How to Make Money From Speaking Engagements

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By Sam Johnson

Two years ago, in a pseudonymous essay titled "The Tenured Entrepreneur," I described how I’d parlayed my academic skills into a moderately lucrative part-time business as a freelance writer and speaker. At the time, my "side hustle" was grossing about half of my annual faculty salary.

I’m happy to report that business continues to be good: In 2016, I made close to two-thirds of what I’m paid as a tenured professor in the humanities. My long-term goal is to retire early and devote myself full-time to writing and speaking — perhaps inverting my current financial model by teaching part-time on the side, because I enjoy it. To get to that point, realistically, I need my freelance work to be generating about 120 percent of my faculty salary. Clearly, I’m not there yet, but at least the goal seems within reach.

I didn’t write that first essay (or this one) to brag. I wrote it purely to point out that, if I could turn my years of experience into extra income, just about any trained academic could do the same.

I’ve learned a lot more about freelancing since then. In this installment, I’d like to focus specifically on how to procure speaking engagements because, in my experience, that’s where the real money is.

Last year, for example, I had roughly one speaking engagement a month, and earned an average of about $2,000 each time. By comparison, my paid articles and book sales generated about half that much — which seems about right. Unless you can devote yourself to writing full-time, or you pen a best seller, you’re unlikely to make a lot of money from publishing.

What your writing can do for you, however, is establish your credibility and get your name out there so people know who you are. Even then, don’t expect them to beat a path to your door. The onus is on you to leverage your newfound credibility and name recognition into paid speaking gigs. Here’s how:

Find your angle. The first step is to decide what you’re going to talk about. It will probably have something to do with your area of academic expertise, although that may be too narrow to attract much of a paying audience. You might need to expand into a related area that appeals to more people. If, on the other hand, your field is already crowded, then your task is to find an angle that is somehow unique — a reason why people would want to hire you for a speech instead of one of those other folks.

Either way, you should develop a highly polished, "canned" presentation that you are prepared to give over and over again to different audiences. (All of this presumes you are a reasonably compelling public speaker; your side hustle won’t generate much extra income if you’re boring.)

Diversify. In fact, you should prepare more than one presentation, because the key to earning a good income from speaking fees is being able to talk about more than one topic. The more speeches in your repertoire, the larger your pool of potential clients.

In addition to your specific area of scholarly expertise, you’ve probably developed other, tangential interests that might have broad appeal — the way literary scholars often become pop-culture gurus. It’s not that much of a stretch from studying Shelley’s Frankenstein to talking about The Walking Dead — and (like it or not) a lot more people are interested in the latter than in the former.

No doubt scholars in fields like economics, psychology, finance, political science, history, and the hard sciences can find connections between their work and the topics that capture the imagination of the masses (or at least moderately large, well-heeled segments thereof).

Find your audience(s). Once you’ve decided what sorts of things you’d like to speak about, the next step is to find groups of people willing to listen — and pay you for the privilege.

That’s not as difficult as it might sound. People who are genuinely interested in a topic are often willing to pay someone who can talk about it authoritatively and engagingly. In fact, they expect to pay. (Notable exceptions: civic and church groups.)

Start with your network of friends and colleagues at other institutions and organizations. Let them know you’re hanging out your shingle, and find out if any of them are willing to bring you in to speak. Next, brainstorm about other groups that might have some interest in your subject. Spend some time on the internet doing research on your potential audiences.

Ask for gigs. Simply identifying potential clients isn’t enough. You must be willing to take the next step: calling, emailing, or going by in person to ask if you can come speak to the group. That means figuring out exactly whom to ask. Directing your offer to speak to the right person — the decision-maker — is absolutely vital.

Even then, you will still, perhaps frequently, get a polite (or not-so-polite) brushoff. Don’t let that discourage you. Like anyone in sales, you may have to hear "no" a lot before you get to a "yes."

Once your name is out there, people will probably begin to approach you with speaking engagements. But initially, at least, you’re going to have to approach them.

