How Do I Approach Speakers for My Conference?

Do you need help figuring out how to get speakers to speak at your conference? Follow these three steps and you'll have a full speaker roster in no time!

***This post was originally published in July 2016, but because it's almost conference season, and people are starting to put together pitches for speakers, I thought it was timely to update and revisit it. Enjoy! ***


Hi Lauren,

I'm in the process of planning an one-day nonprofit conference. We are still very much laying the foundation -- budget, website, sponsorship tiers, marketing plan, etc. 

Here is where I'm stumped: the dreaded money talks. Particularly when it comes to paying speakers.

For the speakers, I've seen online that paying speakers for smaller industry conferences like these isn't always expected. However, I would hate for anyone to feel disrespected or unappreciated if we asked them to donate their time and knowledge in exchange for just some free stuff or admission to the event. Plus, we obviously want them to be incentivized to give their best and show up.

What would be the best way to go about this? Ask for their speaking rate when we email them and hope it's not over our budget? Risk suggesting "we'll pay you X amount" and have them come back and say that's not enough? 

Ugh, it makes me cringe to think about it.


Ooooh, I so feel you on this one. You don't want people to feel like you're money-grubbing and keeping all the profit for yourself (which is nuts, because events are expensive and usually only have about a 20% - 30% return rate), but at the same time, you've got bills to pay! Conferences just don't plan themselves!

If I can bust a myth right now about speaking at conferences, many, many industry conferences don't pay speakers (even at a very high level. Like, the highest level.). That's not to say that you SHOULDN'T pay your speakers, but that is to say that often, you as the conference organizer are responsible for connecting the right people with the right opportunities.

What do I mean by this?

Let's say you want to ask someone to speak, but you don't really have a budget for your speakers. Let's also say that you passionately believe in your event's mission and you know the PERFECT speaker who could motivate your attendees and get them the results that they need.

Let's ALSO say that this person doesn't speak a lot, but they are looking for more speaking opportunities. Or, they're looking for a place where they can get a speaker video of themselves to pitch to bigger conferences that have larger budgets.

Or, let's say you have a REALLY awesome audience and a HUGE social media following, and your speaker would LOVE to get in front of both of those audiences.

Do you see where I'm going here?

1. Connect the right people to the right opportunities

If you're concerned about asking speakers to speak (for free or otherwise), we need a little reframe. Many speakers will speak for free and will want to, if you can connect them to the right opportunity.

Maybe that "right opportunity" is the legitimacy that comes with speaking at your technology event.

Maybe that "right opportunity" is sharing the stage with one of THEIR idols/mentors.

Maybe that "right opportunity" is getting a video copy of their speech so they can pitch to bigger and better audiences.

Maybe that "right opportunity" is simply them feeling like they are contributing to your mission in a way that they can without investing a ton of money into your cause.

And you can ask them to speak for free, because (here's the kicker) many of them want to speak, and the incentive isn't always money. More often, it's the right opportunity.

Take Action: Make a list of the opportunities that you are providing for your speakers, based on some of the examples I've given above. Sometimes, even as a first time event host, you have opportunities to share with potential speakers that you may not even know about. Do you live in a cool location and you're willing to fly your speaker to said location? Do you have a cool industry contact that your speaker should meet if they come and speak at the event?

Need to get started planning your event? Drop your info below to snag my Event Planning Cheat Sheet! 

2. Create a passion-filled pitch

Like I said above, a passion-filled pitch with specific details about WHY your event is the BEST EVENT EVER is often more convincing than a complete, comprehensive speaker package.

Remember, MANY people are not in the "speaking professionally" business. Some people are and sometimes, it's worth it to pay to get those people to your conference to speak. 

However, in order for this to work, you have to believe very deeply in the uniqueness and the value of this event that you're putting on if you're going to sell anyone anything (a ticket, a sponsorship, a free speaking slot). 

Take action: Write down the three coolest things about your event. One of them should include your "why" (aka, why you're doing this event and why it will be valuable for the attendees who come) and the other two should be things that you genuinely believe make this event the most valuable event ever created.

