Women Talk Design is on a mission to see a more diverse group of speakers on stage. We elevate women and nonbinary speakers and their talks, empower event organizers with resources to design more inclusive events, and host events, facilitate trainings, and cultivate community for new and developing speakers.
On April 16th, we hosted a Couch Cushion Conversation on Getting Paid to Speak. We’re recapping some of the excellent advice speakers Denise Jacobs & Christina Wodtke shared on how to ask for money, how to calculate your speaker fee, and why it’s so important we ask to get paid.
Tell us about the first time you asked for money.
Denise: “[When I started speaking] I didn’t realize at the time that you could get paid to speak. I spoke for 3 years — and I spoke a lot. But, I wasn’t asking for any money. I did get offered to get paid to speak [one time] and kind of went into a tizzy about how much to ask. It just seemed like a blip when the organizer said, ‘How much do you want to get paid?’. It didn’t register with me that that was something I should be asking for regularly.
At the end of 2012, I was talking to a friend of mine, Whitney Hess, and she said ‘Wait a minute, you’re not getting paid? Girl, you need to be getting paid. You’re in demand, people are asking for you. You need to be getting paid.’”
Christina: “I have to admit that I’ve always struggled with asking [for money]. You know that book, Women Don’t Ask. It’s been an ongoing problem through most of my life — less now. The great thing about getting over 50 is you give less f***s.
Basically, the first time anyone asked me how much I cost — I didn’t learn until later that was not a question you should ever answer — was around salary. Luckily around salary negotiations, I learned when someone says, ‘Well, what was your last salary?’ to say, ‘You know, I’m not sure that’s exactly relevant. That was a different situation. What I’m thinking about here is the entire package. I’d love to know what you’re thinking about as an offer and I can let you know if that’s what I’m looking for.’ And I used to play this game with HR to see who would give a number first.”
“At one point, when I was at Myspace a new head of HR came in and said, ‘Christina, I’m embarrassed to tell you this but I don’t think it’s morally correct to let you keep going. You should not be making $175K, you should be making $250K because everyone else [at your level] is making that.’ I will always be grateful that he told me. But, I was so mad. It gave me quite an attitude about getting paid.”
At what point should you start asking to get paid to speak?
Denise: “Now. When I started speaking, I was operating under the misconception that at some point in time, when I got ‘good enough’, people would start offering to pay me. That’s when my friend Whitney said, ‘No. You get paid when you start asking to get paid.’
The reason you get paid to speak is because you have all of this expertise you are imparting. You’ve got expertise, you’re doing research, you’re doing preparation, and you may be going somewhere. It’s a lot. That’s what they are paying you for. They aren’t paying you for the hour on stage, or the 2-hour workshop or the full day workshop…they are paying you for everything that came before that. And that has value. You wouldn’t start a job with someone saying, ‘Well, you never worked in this job before and you don’t get paid until you’ve worked here a certain amount of time.’ That’s not how it works. And that’s not how it should work with speaking either.”
Christina: “It’s really hard for women to get to the place where they are comfortable asking for money. Sometimes you have to play a game with yourself: ‘Well, how long have I been doing this work? I have a unique point of view. Writing a new talk takes forever…’
Do the math. For example, if you think about what you’re being paid now, plus all of the other bits, your health insurance, etc. — you can start coming up with a day rate. And then you start thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to spend 2 weeks or 4 weeks or more [crafting the talk, plus] the time traveling, etc.’ After a while you do the math, you start to think, ‘I’m worth $15K a day.’”
“You have to have faith in yourself. If you don’t have faith in yourself, maybe do a couple of community things to get your feet under you and get comfortable on the stage. At Women Talk Design, we say ‘community builds resiliency’. Find a community, they’ll help guide you. We take care of each other and that can be the secret to success.”
How do you calculate your speaker fee?
Denise: “[At first,] I came up for a number and when people were asking me to speak I’d say, ‘I’d love to. This is how much it will cost.’ The first couple of times, people were like, ‘We can’t pay that.’ and I said, ‘OK, have a nice conference.’ Then I got invited to keynote a conference. I was having a conversation with the organizers and I was super excited and I had my number in my head. They said, ‘We’ll give you a conference pass and a hotel room and we’ll fly you and we’d like to know what your honorarium fee is.’ And I’m thinking I’m all cool and stuff and I say, ‘Well, you know usually — usually, meaning I’ve never done this before — in situations like this when I come and do a keynote and close out and I’m going to create a new keynote for you… my fee is $3,000.’ And as soon as I could hear the enthusiasm in their voices, I knew it was too low. That they were expecting $10K, $20K…they weren’t expecting the number I gave them.
