Why Critics Are Wrong About Obama's Speaking Fees

The more a client pays for something, the more they value what they’re buying.
05/01/2017 04:23 pm ET Updated May 02, 2017

There’s been a bit of an uproar about President Obama’s $400,000 speaking fees. Many are complaining that Obama is “selling out” to Wall Street, and some go so far as to say that Obama shouldn’t accept speaking fees of any amount. (Gives new meaning to the term “free speech,” I suppose.) These critics clearly don’t understand the speaking business ― about who gets hired to speak and why, how the fees are set, and what the terms of engagement are.

I’ve been in the speaking business for over 25 years; my clients include Raytheon, IBM, US Department of Veterans Affairs, John Deere Credit Canada, Marathon Reality, Farm Credit Service of America, the American Press Institute, Nissan, Volkswagen, Phoenix Newspapers Inc., the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. So let me correct the faulty assumptions Obama’s critics are making. Speakers are not hired to kowtow to corporations or professional organizations. They do not hire us to kiss their corporate butts. On the contrary, corporations hire us to share our knowledge, experience, insight... and perhaps even a little wisdom. They pay us for our perspective on important issues: how to be a more effective leader, how to deal with change, how to improve customer service, how to manage a diverse workforce, how to encourage innovation, how to improve productivity, how to navigate the turbulent global marketplace, how to build stakeholder value, and more.

In the case of former political leaders like Obama, the Clintons, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, the Bushes, Dick Cheney, they are hired primarily to bring star power to the events at which they speak ― they draw big crowds. Conference attendees love to rub elbows with the famous and powerful ― or the formerly powerful. People love to brag to their friends about who they heard speak at professional gatherings. Meeting planners know this and they want their events to be successful, so they hire the biggest names they can afford.

Corporations do not hire speakers ― political or otherwise ― with the expectation that the speaker is “selling their soul.”

Different people expect different things when they attend these events: some want to hear “war stories” about what it’s like inside the White House, the Pentagon, or the State Department; others are eager to learn about political leadership; some people are interested in hearing the former leaders’ perspective on current world problems; while others are just looking for entertainment and political humor.

Corporations do not hire speakers ― political or otherwise ― with the expectation that the speaker is “selling their soul.” Corporations hire speakers to teach, inspire, and share knowledge and insight ― perhaps even providing a call to action. Corporations hire us to tell them the truth ― to talk about tough topics, to speak “inconvenient truths,” to broach sensitive issues. They listen to us because they value our perspective.

Most importantly, corporate clients listen to us precisely because they are paying us. It’s the psychology of perceived value: the more a client pays for something, the more they value what they’re buying. The higher the speaker’s fee, the more the audience values what the speaker says.

Obama knows how to be an effective change agent. He is meeting Wall Street folks where they live. He can be far more effective in getting his messages to powerful corporate groups by going inside and meeting them on their turf – rather than standing outside those corporations and scolding, shaming, or haranguing them to change their ways.

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Obama’s critics don’t know what topic he will be speaking on ― yet they condemn him right off the bat. They assume the worst... but they’re dead wrong. Obama may talk to his Wall Street client about political leadership, about leadership lessons he learned as President. Or perhaps Obama’s going to roast his audience a bit – needling them into taking on more corporate responsibility. Whatever he speaks about, Obama is a powerful, charismatic speaker and I’d wager that he’s going to use his bully pulpit as former president the same way he used his pulpit as President: to inspire, to teach, to inform, and to challenge his audience to help solve the problems in our country.

As a speaker, my job is to “comfort the afflicted… and afflict the comfortable.” I’ll bet that’s how Obama sees his job, too.

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