Webinar is $4,500, and that’s discounted for a nonprofit. So this isn’t going to happen.

Good luck.

There was no response to this at all — I never heard from them again.

What approach might have worked?

What impression did this correspondent leave? That she is:

  • Unfamiliar with how professional speakers work and their fees.
  • Unable to read and respond to queries, and therefore disrespectful of the speaker’s time.
  • Unwilling to describe why the goals of the organization might justify a low fee or no payment at all. (Did the person assume that I was Jewish and would therefore be instantly inclined to be charitable to a Jewish organization?)
  • Rude, in that she stopped responding altogether once I revealed I couldn’t do the work.

As it turns out, I just edited a terrific book full of advice on how to get these sorts of interactions right: Knock, by Rebecca Leder. If the author of these emails had read Rebecca’s book, she would have taken a far different and more effective approach, including doing a bit of research ahead of time.

Here’s how the original email would have been more effective.

Subject: Would like you to present a workshop on effective writing for young professionals

We are looking to host a 60-minute virtual workshop for “Tips for Writing Great Content (Creative and Professional)” in early February as part of our Leadership Development program for young professionals.

Based on what I read about you on your web site and in the descriptions of your speech at the Content Marketing Conference, I think you’d be a good choice for this topic.

Our budget is $500. While that is probably less than your usual rate of compensation, we are hoping that you’ll agree to present to this worthy group of young Jewish professionals from Boston and Haifa, Israel at the start of their careers.

Let me know whether this topic is a match to what you can present, and if you’d be open to presenting to our group. We’d be very grateful, and I’m sure the members of the audience would find it quite useful.

I might have said yes to that, and if I did, I probably would have told them to forget the fee. Instead, I was left feeling uncharitable and disrespected — not in a mood to be generous.

The approach matters. Get it right.

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  1. Readers of your blog will now know a lot more about how to hire a speaker. Unfortunately, for her, the woman who wrote to you will not. She’ll know what didn’t work in this case, but won’t benefit from all the positive suggestions you’ve made to us. It’s too bad someone couldn’t send her, anonymously, a copy of this post. She could, obviously, make use of this specific information and might even become a regular follower.

  2. I agree with Tom’s comment.

    Most do not have the benefit of someone sharing best practices – & this is by far the most succinct & helpful post I have read.

    As for me, I am sending a generous thank you mail to the gentleman who shared this post with me. As well as sharing this with my team members.

    Spread the word!