I was distraught about this. I thought, ‘I can’t believe I just undercut myself’. So, I talked to a friend who does keynote speaking and she was like, ‘You need to be charging $10K.’ She coached me to get comfortable saying ‘I cost $10K.’
Fast forward two months, I’m going to deliver another keynote, the organizer says, ‘OK, how much do you cost?’ And I think, ‘Ok, I’m trained. I’ve been doing mental pushups. I’m ready.’ And I say, ‘$10K.’. And she immediately said OK, and I thought, ‘Wait, that was too easy.’
So, it’s a moving target. You need to come up with your number and get comfortable saying the number. Know for some people it’s going to be too high and for some people it’s going to be too low. You have to figure out your number and you have to stick with it.”
“One of the ways I recommend people choose a number, is to pick a number and probably double it. Start at least at $1,500 or $2,000 and work your way up from there.”
Christina: “I learned when I was consulting that every time someone says yes quickly — like Denise — you need to raise your price the next time someone calls you. And I kept raising it and raising it and raising it until someone said, ‘I don’t know, I need to go back and ask.’ That’s the sweet spot.
Right now, a couple of things have raised my price. A book will increase how much money you can ask for, and it has also improved my salary. The other thing that has increased by price is teaching at Stanford — it’s a big name. So I went from $10K/day to $25K/day if I do a workshop or workshop and a talk. My talks tend to be a little less but not a lot less, especially if there is travel involved. That’s the other thing everyone forgets. Taking two days to get to Tel Aviv is not the same as driving to San Jose. I always differentiate on travel.
Also consider, what number would make you not resent the organizer? Picture the whole thing — I’m going to drive to SFO, I’m going to pay for long-term parking, I’m going to be in that airport again, I’m going to have to fly, I’m going to have to give the talk, I’m going to have to go to dinners — I’m an introvert, even though no one ever believes that. I would not feel good unless they give $10K. And if they give me $5K I’m going to resent them and I just don’t want to do that.”
“I also have 6 things that help me decide whether or not I’m going to give a talk and this might also affect if I’m willing to do it for less.
- Right Price — are they paying the number I like to be paid?
- Right People to Reach — sometimes I want to reach a new audience, like a business audience. As soon as you break into a new group, other people will hire you.
- Right Talk — I’m tired of talking about OKRs, but I love teaching drawing.
- Right Location — I would love to talk in Bangkok.
- Right Effort — How hard is it going to be? I’ll say yes to free Q&As but not to something I’ll have to prepare.
- Right Values — Does the conferences organizer values mirror mine? For some organizations, you cannot pay me enough. There’s no number to [work for someone] I hate.”
Denise: “Talk to other colleagues who are in a similar professional level and have been speaking for the same amount of time. And, this is what I always like to tell women, other people of color, and anyone from a marginalized group: ‘Ask yourself WWAWGD: What would a white guy do?’ If you were a white guy, how much value would you give yourself?”
“You probably know folks. Ask them. ‘Do you do any speaking? Do you get paid for it? Would you be willing to share with me what your process is and what your speaker fee is? I’m working on this and I’m asking different people to get an idea so I can see where to place myself because I know that my expertise has values and I know I should be compensated for it.’”
Christina: “Asking is so critical. Ask for advice. People are surprisingly kind.”
Consider where you are speaking.
Christina: “Also consider, It’s not just you, it’s where you’re speaking. For example, UX conferences pay way less. If you think about it, it makes sense because a lot of designers in companies don’t control their budget, or have a very small budget. So, you’ll see UX conferences for keynoting, it’s often like $5K which is small. Product conferences pay a bit better. HR conferences pay pretty well. A lot of it is the audience as well. Corporate is the sweet spot. Companies have a lot of money.
I’ll be speaking one week for $5K for a friend of mine who is doing a UX conference and the next week I’ll fly to Texas for $25K for a one day (for a company). So it’s not just you, it’s also them. Add a zero to the end if it’s a company.”
Denise: “There’s a difference [between events]. Here’s an example: If you’re in tech at a conference like WordCamp, it is usually done by a local WordPress group. They are doing the conference for the community in that area. The ticket price is not particularly high because they are trying to make it accessible to more people. At a conference like that, depending on how much sponsor money they get, they most likely will not be paying any of the speakers. It’s a good opportunity for exposure or an opportunity for you to practice your craft.
