The 3 Kinds of HR Conference Presentations: Are Any Worth $50K?

I was traveling back from the HR Southwest conference this past week, and a conversation I had while there got me thinking of some of the better presentations I’ve seen at conferences over the past year.

The conversation wasn’t around “who was the best speaker?” It was around, “who was the most expensive speaker?”

For those who don’t know, 90 percent of the presentations you see at HR Conferences are done by HR Pros – like you and me – who aren’t being paid a dime, but if they are lucky someone will pay their travel expenses. The other 10 percent get speaking fees that range from $500 to $125,000 for 1 hour and 30 minutes of work.

Yes, you read that correctly – $125,000!

Money doesn’t guarantee a great speaker

Now, let’s be straight; you probably haven’t seen anyone speaking at an HR conference who made $125K,  but if you go to the largest HR conferences you saw someone who made $50K for the 90 minutes you saw them!

Here’s my question: If an HR Conference came out and told you how much the person was being paid, before they started their speech, would that change they way you thought of that speech? Oh boy, that changes everything doesn’t it!? Can you imagine –

“Please welcome to the stage, being paid $40K for the next 90 minutes, Mrs. X!”

If that were to happen, I wonder if there would be applause and a standing ovation that we see so often? I wonder if you would leave feeling like that was the most inspirational thing I’ve ever heard – certainly worth $40K. Interesting to think about, at the very least.

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The sad part is, the money has absolutely no correlation to quality and content. I’ve seen some of the best speakers this year – some of which didn’t get paid a dime, and some that got paid very small amounts. Sure, there are a handful who get very good money, that I’ve really enjoyed, but I didn’t enjoy them $10-20K more then the free guys and gals!

The 3 types of conference presentations

Here’s where I think the high price presenters separate themselves — they’ve found the magic “formula’ for conference speaking. It involves presenting one of three types presentations:

  1. Inspirational/Motivation – These are the presentations when someone comes to show you how hard they had it, way harder than you or I, and they came all the way back and now they are on the stage making you feel like a piece of crap because you were just complaining about how the lady at Starbucks didn’t make your non-fat soy latte the way you like it. Think Michael J. Fox at SHRM last June in Las Vegas. He was in a ton of 80?s comedy movies/TV shows, has a beautiful, successful wife, and boom, he gets Parkinson’s, but he keeps fighting on. And you sit there going, “nice, I bitch every morning about getting up and walking my two healthy legs downstairs to make my own coffee,” so $40K please, and thank you – I only have 25 more of these to do this year.
  2. The Silver Bullet – These presentations are the ones where the presenter actually tells you about, or shows you, something that will change your life and/or your organization or department, right away. Don’t confuse the Silver Bullet with the boring presentations that regurgitate stuff you already knew or could easily look up on your own but the presenter truly believes they are giving you something you are hearing for the very first time. No, the Silver Bullet gives you an epiphany – something concrete, tangible – that will transform how you do what you do. This is probably the toughest type of presentation to find, but these are the ones you remember from each conference. Unfortunately Silver Bullet presenters don’t make as much – in the $500-$5,000 range. State SHRM Conferences should really search these people out, but they don’t. They want a big name, who usually disappoints.
  3. Dancing Monkey – Don’t get confused by the name and think these aren’t good. They can be the best! The Dancing Monkey presentation is done by those presenters who flat out know how to entertain. They are polished – they can make you laugh and cry – all in 90 minutes. And they always deliver. They get on stage and do anything it takes to entertain the masses – including dancing like a monkey, if needed — and you’re happy! You forget about your crappy job and crappy co-workers for a little while, and you leave feeling good. These people usually are the middle level of cost – $2,500 to $25,000 – but you usually never feel taken.

What about all the conference speakers that don’t fit into these categories? They suck; they’re either boring or ill informed or just flat out missed the mark (think Richard Branson at SHRM Las Vegas, or a presentation on I-9 compliance).

Want to be a speaker at an HR conference? Figure out how to get your message into one of the three types above and become an excellent storyteller. Cat stories are optional.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


12 Comments on “The 3 Kinds of HR Conference Presentations: Are Any Worth $50K?

  1. Now – I had someone tell me yesterday that there aren’t any “Silver Bullets”!  Which I disagree with. I remember the first time I went to a conference and someone showed me how to use Boolean strings to source candidates – Silver Bullet.  I remember going to conferences when social media was just taking off and I was shown google reader, and LinkedIn, and Twitter – at various points when they came out – for HR and Talent Pros – Silver Bullets!  I can now get on my social network as an HR Pro and ask for help with an issue – and within seconds have offers from experts around the world with the best advice money can buy – but I get it for free – Silver Bullet.

    Not everyone can inspire – not everyone can deliver a silver bullet – not everyone can Dance like a Monkey (even though most of us have to in our normal daily jobs!) – but we can usually do one of the three!  I refuse to sit through another boring mind dump of a presentation – inspire me, teach me something fantastic or make me laugh – otherwise I’m outta here!


