Why Speakers Earn $30,000 an Hour: Confessions of a Public Speaker

Scott Berkun is the author of Confessions of a Public Speaker. If you’ve ever wondered why speakers earn thousands of dollars for their gigs, he breaks it down in this excerpt from the book:

I’m worth $5,000 a lecture, and other speakers are worth $30,000 or more for two reasons: the lecture circuit and free market economics. People come up after I give a lecture and ask, “So when did you get on the lecture circuit?” And I respond by asking, “Do you know what the circuit is?” And they never have any idea. It’s a term they’ve heard before, despite the fact it’s never explained, and it somehow seems to be the only reasonable thing to ask a public speaker when you’re trying to seem interested in what he does for a living. Well, here’s the primer. Public speaking, as a professional activity, became popular in the U.S. before the Civil War. In the 1800s – decades before electricity, radio, movies, television, the Internet, or automobiles – entertainment was hard to find. It explains why so many people sang in church choirs, read books, or actually talked to each other for hours on end: there was no competition.

In the 1820s, a man named Josiah Holbrook developed the idea of a lecture series called Lyceum, named after the Greek theater where Aristotle lectured his students (for free). It was amazingly popular, the American Idol of its day. People everywhere wanted it to come to their town. By 1835, there were 3,000 of these events spread across the United States, primarily in New England. In 1867, some groups joined up to form the Associated Literary Society, which booked speakers on a singular, prescribed route from city to city across the country. This is the ubiquitous lecture circuit we hear people refer to all the time. Back then it was a singular thing you could get on. “Bye, honey, I’m going on the circuit, be back in six months,” was something a famous lecturer might have said. It took that long to run the circuit across the country on horses and return home. Before the days of the Rolling Stones or U2, there were performers who survived the grueling months-long tours without double-decker tour buses, throngs of groupies, and all-hour parties.

At first there was little money for speakers. The Lyceum was created as a public service, like an extension of your local library. It was a feel-good, grassroots, community-service movement aimed at educating people and popularizing ideas. These events were often free or low priced, such as 25 cents a ticket or $1.50 for an entire season.2 But by the 1850s, when high-end speakers like Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain dominated the circuit, prices for lectures went as high as $20 a ticket – equivalent to about $200 a seat in 2009. Of course, free lectures continued, and they always will, but the high end reached unprecedented levels for people giving speeches. In the late 1800s, it was something a famous person could do and earn more than enough money to make a comfortable living, which is exactly what many famous writers did.

Soon the free market took over. Air travel, radio, telephones, and everything else we take for granted today made the idea of a single circuit absurd. Lecture series, training conferences, and corporate meetings created thousands of events that needed new speakers every year. Some events don’t pay, even charging speakers to attend (as it’s seen as an honor to be invited to give a presentation), but many hire a few speakers to ensure things go well. For decades, there’s been enough demand for speakers that speaker bureaus – talent agencies for public speakers – work as middlemen, matching people who want to have a lecture at their event and speakers, like me, who wish to be paid for giving lectures. If you want Bill Clinton, Madonna, or Stephen King to speak at your birthday party, and you have the cash, there is a speaker bureau representing each one of them that would like to make a deal with you. Which brings us pack to whether I’m worth $5,000.

My $5,000 fee has nothing to do with me personally. I’m not paid for being Scott Berkun. I know I’m paid only for the value I provide to whoever hires me. If, for example, Adaptive Path can charge $500 per person for an event, and they get 500 people to attend, that’s $250,000 in gross revenue for Adaptive Path. Part of what will allow them to charge that much, and draw that many people, are the speakers they will have. The bigger the names, the more prestigious their backgrounds, and the more interesting their presentations, the more people will come and the more they will be willing to pay. Even for private functions, say when Google or Ferrari throws an annual event for their employees, how much would it be worth to have a speaker who can make their staff a little smarter, better, or more motivated when returning to work? Maybe it’s not worth $30,000 or even $5,000, but there is some economic value to what good speakers, on the right topics, do for people. It depends on how valuable the people in the room are to whoever is footing the bill. Even if it’s just for entertainment, or for reminding the audience of important things they’ve forgotten, a good speaker is worth something. Think of the last boring lecture you were at: would you have paid a few bucks to make the speaker suck less? I bet you would.