My experience is that most conferences make their money because of the sponsorships they get from companies, unless they are very high-end conferences that they are charging a lot of money for the ticket. So you can look at the sponsors.
There are also professional associations. Typically have budget. Depending on the association they will typically budget for speakers.
Then, there are corporate conferences. They pay a lot of money for a lot of the speakers they have come in.
So, in terms of where the money is, it’s a spectrum.”
“When you’re having a conversation about speaking, there is nothing wrong with asking, ‘Do you have budget for speakers?’ There is nothing wrong with sharing your speaking fee. If they say no, you can go from there, but there is nothing wrong with asking.”
How do you calculate a speaker fee for virtual events?
Denise: “Just because you’re going virtual, doesn’t mean there’s no value. You still have to prepare. You have to prepare more in some ways because you have to worry about your lighting and your sound and your own tech. You have to figure out if you’re going to screenshare. You have to dress for it. You have to manage all of these things you might not have to manage in person. And you are still imparting your expertise. I cannot stress this enough. You’re storytelling, you’re teaching, you’re coaching. Don’t let people’s expectation of ‘it’s virtual so there’s less value’ stay with you. Go in thinking, ‘there’s actually equal if not more value, and here’s why.’ Stand in your value. Know that what you have to share is important — the information, the skills, the expertise, and your experience and your perspective are all incredibly valuable.”
Christina: “I have a Bay Area price and I charge the same for virtual. I tack on more money for transit.”
How do you start the conversation about getting paid with an event organizer?
Denise: “Like I said, at first I wasn’t having that conversation at all. So, part of my problem was that when I started speaking, I was under the impression that once I was ‘good enough’ people would start to offer me money. Then, I had my conversation with Whitney Hess and she was like, “‘You get paid when you ask for money. You don’t get paid when you don’t ask for money.’ So, take that: You get paid when you ask for money.
I recommend a book called, Exactly What to Say, by Phil Jones. He has ‘magic words’ to phrase things so you end up getting the responses and answers that you want.”
“When people say, ‘I would like for you to come speak at our conference.’ here is the structure of my conversation that usually follows: ‘So great, I want to hear about it…Tell me about the size of the audience.’ (That’s important) ‘Tell me about what you are trying to do. Does the conference have a theme? What do you want me to do?’
If people are not clear about whether they want me to keynote or not, I typically will say, ‘So, did you want me to be the opening keynote or closing keynote?’ This presumes I’m coming in knowing what my value is. I know that I am a better speaker as an opening or closing keynote.
Then, I’ll say, ‘When I’m the opening keynote, here’s what I do…’ If I have had any time to prep, I will sometimes go to the site to see how much the ticket prices are. So then you can start to see how much money they are going to be potentially making from this event. Then, I’ll ask, ‘What’s your budget for speakers?’ or ‘What is your budget for the keynote speakers?’ Once they share that, I’ll say ‘My fee is this amount.’ And if it’s more than the amount they said, you can first ask, ‘Why don’t you go and check to see what you can do and come back to me.’
Sometimes when it is a community event, I say, ‘Here’s my community rate.’ Or, ‘Here’s my list of other things I would like in terms of compensation since you can’t accommodate the fee.’ Like, if it’s in a cool place, ask for a companion ticket to take a friend or parent or partner. One conference in Greece paid for an extra week of hotel for me to vacation afterward. You can ask for media interviews. You can ask for VIP dinners with their sponsors. You can ask for access to their mailing list. You can ask for things that will help you further along your business. Even if you’re doing this as a side hustle, it is a business. You do need to eat and you do need to keep the lights on. That’s how I like to structure the conversation.”
“The other thing you can do is ask, how much budget do you have for the whole conference?”
“Here’s another tip: Research who is speaking at the conference now and who has spoken at the conference in the past. If you see people you know in your industry — and you know those people wouldn’t get on stage without getting paid — then you know this conference most likely has budget for speakers.”
Christina: “When someone reaches out and asks me if I want to speak, I suck at asking for what I want so I often send a [prepared email] (inspired by Ethan Marcotte). I ask, ‘How do you plan to compensate your speakers?’ Even if I get paid, I don’t want to be part of something that’s screwing over other people. I put in my occasional exceptions. I want to know about their audience. I give them the talks that are trivial for me to do. I do charge extra if I have to give a new talk.
If we are going to do it, the second piece of information I share is inspired by Karen McGrane. It hits questions to help you know what you’re walking into.