  2. Tim as a sliver bullet speaker I love your comments. I would love to be at a conference where they told audience how much money each speaker was being paid. Then the evaluation questions would be something like was this speaker worth the money we paid him/her.

    How about asking speakers to give a money back guarantee based on the benefits received from the presentation. 

  3. This is too funny.  Both during and after Robert Kennedy Jr.’s speech at the Human Capital Summit in Atlanta I was thinking, “How much did this cost them?”  He rolled out of bed and spoke about his green causes and futurist predictions which had no relevance to the conference or the needs of the attendees.

  4. Great speakers have commanded big money for many, many years; that’s not news. They command because they attract people – simple economics.  Savvy speaker choosers will know who is worth the money in terms of content and who just draws people; alas, both are worthy in a commercial world.  

    Having come into the HR world from other worlds… I notice that the quality of HR conference speakers is pretty low.  I want substance – silver bullets, whatever – ideas and facts and insights that are true and that inform me.  And I usually don’t get it.

    There s no simple answer to the question of where to get speakers.  Do your homework.  Go see them.  Demand a video.  

  5. Tim,  Nice article!  I have been speaking professionally for 25 years and can tell you there are many great professional speakers under $15,000 who can deliver  in each of your three categories.  When looking for a professional speaker consider looking for those who have earned the Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation from the National Speakers Association (NSA) ( This is NSA’s highest earned designation.  Professional speakers who have earned the CSP designation go through a five-year process of becoming certified and bring a proven track record of experience and expertise to your meeting

    Go here and search for Certified Speaking Professionals:

    Best wishes,

    Patrick Donadio, MBA, CSP

  6. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for your insights….I never thought about a “dancing monkey” (sounds like a David Letterman-ism!) metaphor, but that’s a very good use of imagery. As an actor – entertainer primarily, I’ve had the good fortune, (another good word) to make a reasonable living in the unique “Historically Relevent” performance speaking arena. This fits a few of your “3” as a motivational – imspirational – ideas generating “famous folk” talk. It’s  funny how many times without my even presenting or proposing, my clients will come up and inquiry about “can you be so and so?” …and yes, for the past 25 years I’ve been a speaker as ‘Johnny Carson, Abe Lincoln, Groucho Marx, Clint Eastwood, General Patton, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Mark Twain, all with a “view of life and its possibilities, problems and solutions!”

    For one huge equipment manufacturor, I’ve performed (spoke) regularly and annually   as “Jed Clampett, Elvis, Dean Martin, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Austin Powers, Bill Clinton, Regis Philbin, Conan O’Brien, Ozzie Osbourne, Mike Love,  General Patton, Congressman Weiner, and they always tell me I’m booked for the next year!

    It’s definitely a fun business creating “wake up!” presentations….
    Tim Beasley TBC Stars – “Las Vegas-style Entertainment, Coast to Coast!”

  7. I’m still playing catch up from HRSW myself. I think you are primarily talking about keynotes and many of those leave me cold. The only one at HRSW that gave me a “take away” (what you call a silver bullet, which may overstate it) was Daniel Pink’s presentation. Drew Pearson’s speech was obviously an “insert organization name here” speech with no real relevance to the conference.

    I almost always get more out of the front-line HR pros who are delivering breakout sessions than I do the keynote guys, who often just give me a chance to catch up on email.
    I’ve spoken to 14 SHRM chapters this year on several different topics and my aim is always to be deliver actionable information (silver bullets) and make sure the audience enjoys the presentation (dancing monkey). The former requires one to really know the subject matter and the latter means taking some risk. Together, though, they make the presentation beneficial for everyone!

    One last note: Anyone presenting in any venue should read Beyond Bulletpoints! Don’t read your slides to me!

  8. Tim,
    What an amazing article.  I am a Certified Speaking Professional, often not paid, but always see exactly what you’ve described.  You should forward this article to the National Speakers Association or Canadian Association for Professional Speakers.  They’d probably publish it.  We often have these conversations about value. 

    Keep up the good work. 
    Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP

  9. One of the best speakers I’ve ever heard was at a NACE conference a few years back – Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts and Cultures. Definitely a “silver bullet” where you walk away and can’t help but think about things differently.
    Great post! Can’t wait to hear “now we’re pleased to welcome, Mr. XYZ, being paid $X for the next hour of your time [applause].”

  10. Getting to know speakers has been a passion of mine. I brought several
    big names to the equivalent of SHRM in Latin America. They were paid
    anywhere between 20K and 50K. After having attending many, I would hire
    my mother or my father to talk about life, navigating through
    challenges, overcoming obstacles, leadership and putting up with someone
    like me. I would also hire to a community leader that can relate to
    everyday people, and that can provide advice on the school of hard
    knocks. I would invite CEOs of companies that are making a difference in
    the life of others; unfortunately many of these CEO’s are level five
    and don’t need or want the attention. John Mackey from Wholefoods is an
    amazing leader and someone most people will enjoy listening. Inspiration is different than motivation. In terms of speakers, the best I have heard were not paid except for traveling expenses.

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