The disappointing thing is, for these fees, speakers often don’t do very well. After all, they’re not being paid directly for their public-speaking skills. The raw economic value proposition is in drawing people to the event, and it’s more likely people will come to an event featuring a famous person – even one they suspect is boring to listen to – than to hear the best public speaker in the world if that’s his only claim to fame. Two of the worst lectures I’ve attended were given by famous people: David Mamet (playwright, screenwriter, and director) and Nicholas Pileggi (author of Wiseguy, the novel Scorsese’s Goodfellas was based on). Both occasions were author readings, which are notoriously boring and bad bets for good public speaking. Yet, in both cases, they filled their respective rooms impressively well. However, I bet no one in attendance got much from the experience of listening to them, except the right to say they saw a famous person speak, which perhaps is also worth something.

Read the full excerpt here.

Do What You Love

Dan Shipper on doing what you love:

What you love is very often not something that you feel immediate passion for. It doesn’t smack you in the face after 10 minutes and tell you that this is something you’re going to do for the rest of your life. That happens only very rarely, or in the movies. 

Love doesn’t start out as a hurricane that sweeps through your life and changes everything in an instant. It starts out as a seed. Barely alive, easily overlooked, fragile and small. But given attention love grows. Given proper care it sprouts and springs up through the dirt. Given years to blossom it buds flowers and grows branches, snaking its way through your life until it consumes it entirely. Given enough care the thing that you love becomes the lens through which you see the world. 

But it’s so easy to miss because it starts out as something so tiny. It starts out as something that you did without even realizing it. When you’re bored on a Saturday afternoon, your friends aren’t around, and you’re looking for something to do. Maybe you sit down and play piano. Maybe you write on your blog. Maybe you fire up TextMate and start coding. 

Everyone has something like this. And even though it may not look like it, that is the seed of love. Because it may start as something that you just do when you’re bored. But given attention and time you start to get better at it. You start to figure out the ins and outs, to gain skill. You probably don’t even notice that this is happening.

Dan reasonably argues that to do something you love, you have to come to terms with the following questions: What is love? How do I find what I love? How do I know if I love something?

It’s a process.

The Earth and Stars Seen from the International Space Station

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/38409143 w=600 h=400]

This is a fantastic compilation of the Earth and stars as seen from the International Space Station. It’s amazing the speed that the ISS passes over the Earth: at one moment you’re looking at Europe and the next you’re over China. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, the ISS has an average speed of 17,200+ miles per hour and an orbital period around Earth of 91 minutes.

The editing of the video was done by Alex Rivest, who used Adobe Lightroom to bring out the contrast in the stars. The accompanying music is “Truck out There” by London PM.

On the Origin of the Tournament Bracket

March Madness begins today. And that means everyone is scrambling to finish their brackets. Well, almost. An estimated 45 percent of Americans fill out the brackets with their predictions of the results each year, and Barack Obama has referred to the practice as “a national pastime.”

But what about the history of the bracket? Where does its origin lie? According to this piece in The Wall Street Journal, the bracket isn’t a modern invention and may have originated with the Greeks:

Steven Murray, a Colorado Mesa University professor who has studied the history of sports, said the concept that inspired the bracket—a single-elimination sporting competition with many rounds—isn’t a modern invention. He said the ancient Greeks held wrestling and boxing competitions starting around 700 B.C. where the combatants would draw lots to set pairings.

If the tournament pairings were posted in a bracket form, Murray said, they probably would have been painted with pigment on scrolls, placards or walls and wouldn’t have survived.

But perhaps the modern bracket had its origins with a more familiar concept, the family tree:

Several historians, when confronted with the question, speculated that the basketball bracket could have its roots in another organizational art form: the family tree. Brenton Simons, president and chief executive of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, said renderings of family trees date at least to the 18th century in the U.S. and stretch back centuries before in other countries.

Most likely, the modern rendition of the sports bracket can be traced to England with the Lawn Tennis Championship at Wimbledon.

So basically, the origin of the bracket is still a mystery. Click here to view a slideshow accompanying the article showcasing various brackets throughout history. For more info on the history of the bracket, see this explainer in Slate.

The Man Who Broke Atlantic City

Don Johnson won almost $6 million playing blackjack in one night, single-handedly obliterating the monthly revenue of Atlantic City’s Tropicana casino. Not long before that, he’d taken the Borgata for $5 million and Caesars for $4 million. But Don Johnson isn’t a card counter. So how did he do it?

