Big Mouths

Whoever coined the phrase "talk is cheap" sure wasn't referring to anyone whose business card reads "professional speaker." Of course, almost any Joe -- regardless of whether or not he has the gift of gab or a halfway decent story to tell -- can designate himself a speaker and earn a decent living, but those who really bring home the bacon tend to be household names with something significant to say.

Even on the low end, a date with a speaker -- say, an author with an inspirational book on The New York Times bestseller list -- costs a pretty penny; typically about 25,000 pennies (or $2,500, for all the English majors in the room) for an hour's worth of jabber. Not a bad payday, by any means. Yet way at the other end of the spectrum, there are the public-eye types -- the former politicians, TV personalities, or athletes -- who command utterly eye-popping fees, and get them, whether or not they've really earned it.

So while they were laughing themselves all the way to the bank (and you know they must), Successful Meetings dug up the dirt on some of the highest-profile -- and for the most part, costliest -- presenters making the rounds on the lecture circuit today. And although they will take you to the cleaners for an hour of their time, you can rest assured, these speakers truly do put their money where their mouths are, making them worth their weight in gold.

Bill Clinton

"Worth every dime." The first words out of the mouth of Tony Marshall, who hired the former president to speak at an event hosted by the Educational Institute of the American Housing and Lodging Association earlier this year. "He was an absolute smash," adds Marshall, the institute's president. Mr. Clinton captured the audience, he says, "and they were mostly Republicans."

However, the story goes that when this former leader of the free world first started pounding the pavement of the speakers' circuit two years ago, he offered a canned speech he obviously assumed would fill the bill for virtually any group, be they a bunch of financial wizards or a convention of nuns (well, maybe not nuns). Word must have gotten back to him, and typical of the "comeback kid," he changed his tune, and now customizes each and every presentation. "His writers communicate with the event organizers about the goals that must be met," says Don Walker, president of the Harry Walker Agency, the New York City-based speakers' bureau that handles Mr. Clinton. "He discussed the world situation and how it affects the hotel industry domestically and internationally," remembers Marshall. "He then posed for pictures and mingled with the attendees."

Jenna Landry with Fortune magazine got the chance to rub elbows with the 42nd president this past May in Hong Kong at the business publication's annual global forum. "He showed up at a dinner buffet," she recalls, excitedly. He even attended a few sessions at the conference, perhaps in an effort to fully grasp his mission. "The theme was 'Next Generation Asia' and he talked about how China, as a whole, needs to become as westernized as Hong Kong. He said it's a growing consumer region and we need to focus on it in terms of business." Made sense to Landry; after all, he was standing before CEOs and top business leaders. "He has this magnetism that grabs you," she explains. "And I'm not easily swayed by that kind of stuff."

Rudy Giuliani

He's an honorary Knight of the British Empire and spent two terms as mayor of, some would argue, the greatest metropolis on earth. But if it wasn't for September 11, he probably wouldn't be the hotly demanded, hugely compensated speaker that he is. "Rudy Giuliani was the first person I thought of when I started planning our 100th-anniversary dinner, mainly because many of our members were involved in the cleanup following the World Trade Center collapse," says Matthew Jeanneret with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), a lobbying group headquartered in Washington D.C. "He was very well received, and deserved the standing ovation," says Jeanneret. "But best of all, he was incredibly accommodating." Jeanneret had sent a memo to Giuliani, through his speakers bureau, asking him to not only talk about leadership and the lessons learned from the worst terrorist attack in history, but to touch upon the role the transportation construction industry played in the aftermath. "He covered everything we asked him to, and even mentioned some of ARTBA's members who took part in the recovery effort by name."

After about 35 minutes of talking, Giuliani conducted an extensive question-and-answer session with the audience, and then posed for about 75 pictures. "We wanted our VIPs to have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the keynote, and were very pleased that he went along with that." Every goal of the event was met, says Jeanneret, "thanks, in big part, to Giuliani. We really couldn't have asked for more."

Lisa Beamer

On the scariest day in American history, this woman's husband uttered perhaps the bravest, most courageous phrase to reach our ears: "Let's roll!" The hero of flight 93, Todd Beamer led the charge to foil the attempts of the September 11 hijackers, exhibiting unfathomable hope in the face of dark adversity. His young wife, unexpectedly thrust into the limelight during what has likely been the most traumatic time in her life, has picked up where he left off. "It could not have been a more positive experience having Lisa Beamer as our speaker," says Carol Pauley, development director at Dallas Kids GriefWorks, a support center for children and teens who've suffered the loss of a loved one. "She was absolutely wonderful, and people are still talking about it."

Pauley thought it would make sense for Beamer to visit the center before addressing October's annual dinner and charity auction, and she seemed happy to do so. "I'll never forget it. She said: 'I want to hear all about what you do here. Pretend I know nothing about it.' " And so when it was show time, "She talked up the good things that go on at the center, encouraging financial support for it." About 200 or so more attendees turned out than in years past and $200,000 was raised.

And when all was said and done, Beamer sat down for dinner "just like everyone else," says Pauley. "Most people respected her privacy, but some stopped over to talk with her. She was extremely warm and gracious."

Lance Armstrong

Perhaps the words that capture his indomitable spirit best are his own: "It's ironic -- I used to ride my bike to make a living. Now I just want to live so that I can ride." Cancer survivor and four-time winner of the grueling and intense race called the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong -- really, just "Lance" rings plenty of bells -- shares a tale of trauma and triumph that touches the hearts of young and old audiences alike. "I'm not sure who enjoyed Lance more, our employees or the kids," laughs Melissa Fahs with Coca-Cola, following the company's second annual community reading day, this past October, in which Coke staffers -- and Lance -- visited 35 Atlanta-area schools stressing the importance of reading. "Everyone had fun and learned so much."

While the championship cyclist maintains that he was "born to race bikes," Fahs thinks his real talent lies somewhere beneath the outline of his taut muscular form. "You should have seen him; he plopped right down on the floor with the kids, and really seemed to get a kick out of reading to them." It was a long day, she says, "and he was tireless."

It's undeniable Armstrong has already won the most important race of his life, notes Fahs, and she doubts his never-say-never attitude would ever be lost on anyone who hears his story.

Dr. Phil McGraw

He's known the world over by just two words -- and neither one of them is his last name. Dr. Phil, who rose to fame as Oprah's resident expert on human behavior, is collecting even more fans of his "tell it like it is" brand of pop psychology on the talk tour. "He has an interesting way of sharing stories," notes Kari Eisenhooth, president of Exclamation Point Events, based in Indianapolis.

Eisenhooth booked Dr. Phil to give the keynote address at the iWoman Conference this past September. "It was the first time we produced this professional development symposium in Indianapolis and we wanted a high- profile speaker to attract attention." It seemed to work -- 1,500 women attended, much more than was anticipated. Among them was Beth Katsinas, who was all ears. "He's very engaging, he's very funny." As a matter of fact, Katsinas had hired Dr. Phil to address the University of Illinois' Biennial Conference for Women a few months earlier, and noticed that attendance doubled on the day he spoke. "Women love him. It was like having a rock star there."

Pumped up and full of energy, Dr. Phil poked fun at his own life many times throughout his 90-minute presentation -- part of his regular shtick -- yet he was also full of anecdotes about his wife of 26 years, making him "so relatable" in the eyes of Eisenhooth's attendees. "He stressed the importance of finding that balance between life and work, something so many women struggle to achieve."

As expected, he received a standing ovation, but his work didn't end when he walked off the stage. "Dr. Phil put a link to the iWoman Conference on his Web site," says Eisenhooth, who can barely keep up with the requests to bring the event to other cities around the country.