Should you pay to be the speaker at conferences? 

It’s a question I get quite often. And really, the answer all depends on what you need.

Here’s what I mean:
One day I was making the usual series of calls to various conference organizers to become their superhero speaker when an organizer threw me a whammy. She seemed very excited about my topic and was certain it would blow attendees away. I was equally excited because the event was in my home state. So I said, “Great! I would love to be a breakout session speaker at your event!”

And she said, “Great! That will be $4,500 dollars.”

I nearly spit my coffee on my cat.

This organizer wanted me to Pay to Play, orbuck up $4,500 to the organization so I could present at their event.

The reason I nearly spit out my coffee was because:
1) I thought the fee was outrageously high.
2) It didn’t appear that my demographic would be there in full force, and therefore, I had very few people to sell my services to. So for me, I didn’t need to pay to play because it wouldn’t have benefited me.


{What is Pay to Play?}

Should you pay to be the speaker at conferencesOrganizers need to fund their conferences. By asking you to pay, they’re basically asking you for a sponsorship. Sometimes it’s $450. Sometimes it’s $4,500. Sometimes it’s more. Lots more.

I had an organizer call me to offer me a spot for an event in New York City. Curious, yet cautious, I asked her some of the usual questions to get a feel of the event:
 – How many attendees do you expect?
 – What is the age demographic?
 – Ratio of men to women?
 – Is it small business owners and entrepreneurs attending, or larger businesses and corporations?

She told me they were expecting 60 attendees and that the percentage of entrepreneurs would be less than 10%. At the time, I coached creative entrepreneurs and speakers, so I’m already at a disadvantage because that 10% is my demographic. I told her that. Eager to reel me in, she went on and on about how Pepsi and IMB were the primary sponsors and yadda, yadda, yadda, and then mentioned in a Flash-Gordon-like-breath that there was a fee to be a speaker at the event. Before I could ask what that fee was, she has already moved on and was still yadda yadda-ing.

I gently interrupted her with, “Pardon me, I’m sorry. The fee you mentioned. How much is that fee?”

She paused for a moment and then said, “$15,000.”

This time I spit my coffee on my poor unsuspecting doxie. Did she accidentally add a zero?

“Do you mean $1,500?”

“No,” she said. “$15,000. You would be on tap with some big names like IBM, Pepsi…”

If I thought $4,500 was outrageously high, imagine what I thought about this fee.


{Should You Do It?}

Should you pay to be the speaker at conferencesI told the woman in New York NO. Paying $15,000 to speak to sixty people, five of which might be potential clients just didn’t fit. But it might have for someone else.

Should you pay to play?
Ultimately, it depends on what (or need) you want from the conference.
If you need more clients, this might work.
If you need to sell a program or want to get your name out there with the big wigs, this might work.

This “sponsorship” approach isn’t new, but it seems to be reemerging, especially with high-end business conferences and summits. And while I’m not a fan of high-priced sponsorships like this, admittedly there are times the Pay to Play price is worth it.

If you are a high-end coach that sells packages for $15k or $20k, this kind of event might be an option. But for speakers who don’t have a high-ticket item to sell (like a coaching package or online program) and are just starting out, these pay to play gigs aren’t an option. But don’t fret. There are plenty of stages out there that won’t ask you to pay to play. Focus on those stages. Or better yet, negotiate with the “pay to play” organizer.

Conferences of this magnitude need three things:
 – Money
– Attendees
– Damn Good Speakers.

If you exude confidence and courage while you’re on the phone with an organizer, you can get yourself in the door. You can. I’m telling you. I had an organizer quote me $3,500 to be a speaker and it didn’t include a vendor table. I talked to this woman for an hour. I was human. I was real. So was she. I asked her what she really needed at the event. She said, “Powerful speakers.”

I said, “That’s me. And I can deliver for you, but I need your help getting me there.”

By the time we were done talking, the entire fee of $3,500 was waived. We agreed she would waive the fee if I reached out to five people in my network she thought would be a good fit for the conference and introduce her to them. So I did. I ended up with a vendor table at no cost, too.

It never hurts to try and negotiate. When you show up with hunger, drive and integrity, that is what the organizer hears. If you’re manipulative and sneaky, forget about it. But to get to the space where you’re paid $10k or more for a talk, you have to play in the dirt for a little while.
You have to be willing to show up.
And you have to be willing to ask for things.

If they say no to your negotiations, don’t sweat it. Keep going. Keep putting yourself out there. Because one of these days, the conference that told you no – is gonna see where you’ve been and what you’ve done and they’re going to want you. Imagine that.

I bet they waive the fee then. ☺


Joleene Moody is a former television reporter and anchor turned freelance writer, ghostwriter, and speaker, based in Central New York.
(No, not New York City. Not even close. 🙂
Learn more at