Go on the conference circuit. Another good way to drum up business: Attend professional conferences populated by people who share your interests. Even better, submit a proposal. Presenting lets you establish yourself as an expert while at the same time "auditioning" as a speaker.

Because that’s really what presenting at conferences is — an audition. As a budding entrepreneur, your goal is not just to share your knowledge and network with like-minded colleagues but also to land other (paid) speaking engagements.

Don’t be too obvious or obnoxious about it. You’re not hawking Amway. Just do everything in your power to make your presentation as polished and engaging as possible, and make it clear that you’re open to other opportunities.

Write a book. Few things will boost your speaking schedule like adding the words "author of" to your CV. Perhaps you’ve already written one or more scholarly books. If they have a very narrow appeal, consider branching out and writing about related topics for broad audiences.

A few months ago, I spoke at a retreat for a group of nonacademic professionals. The other speaker on the program was a well-known (but not exactly famous) scientist who had written a highly regarded (but not best-selling) book. He was paid more that $10,000 for a three-hour presentation. (I was paid quite a bit less, in case you’re wondering.) The point is: Your book does not have to be a huge seller for it to lead to lucrative speaking engagements.

Invest in yourself. Perhaps you’ve noticed that some of these suggestions cost money. There may be ways to defray those costs, such as using your departmental travel allowance to attend a conference. But if you want to be successful on the speaking circuit, you probably will have to invest some of your own money.

Next spring, for example, I’m planning to attend a large national conference on my own dime because I believe I can make contacts there that will lead to paid engagements. I’m not asking for travel funds from my university because I want to feel comfortable representing primarily my own interests. (The fact that it occurs during a break is helpful, too.) Which brings me to my next point:

Maintain clear boundaries. I mentioned this in my earlier column, but it bears repeating: Be very careful to keep your freelance work as separate as possible from your faculty work. Where the two overlap, as is often the case — I put many of my speaking engagements on my CV — be sure to follow, to the letter, your institution’s policies governing conflicts of interests, outside income, and travel.

Fortunately, most colleges and universities encourage faculty members to engage in outside speaking and consulting, properly acknowledging the positive recognition such activities bring to the institution itself — so long as professors don’t miss too much work time, pursue clear conflicts of interests, or flaunt their success.

Know what to charge. The hardest part of this whole process, for me, has been figuring out my fees. I don’t want to price myself out of the market, but I do want to place the appropriate value on my services.

Sometimes a client will offer me a set fee up front. If it’s too low, I either say "No, thank you" or try to negotiate it upward, depending on the situation. (A good rule of thumb: If you’re not wild about speaking there, but you would do it for X amount, then ask for that amount.) But most of the time people will inquire about my fee.

The going rate these days for academic talks (where a "fee" is politely called an "honorarium") is about $1,000 for anything up to half a day and $1,500 beyond that, plus reasonable expenses. I’ve accepted as little as $500 for something local that didn’t require much travel — especially if I really wanted the gig or owed someone a favor.

Keep in mind that you might have to speak for free early on in order to establish yourself. Mark Twain’s caustic advice about writing probably applies to public speaking, too: "Write without pay until someone offers. If no one offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended to do."

On the other end of the spectrum, you know it’s time to raise your fee when you find yourself with more offers than you can reasonably accommodate. Or maybe that means it’s time to resign your faculty post and hit the speaking circuit full time.

In any case, if anything I’ve said in this column strikes you as crass or beneath the dignity of a faculty member, then you’re probably not cut out to be an entrepreneur. Believe me — I understand. I used to feel that way myself, until I figured out it didn’t pay to be a "purist." The university wasn’t going to reward my loyalty to the high ideals of the profession in any tangible way.

Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, most certainly does pay. There’s a good chance you can make money as a speaker — and possibly a lot of money, if you’re good at it and have legitimate expertise on a hot topic. The opportunity is there, and the choice is yours.

By Sam Johnson is the pseudonym of an associate professor in the humanities at a university in the South.

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