I keep my speaking stuff in one Google Drive. I have a spreadsheet to track who is supposed to be paying me. Even good people will forget to pay you. I have my letter to the organizer. I have my bios and my decks and my talk descriptions. I like to have a bunch of different bios — a short one, one for storytelling talks, a long one, a teaching one — because I’m often reaching out to different audiences. I also have my speaker sheet. When someone reaches out to me, my assistant sends this and it has my rates. And people see my rates and they disappear. And I want people to disappear because I teach full time and I only want to do it if it’s financially viable.”
If you’re the one asking an event organizer to speak, how do you then ask to be paid?
Christina: “When I reach out, I usually say, ‘I don’t know if you know but I’m giving a lot of talks on this topic and I think I’d be a great fit. If you think so too and you’re comfortable with my rate, then it would be great to do this.’ If I’m asking someone who is making money off of a conference — and I know some people who will pay for their entire year of work off organizing one conference — your rate is your rate.”
Denise: “You may be responding to calls for papers, but if you see an event and do research, and you know other people who have spoken there. I recommend that you reach out to those people who spoke at the event and find out if they were able to get paid or not. And then ask them to put you in touch with the organizer. Once you do that, you come in at a higher level of value than if you are just part of the cattle call of papers.”
If you ask for money, will you risk losing the opportunity?
Christina: “Why are you worried you might lose it? You have to ask yourself why you are nervous about losing the opportunity? Are you nervous someone might not ask you again? If one person asked you, I bet there are more people coming your way. You’re just on your upswing. You really have to ask yourself why you are worried about it. The worst thing that can happen is the resentment. It’s just not worth it. Getting really comfortable with saying no is the answer. If someone offers you something, and if you know what it’s value is to you, you can ask for what you want. When they say they are not going to do it you can say, ‘That’s really fine, and let me know if anything changes.’”
Is it worth working with an agent?
Denise: “It is, but typically agents will only work with speakers who already have work. If you are breaking into speaking, in my experience, agents may not want to work with you. But if you have a New York Times bestseller book or a high position at a well-known company [they might]. But, if you’re starting out, learn the ropes of the business before you try to hire someone to do something for you when you aren’t quite sure what you’d have them do.”
Christina: “I had one Speaker Bureau that worked with me. The good news is you can name a ridiculously high price and they’ll just mark me up on top of that. But I got sent to a group that wasn’t ready for me. I gave the same talk I give everywhere but in a very masculine industry, in a very male room, and got bad reviews. I don’t like that between. I’d rather have an assistant than an agent because I can make sure I’ll get paid what I want and I can make sure it will be an audience I’ll be successful for. Same with book agents though. I self publish because I like money.”
How can I find speaking opportunities?
Denise: “I am always on the lookout for conferences. If I see that someone I know is speaking at a conference (maybe on Twitter), I’ll take a screenshot or the URL and add them to a spreadsheet. I have a spreadsheet of conferences I’d like to speak at or investigate. In the spreadsheet I have: the name of the conference, the URL of the conference, the organizer’s name and contact information, the dates of the conference, and the location of the conference.
When I first started speaking, I was like a hawk on Twitter. I would take everything that I saw the people I knew in the industry who were doing similar work [speaking at], and I’d put their conferences on there.
If they had a call for papers (CFP), I’d put the dates in the spreadsheet and sort it by that. And I’d add reminders in my calendars to work on the submission. I made it so that it just became a regular thing. I was always looking for stuff and I had a very organized way to get it. I would put it in the same place every time and I would regularly go through and start applying for things like a job.
Once I started speaking at more conferences and I started knowing more speakers who spoke at conferences, which started working even better.
An application to a CFP sometimes gets tens and hundreds of people submitting. If you know a speaker who has spoken at an event you want to speak at and you have a decent relationship with them, reach out to that person and ask them to introduce you to the organizer. It’s the same thing as a job. If you know someone who has a connection, you’re better off than just sending something through the website.”
Does having a book help you get more speaking gigs?
Christina: “When I wrote my first book, Information Architecture for the Web, it did get me some work and it did mean I had a lot of material to make slides, but it was kind of pointless. As I dug in, I felt like every time I talked to a conference organizer they said ‘Oh, we’ll help you sell books.’ And when I spoke to publishers they said, ‘Oh, we’ll help you get speaking gigs.’ And I thought, ‘Where is the money in this equation?’ So I decided to get paid for both. I went over to self-publishing and then I started charging for talks. And to be honest, I feel like everyone would like to get something for free and I’m done.”
