Platform Speakers versus Keynote Speakers

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There is a big distinction in the speaking business. About 90% of professional speakers are “platform speakers” and the remaining 10% are “keynote speakers.” So what’s the difference? Let’s take a look.

Platform speakers are always promoting something. They might be building exposure for the company they work for or selling an expensive coaching program. Or they might be driving registration for an upcoming event or selling a set of DVDs at the back of the room. One way or another, they make money by enticing the audience to do something, and the destination of their presentations is the sale.

Keynote speakers are paid to speak and don’t sell anything (except perhaps a book) during their presentations. The destination of their presentations is the message. Huge difference: the sale versus the message. Very different objectives.

Platform Speakers

The reason the vast majority of speakers are platform speakers is because there are no barriers to entry. Anyone can do it. And because of that, the quality level is often quite low. By contrast, there are huge barriers to entry for keynote speakers. For someone to pay you $5,000 or $10,000 to speak at an event, you have to have a track record. You have to be vetted.

You might think the bigger income potential is in keynote speaking but that’s not true. $10,000 sounds like a lot of money but good platform speakers can make far more. Consider the following platform speakers:

These are all platform speakers. They all have programs to sell. In some cases, they endorse others and help drive sales of their products, earning a commission in the process. And in many cases, the products or programs for sale costs thousands of dollars.

Do you remember the Real Estate Expo with Donald Trump? The Learning Annex put them on for a number of years during the real estate boom. Anyway, the one in San Francisco was held at Moscone Center and attracted over 60,000 attendees. Every single session was a platform session, except Donald Trump. In other words, every single session offered a program for sale, accept The Donald.

Donald Trump was the keynote speaker and he got paid a cool $1,000,000 to headline the event. Everyone else sold stuff. And in order to have that privilege (i.e., selling to such a large qualified audience), speakers had to give up 50% of their revenue and also pay an upfront fee for the opportunity. For example, those who held sessions in the big room (which can accommodate over 15,000 people) paid $50,000 up front, just to get in the door. Let’s look at the numbers.

I attended a number of sessions in the big room and one was for a stock market trading platform that issued buy and sell signals based on technical indicators. Although the “normal price” was supposedly $8,000, the speaker soon chipped the “buy today” price down to $2,000 (surprise, surprise). That particular session probably had about 4,000 people in attendance.

If he closed 5% of the room, he would’ve made 200 sales. And at $2,000 each, the revenue would’ve topped $400,000. With a 50/50 split on revenue, he would’ve kept $200,000 but let’s not forget the $50,000 up front fee. So after that expense, he would’ve netted $150,000. Not bad for a 75-minute session.

Most good platform speakers close between 10% and 20% of the room. If the stock market speaker closed 10%, he would’ve netted $350,000. If he closed 20%, he would’ve netted $750,000. The top platform speakers make millions.

Keynote Speakers

Meanwhile, I personally know two highly successful keynote speakers and they pull in about $600,000 and $700,000 respectively. Yes, that’s a lot of money, but it ain’t millions! There are only a handful of keynote speakers who have made more than $1,000,000 in a single year and the National Speaker’s Association (NSA) has their Million Dollar Club designation to recognize those who have.

As a keynote speaker, you get paid for one of two things, or both. You get paid for your ability to deliver a message. The goal is to have your message roll over, again and again, in the minds of attendees for days or even weeks. If you’re good at that, you’ll make more money. But you’re also paid to drive registration. If you have some celebrity cache, you’ll make more. Consider the following keynote speakers:

These keynote speakers all command massive speaking fees, ranging from about $45,000 to over $1,000,000, and they deserve it because they drive registration. People attend the conference just to hear them speak.

If you wish to make more as a keynote speaker, you have to cultivate more celebrity cache. If you’re an author and your book becomes a best seller, your speaking fee goes up immediately. The better known you are, the more you will make. But unless you establish huge celebrity cache (like the speakers mentioned above), it will be difficult to earn as much as a top platform speaker.

Why do Keynote?

So why pursue keynote speaking rather than platform speaking? That’s a matter of opinion but I can say from personal experience that keynote has a mysterious sexiness to it. People are wowed by it. In many cases, they are shocked that you can earn a living just by speaking. And the unconventional nature of the job makes it very alluring for those unfamiliar with it.

About three years ago, I decided to stop doing anything other than keynote. I stopped doing any coaching or consulting. I started saying “no” to platform opportunities and I focused exclusively on keynote. And although there were many factors that led to the ensuing developments, I can honestly say that this decision coincided precisely with my career taking off.

Platform speaking has no barriers to entry. It’s schleppy. There’s a lot of riff-raff and they’re always trying to entice people to attend their next event or buy their next product. I just don’t like it, so I’ve chosen keynote and I can honestly say that I love it. I love the allure and I love how unconventional it is. I don’t do 9 to 5 and rarely find myself in rush hour traffic. For me, it’s a no-brainer!

Make no mistake: getting into keynote speaking is difficult. Someone once told me that keynote was the hardest profession to get into, but the easiest to stay in once you get going. I have found that to be true. If you do a good job, every gig leads to two or three more, so it perpetuates itself nicely. And once you get some momentum, it’s a great lifestyle.

I hope this post helps you better understand the differences between platform and keynote speaking. I recently created a comprehensive $97 Keynote Mastery program for aspiring speakers. See more details here.


What have I missed? Do you do platform? Keynote? Why did you choose one over the other? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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