Turns out, he is one of those sophisticated (high roller) gamblers who can negotiate with casinos, as explained in this story in The Atlantic:

Sophisticated gamblers won’t play by the standard rules. They negotiate. Because the casino values high rollers more than the average customer, it is willing to lessen its edge for them. It does this primarily by offering discounts, or “loss rebates.” When a casino offers a discount of, say, 10 percent, that means if the player loses $100,000 at the blackjack table, he has to pay only $90,000. Beyond the usual high-roller perks, the casino might also sweeten the deal by staking the player a significant amount up front, offering thousands of dollars in free chips, just to get the ball rolling. But even in that scenario, Johnson won’t play. By his reckoning, a few thousand in free chips plus a standard 10 percent discount just means that the casino is going to end up with slightly less of the player’s money after a few hours of play. The player still loses.

But two years ago, Johnson says, the casinos started getting desperate. With their table-game revenues tanking and the number of whales diminishing, casino marketers began to compete more aggressively for the big spenders. After all, one high roller who has a bad night can determine whether a casino’s table games finish a month in the red or in the black. Inside the casinos, this heightened the natural tension between the marketers, who are always pushing to sweeten the discounts, and the gaming managers, who want to maximize the house’s statistical edge. But month after month of declining revenues strengthened the marketers’ position. By late 2010, the discounts at some of the strapped Atlantic City casinos began creeping upward, as high as 20 percent.

The house has advantage, over long term, with typical gamblers who wager from a few to a few hundred dollars per hand. But when you have elite status and can negotiate with casinos to give you discounts on losses, you can turn the odds in your favor. And that’s what Don Johnson did…

Last question: is Don Johnson the most famous blackjack player in the world? That’s what the article attests.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Printed No More

After 244 years of existence, Encyclopaedia Brittanica is ceasing its printed publication:

The Britannica, the oldest continuously published encyclopedia in the English language, has become a luxury item with a $1,395 price tag. It is frequently bought by embassies, libraries and research institutions, and by well-educated, upscale consumers who felt an attachment to the set of bound volumes. Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, and the remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they are bought.

The 2010 edition had more than 4,000 contributors, including Arnold Palmer (who wrote the entry on the Masters tournament) and Panthea Reid, professor emeritus at Louisiana State University and author of the biography “Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf” (who wrote about Virginia Woolf).

All hail Wikipedia! Although this was a shocking statistic:

About half a million households pay a $70 annual fee for the online subscription, which includes access to the full database of articles, videos, original documents and to the company’s mobile applications

Don’t these people know they can get better and more accurate information from Wikipedia?


(via Daring Fireball

Jonathan Ive on Design

Jonathan Ive is Apple’s Apple’s Senior Vice President of Industrial Design. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder explained that Ive has been left with unparalleled control at Apple to design products as he sees fit, with little to no guidance and reporting to management. In the latest issue of London’s Evening Standard, Ive was interviewed about design:

Q: What makes design different at Apple?

A: We struggle with the right words to describe the design process at  Apple, but it is very much about designing and prototyping and making. When you separate those, I think the final result suffers. If something is going to be better, it is new, and if it’s new you are confronting problems and challenges you don’t have references for. To solve and address those requires a remarkable focus. There’s a sense of being inquisitive and optimistic, and you don’t see those in combination very often.

Q: When did you first become aware of the importance of designers?

A: First time I was aware of this sense of the group of people who made something was when I first used a Mac – I’d gone through college in the 80s using a computer and had a horrid experience. Then I discovered the mac, it was such a dramatic moment and I remember it so clearly – there was a real sense of the people who made it.

Q: How do you know you’ve succeeded?

A :It’s a very strange thing for a designer to say, but one of the things that really irritates me in products is when I’m aware of designers wagging their tails in my face.

Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way. Simplicity is not the absence of clutter. Get it right, and you become closer and more focused on the object. For instance, the iPhoto app we created for the new iPad, it completely consumes you and you forget you are using an iPad.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in constantly innovating?

A: For as long as we’ve been doing this, I am still surprised how difficult it is to do this, but you know exactly when you’re there – it can be the smallest shift, and suddenly transforms the object, without any contrivance.

Some of the problem solving in the iPad is really quite remarkable, there is this danger you want to communicate this to people. I think that is a fantastic irony, how oblivious people are to the acrobatics we’ve performed to solve a problem – but that’s our job, and I think people know there is tremendous care behind the finished product.

If you come away thinking that Ive’s responses are a bit (or a lot) shallow, you aren’t alone. This sentence says it all for me: “We struggle with the right words to describe the design process at Apple.”

On Book Scouting

This is a nice story in The New Yorker about Wayne Pernu, a book scout. His day consists of scouring ads and going out to buy used books, and then selling them. He scouts almost every day.