Denise: “My first book was called The CSS Detective Guide and part of the reason I wrote that book was so I could start speaking. I had a friend who said, ‘Everyone I know who is a speaker has a book.’ What ended up happening through the process of writing the book, by the time I was done with it — even though I hadn’t changed as a speaker myself because I already had the instruction background from teaching — I felt more confident going to conferences saying, ‘Hey, I can talk about this because I’m an expert because I have a book about it.’ So, I don’t think necessarily a book makes you more valuable to people — I think it does to some degree — but I think it can help you sit in your expertise…because your attitude is different about yourself, people will treat you differently.”
If you have a video of your talk online, is that like giving away your work?
Denise: “A lot of times conferences will record your talk and put it on the web. And that is actually very helpful for you. Without event organizers being able to see what you do, they are not going to know.
Speaking is one of those things — it’s this ethereal experience. It’s a thing that happens in this moment in time and then it’s gone. Even if you get a video of it, no one can feel what the room felt like. The video is the next best thing you have for that. As a speaker, if you’re going to be serious about this, at some point in time you might want a speaker reel. The video is gold and the free video you get from other conferences, if it’s well-produced and good quality, it’s invaluable. So that’s another thing to write into your speaker agreement — that you are going to be getting the video from them. Or, even that you can get the raw video so you can use it for your own purposes.
So, it’s not really giving anything away your stuff for free. Most likely, that talk might have been tailored for that audience and you may never give it again in that particular format. Even if you do the exact same content, you might be riffing with the audience or doing stuff that’s never going to happen again. What people want [during a live talk] is the experience of you. The content is important but it’s the content paired with the experience with you that matters.”
Why is it so important to get paid to speak?
Christina: “I have never gone to CHI or Grace Hopper because they charge their speakers. And I just cannot believe that. It’s actually quite upsetting. My feeling is that if you are not paying me for my knowledge and expertise, I literally cannot afford to do it. I’m guessing you [women on the call] are probably home, you’re doing the childcare, you have tons of work, and on top of it someone’s asking you to show up, take the time out, and share your expertise? I get that academic conferences are aimed at professors who get their schools to pay for it. But, it’s still wrong.
I think the part of it that upsets me the very most is that women are denied opportunities to have this networking, have this connection, because all of literature says, women are responsible for the bulk of the childcare, the bulk of the eldercare…I feel like for women, we should be bending over backward to make sure the stage is more fair. We should be paying them. We should be thinking about childcare, which conferences organizers always freak out about. There’s such a blinder on guys about what it takes for us to bring our knowledge there. So, the guys get famous and we don’t and that’s just really upsetting.”
Denise: “That’s part of the reason why you started Women Talk Design. And that’s one of the reasons why I started Rawk the Web. I personally — and all of us — want to see the face of expertise change to reflect who actually has the expertise. It’s not just white men who have expertise. All of us have expertise. We all have different stories to tell and different experiences to share. It’s all relevant.
I want to share a story about why it’s so important for there to be more diverse representation on stage. I went to my very first design conference called Web Visions in Portland in 2005. I went because I used to teach web design and web development, and the books I used were by this woman named Molly Holzschlag. I was a total fangirl and she was speaking at this conference. When I saw her on stage, I had this epiphany. She was on stage and she was making the same kind of jokes that I make and she was teaching the same kind of content that I teach…She got up and spoke for an hour to 200, 500, however many people in the room, and everyone was cheering ‘Molly! Molly! Molly’. I thought, ‘That is exactly what I want to do.’
Matt Mullenweg was at that conference. BJ Fogg, who teaches at Stanford, was at that conference. I didn’t look at them and think, ‘I want to do that. That’s possible.’ But when I saw Molly do that, I thought, ‘This is possible for me.’
So, this is my very emotional plea for you: Understand that you are needed on stage — your expertise, your knowledge, your stories — everything about you. I don’t care if you think you’re an expert. I don’t care if you think you’ve done enough. With anything that you’ve done up until now, you are going to be at least one step ahead of somebody else. And, you’ll be able to help them.”
This conversation was inspired by our first #CouchConvo, where we hosted a discussion on navigating public speaking in the time of COVID-19 and taking your speaking engagements online. One of the big questions that came up during that discussion was, “How do you get paid to speak?” You can check out the write up from that convo here.
A big thank you to Denise Jacobs & Christina Wodtke for sharing their experience and expertise with us!