Here’s the secret to negotiation: do the work ahead of time so that you can calmly tell them what you need, and then happily walk away if that doesn’t work for them. This basically boils down having a clear price sheet (even if it’s just in your head) and a line in the sand about what you want to do for free vs. what you need to be paid for. And then having the confidence to state it plainly.
(The email excerpts in this post are real, but I’m rephrasing and blurring some details to avoid making it obvious which events they’re from. I’m also grabbing samples from several different-but-similar email threads to further anonymise and illustrate the point.)
Here’s a fairly common excerpt from an invitation to speak and run a workshop at a big conference (1000+ attendees). The pattern is to promise to be extremely good hosts, offering all sorts of perks as a way to compensate for being unable to pay:
We are a small conference with a very limited budget, based in a small country. But it's also a country of spectacular beauty, great sandy beaches, and plenty of sunshine! :) We have a great heart, we're full of passion, and we really want to change things in this part of the world.
This is a good and common setup. It’s going to be great! You should be there! The email will commonly continue by offering a variety of fun (but non-financial) benefits:
As organizers we will provide and fully cover:
- Arrival and departure flights - 5-star accommodation during your stay - Guided tour (if you want to) - Assigned person to help during your stay
This is all very generous, and they are being legitimately kind with both the invitation and the offering. And this is where new facilitators/speakers tend to screw up. In their head, they’re thinking, “This would be amazing exposure. And it would be so much fun, too! I would happily do this for free, but let’s see if I can get a little bit of money for it, just in case.” What follows is an extremely awkward “negotiation”, where you’re asking for money, but it’s clear to both parties that you aren’t actually willing to back it up. This type of conversation is not fun, and it makes you seem extremely weak, since you keep asking for stuff and then backing down. In almost every case, you’ll walk away, head down and holding nothing at all.
Here’s my advice:
If you’d be happy to do it for free, then accept the invitation with grace and excitement, do it for free, and enjoy your time there
If you need to be paid, then tell them as plainly and clearly as possible what number you will need, and politely decline if they can’t provide it
Here are the key quotes from the next couple of key emails:
Me: “Thanks so much for thinking of me and for the kind invitation, but I’m not doing unpaid conferences at the moment.” (having and using a walkaway)
Conf: “Oh, now I get it, I'd totally missed the part about speaker fee. Can you share with me how much it costs to get a session from you?”
Me: “It's €5k/day (plus travel/accommodation). I'd also be happy to run smaller workshops during the day when I'm going to be giving the keynote.” (not haggling, just telling him)
Conf (a week or so later): “We are all set with conference dates. Here is what’s in my head right now. The keynote would be on [date]. And the next day, you would run a full day workshop. And if this works for you, speaking fee would be €10k?”
I agreed, and then we arranged a call to decide on exactly which Learning Outcomes would be most valuable for attendees. (The addition of a second billable day was obviously just a happy little accident.)
If you can’t walk away, then you can’t negotiate. It’s really that simple. So decide on your price sheet and then use it—calmly and confidently. Of course, sometimes they’ll be unable to meet your needs. And that’s okay! Here’s an excerpt from another invitation which I received at roughly the same time:
Me: Good to hear from you and thanks for the invitation. The dates are free and I could certainly join, but I only travel for paid teaching. In general it's €5k/day, plus travel and accommodation.
Conference (a week or two later): Sorry for my late reply. I was doing my best to find a budget for your trip, but I failed. Unfortunately, we can't accept your speaking fee, which is a bit out of our budget. Hope to invite you next time!
Me: Thanks for checking and letting me know. Wish you all the best with the event :)
So that’s that. I cleared the potential dates from my calendar and moved on with my day. I wanted to show this “failed” example to be clear that this isn’t some sort of rhetorical tactic. It’s not about convincing or tricking people. It’s just about knowing what you need, letting them know, and then politely declining if that doesn’t work for all parties involved.
If the idea of “losing out” on potential exposure seems like a fool’s errand at this point in your career, then you might want to drop the pricing altogether and focus on teaching for free until you feel that you’ve got more demand than you can handle. That’s how I got started, and it’s how everyone else gets started to. And once you’re ready, then spend the time to decide what you need, create a price, and give yourself permission to tell people what it is.