Then, create a pitch letter that includes:

• Why your event is AMAZING

• Why this event is important for its attendees (and also, why the speaker should care about the attendees

• How you can help them fulfill something that they want (can be tangible like "get a speaker reel" or intangible like "inspire the next generation of leaders)

3. Make the pitch over the phone instead of in the email, so you can decide whether or not you actually want them as a speaker

When you are writing your pitch letter, you want to make sure that your speakers understand the uniqueness and the passion behind your event, which is why we don't want to pitch them IN your pitch email.

In fact, we want to pitch them to get them on the phone FIRST, instead of pitching them over email. When you're on the phone, you can really talk to them about how excited you are about the event, and get a better sense of what they want and how you can deliver that (especially if you don't have budget to pay speakers).

So, in your email, you're going to add a line in the middle or the end that says:

Hey so-and-so Speaker!

I'm SO excited to let you know about my event. This is why it will be awesome! (talk about the awesomeness and why it's important)

I'd love to get on the phone with you for 15 minutes next week to see how we can collaborate on this event. I know you've been wanting to speak more and more and so I'm hoping that we can find a way to collaborate! Here are three times that I'm available. Do any of these times work?

See that? It's not like "hey! Speak at this event for free!" It's like "Let me tell you why this event is going to be awesome AND how we can make it awesome together!" It's a total reframe of how you're approaching your speakers with the request.

Take action: Right now, go into your calendar and block of 30 minutes on two days a week that you can use to schedule phone calls with your possible speakers. Then, draft that email and send it out to 3-4 speakers. Don't make any offers just yet; focus on getting to know your speakers especially if you get on the phone and you DON'T like what they have to say. Interviewing speakers and seeing if they are a good fit is SUPER important, and so you don't want to make an ask if you don't get a good feeling after you speak to a speaker on the phone.

A BONUS NOTE: 3 times you SHOULD pay speakers

You want to be sure to offer payment to speakers when those speakers make their living by speaking, when they don't have a way to take any more clients or are not interested in your specific audience (which means they'll have to craft an entire presentation around your event)., and when they are flying in from a different area and request that their travel and hotel be paid for (which is completely reasonable for most speakers).

Don't forget about the little guys

There are many AMAZING speakers that aren't on the "speaker circuit." It may be worth doing some research on where/how you can find these people who are great speakers but don't have a high speaking profile.

Use your network! If you know someone in your community that has great perspective, but isn't a "speaker", ask them! They'll probably be flattered and they'll work really hard on their presentation.

What to do if people are "offended"

I totally understand where you're coming from and how you might be scared to approach a possible speaker with no speaker budge. You don't want people to be offended, as if you don't value their time, because you want to maintain a good relationship.

However, if people are offended that you ask them to do something that could be beneficial for them and for you, there really isn't a whole lot that you can do about that AND it's something that may hold you back from making an important ask...forever! Almost no one who is successful in business or in their career gets upset when someone honors them with the request of their expertise.

It's not disrespectful to ask for help, which is what you're doing. Many people speak for free because they know the benefit to their company that comes with brand awareness and doing favors for members of their communities. So many people feel this way. Find those people. Ask them to speak. 

Also, this is very important:

Everyone who is successful in business knows how to graciously say no.

If they are horrified that you would DARE to be so audacious to ask them to speak for free, then they have some other work that needs to be done. Most of the time, you'll be met with an answer like this:

"I'm so glad you asked, and my speaking rate is $500/hour. Let me know if that's in your budget."

If it's not in your budget? They won't care. And you will be fine because it's all out in the open! See? No hard feelings!

The concept of "donated time and money". 

While I understand this fear, I would also recommend you take a step back and think a bit about why you're hosting this event.

You are creating a platform, a marketing avenue, a community from your event. At the very best, the speakers you pick should be excited that you're doing the legwork, the absolute HARDEST part on their behalf: getting the people in the room.

And because you're doing so much legwork, you must you have a real passion for this event, so if you feel it, then it's possible that other people also share that passion. Find those people, and the conversations will go over a lot better.

I would also say that the tone of your email sounds like there is some hesitancy about the value of this event at all ("just for some free stuff or admission to the event").  

However, what if someone at the conference learns something that changes the way they write their grants?

What if a speaker meets their future business partner?

You are providing an amazing opportunity that could change people's lives: that is valuable, and shouldn't be discounted just because it's hard to place a monetary value on it.


Drop your info below to snag my event planning cheat sheet to make sure you've got all your bases covered!