Though his competitors in the book-scout field rely on bar-code scanners to determine the value of titles, Pernu can tell within a few seconds of taking a book into his hands whether it’s worth anything. “A lot of times I have no idea what I’m buying, but I do know that I should buy it,” he says. His intuition has served him well. Over the years, he has unearthed from piles of unwanted books a signed, first-edition copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” (worth two thousand dollars) and two signed, limited-edition, slip-cased copies of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Crusade in Europe” (worth between three and five thousand dollars each). And when a scanner-dependent Honduran gang established an aggressive book-buying operation at his favorite thrift-store haunt a few years ago, he survived because the machines know nothing about books published prior to 1972. “I can’t tell you the gorgeous, beautiful books that they just throw back, like an eighteenth-century science book with colored plates of butterflies and bumblebees,” he says. “They’ll throw back thousand-dollar books because they can’t look them up.”

Pernu learned the book trade from the other side of the buying table. In 1989, when he moved to Oregon, he worked a few years as a buyer at Powell’s Books before striking out on his own. He continues to work almost exclusively with the Portland-based book shop, although he could earn much more selling on eBay and Amazon. Pernu says he’d rather spend his time hunting for books than entering data and going to the post office. He’s currently one of the store’s chief independent scouts, turning over between two and three thousand titles per month, about ninety per cent of the books he offers. Other scouts resell about fifty per cent of their stock. According to Powell’s’ used-book buying-table manager, Jay Wheeler, professional scouts like Pernu, who receive up to thirty per cent of books’ resale value, account for less than five per cent of the buying table’s purchases. “There was a time, years ago, when we had so many scouts we couldn’t keep track of them,” Wheeler says. But now there are fewer than twenty.

It’s always refreshing to read about careers that are still thriving, even if they are considered “a dying breed” by the public at large.


(hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

The Culture that is Switzerland

From the BBC, a brief report on how the Swiss voted on the recent referendum:

Two-thirds of voters reportedly rejected an increase in the country’s minimum annual leave from four weeks to six, which would have brought it in line with most other West European countries.

But a proposal to construct what have locally been referred to as “sex boxes” for prostitutes got the green light from voters in Zurich.

The plan would see the creation of special parking spaces with walls between them where sex workers can ply their trade away from suburban areas in Switzerland’s biggest city.

Residents in Geneva, meanwhile, voted for tighter restrictions on unauthorised demonstrations and tougher fines for violators.

You’ve gotta love the Swiss!

How to Become Creative

In the Saturday essay in The Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer writes about the creative process. He argues that creativity is not something that is passed in the genes; it is something that requires practice. We can work to become more creative.

This ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process. When we don’t feel that we’re getting closer to the answer—we’ve hit the wall, so to speak—we probably need an insight. If there is no feeling of knowing, the most productive thing we can do is forget about work for a while. But when those feelings of knowing are telling us that we’re getting close, we need to keep on struggling.

Of course, both moment-of-insight problems and nose-to-the-grindstone problems assume that we have the answers to the creative problems we’re trying to solve somewhere in our heads. They’re both just a matter of getting those answers out. Another kind of creative problem, though, is when you don’t have the right kind of raw material kicking around in your head. If you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed.

Steve Jobs famously declared that “creativity is just connecting things.” Although we think of inventors as dreaming up breakthroughs out of thin air, Mr. Jobs was pointing out that even the most far-fetched concepts are usually just new combinations of stuff that already exists. Under Mr. Jobs’s leadership, for instance, Apple didn’t invent MP3 players or tablet computers—the company just made them better, adding design features that were new to the product category.

And it isn’t just Apple. The history of innovation bears out Mr. Jobs’s theory. The Wright Brothers transferred their background as bicycle manufacturers to the invention of the airplane; their first flying craft was, in many respects, just a bicycle with wings. Johannes Gutenberg transformed his knowledge of wine presses into a printing machine capable of mass-producing words. Or look at Google: Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with their famous search algorithm by applying the ranking method used for academic articles (more citations equals more influence) to the sprawl of the Internet.

Don’t miss the bottom of the post which provides ten ways to become more creative, which I summarize below. A lot of these have been tested in an artificial setting (think undergraduates in a lab), so take these with a grain of salt:

1. Surround yourself with the color blue.

2. Do creative things when you’re groggy.

3. Daydream more.

4. Think like a child — imagine what you would do as a five year old.

5. Laugh more.

6. Imagine that you are far away.

7. Keep it generic.  When the verbs are extremely specific, people think in narrow terms. In contrast, the use of more generic verbs—say, “moving” instead of “driving” can help us solve creative problems.

8. Don’t work in a cubicle!

9. See the world. Travel.

10. Move from a small city to a metropolis.