Look Who's Talking

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2005

Word of mouth is more than a cliché when considering hiring an effective speaker. After all, at speaking rates ranging from $1,200 to $125,000 an hour (former President Bill Clinton earned an average of $159,000 per speech in 2002), talk is clearly not cheap.

Local professional speakers charge $100 to $7,000 per speech and some have charged up to $70,000 for a three-week program. Are they worth it? When they evoke professional and personal changes within the audience they can be worth every penny.

According to professional speakers and the people who hire them, an hour-long motivational or informational speech should show preparedness, interactivity and a carefully tailored message.

Omar Edwards, acting principle of the Phoenix Program, part of Manatee Technical Institute Community High School, has twice paid local success coach Keith O'Neill to speak, once to motivate students, and then for teambuilding among faculty.

"When he spoke to the students you could almost hear a pin drop in the cafeteria," says Edwards, who worked with O'Neill to convey a message of employability skills and real life situations. The speech before the faculty, however, was more challenging. "I knew they may be hurt as part of his presentation," he says. "Some of the staff were used to low expectations, and I wanted to help them adjust because I was going to set the bar higher." Part of O'Neill's program was a lesson in trust in which he blindfolded faculty members and taught them to rely on others in the crowd. He helped turn a disjunctive crowd into a unified team.

"Some companies bring me in for a conference and allow their employees to come in to talk to me," says O'Neill, who typically charges $1,800 per speech for his Choice Wellness program. "They do it as individuals and as groups. It's almost as if I have therapist written across my face. I listen to what the people are saying about themselves and the company, and I bring back all that information to management-which is ultimately what everyone wants."

Kathy Baylis, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, annually hires one paid speaker discovered through referral for an annual author event. "We traditionally seek speakers with fees under $7,500. Usually the speakers have written books that inspire positive action in the local economy," she says. One of her most effective speakers was Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class. Three years later, people still talk about his speech.

The Nonprofit Resource Center engages approximately 50 local corporate trainers annually and pays some national speakers up to $3,000 each, according to director Christie Lewis. What matters to her is getting across the right message to the audience. "To help the trainer understand the nonprofit environment, we give them a profile sketch of the target audience and our needs," she says.

While a speaker's knowledge is important, spontaneous flexibility was the difference between an engaged audience and a bored one. "When speakers fail to acknowledge and understand their audience they are much less effective, sometimes even painful," says Lewis. "During one excruciating experience I was just hoping for the giant vaudeville hook to take [a speaker] off stage!"

O'Neill says one of his worst speaking engagements occurred when he started off with a joke that flopped. It flopped, he says, because the crowd wasn't there for entertainment; they wanted information.

Lynn McDonald, a local speaker who charges between $1,500 and $7,000 for her program entitled "No Dead Horses," agrees. "Some speakers don't have a strong vocabulary or are handicapped with speech impediments. If you have a genuine message-and the audience knows if you don't-you will be invited back. When I do a program I get 25 e-mails the next day telling me I changed their lives. That to me is worth more than the money."

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