The Seven Levels of Keynote Speakers

There’s been a lot of talk lately about keynote speakers being paid truly absurd amounts of money to give speeches. I’ve left that first sentence intentionally vague because there are always “certain individuals” being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to stand on a stage and say some stuff you may or may not remember, so by not naming names I’ve ensured that the relevance of this article will be eternal. Huzzah for calculated ambiguity!

But enough of my deviousness. If you’re in a position to hire speakers for an event, then you’re almost certainly wondering how much to spend and whether or not it will pay off. In the speaking world, there are seven basic levels of speaking, each with its own pros and cons. I promise this information will help you determine who to hire for your next speaking event as well as give you confidence that you’ve made the right choice.  Ready?

Level 1–Unpaid Speakers

These people have either been told by their colleagues that they’re good speakers, or one of their friends coaxed them into attending Toastmasters. At this point, they like the idea of speaking but don’t really know what their focus is. They’re hungry for exposure, which makes them great candidates for breakout sessions at a local conference or breakfast talks for your chamber of commerce. But you definitely get what you paid for—and you paid nothing, remember? They might be great, but they’re far more likely to be mediocre at best. Which isn’t their fault; they’re just getting started.

Level 2–$1,000-$2,500

These people got tired of doing free speeches for all their friends, so one day they said, “I really can’t do that, I’m too busy.” Then their friend said, “Well, we could pay you,” so they said, “Seriously, you’ll pay me to do this?” They don’t really know much about the speaking industry, but they’ve already proven that they’re good enough to trick someone into paying them, which means they are often a great deal because you’ll be getting a quality speaker for cheap. At this point, there is still a definite ‘you get what you pay for’ arc going on. It’s not a perfect rule, but a speaker who commands $2,000 is probably about twice as good as one who commands $1,000.

Level 3–$2,500-$3,500

This is the transition period between being a part-time keynote speaker and full-time professional.  They’ve got years of experience at this point, and they’re starting to become aware of the possibilities of the profession.  They also probably have a website dedicated to their speaking career. Fun hint: if they’re asking for more than $2,500 for a presentation and don’t have a speaking website, you’re probably paying too much. They’re also probably considering writing a book at this point, but it won’t be good because first books rarely are. Don’t buy a keynote speaker’s first published book, unless you need it to level out a wobbly table.

Level 4–$5,000-$7,500

At this point, you are hiring a true professional. I’m about to seriously irritate every professional speaker who makes more money than this, but here’s a truth you should know:  Past $5,000, pretty much every speaker is just as good as every other. There are reasons to pay more than $5,000 for a keynote speaker, but from here on out you should be confident that the person you’re hiring knows how to deliver an excellent speech. When you hire a Level 1-3 keynote speaker who does a bad job, you really shouldn’t get too mad because, well, you didn’t pay them very much. Now, though, you should get mad at the speaker if they do poorly. But they probably won’t.

Level 5–$10,000-$12,500

So if all speakers past $5,000 are equally talented, why would you ever pay more? Because now you should be looking to hire keynote speakers who can start to actually earn you money. Everyone at this level is established, and all of them have a good book. If they don’t have a well-written book at this point, you are paying too much. These people also have the ability to help you increase attendance at your next conference (see 4 things you should expect out of your next keynote speaker), which will earn you back some if not all of the money you paid them to speak. They could also do additional breakout sessions, and they probably have some training products or other educational materials that your audience might use after the presentation itself. If you have the budget for it, Level 5 speakers are probably the best deal with respect to the amount of content you can expect to receive for the price you’re paying.

Level 6–$15,000-$25,000

You’re now starting to pay a keynote speaker more for their name than for their actual content.  The content is still there, and it’s excellent. But probably half of your reasoning for hiring Level 6 speakers is because you know people in your industry will recognize the name and be excited to attend the event. Level  5 speakers will excite an audience who previously had no idea who they were, but Level 6 speakers will have your audience excited before they even arrive. I like to call these people the “affordably famous,” which annoys them but amuses me so I’m leaving it in here.

Level 7–$30,000+

You are paying too much but you don’t care. You’ve always wanted to meet whoever you’re about to hire, and you have the money to persuade them to like you for a day. It’s a coin toss as to whether you’re hiring a true rock star in your industry or (more likely) just some really famous person that it’ll be fun to get your picture with. Most of these people live in L.A., New York or D.C., and they’ve tricked the rest of us into thinking that they’re worth the money, which isn’t true since it turns out that airline travel is pretty much the same price no matter where you’re coming from. Keynote speakers occasionally complain that meeting planners with the smallest budget always expect the most, and here that dynamic is reversed: The more you’re willing to pay, the less your keynote speaker is likely to do for you. They’ll arrive by helicopter or private yacht or submarine or whatever, do their talk (which may or may not have anything to do with your organization) and then leave as quickly as they’ve come. But everyone will get a smartphone picture of the famous person, so if that’s worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, knock yourself out!

So there you have it! Now if only we could have keynote speakers walk about with price tags on their foreheads, that would make this whole meeting planning thing much easier.

Jeff Havens is a keynote speaker and corporate trainer who addresses leadership, generational issues and other areas of professional development through a unique blend of content and entertainment. He has been a regular guest on Fox Business News and featured on CNBC, Businessweek and Bloomberg News. To read more from Jeff Havens, visit