In the world of public speaking, speakers bureaus are an often discussed topic.
Bureaus act as connectors between speakers and event planners. If a conference planner wants to secure a great keynote for their event, they might reach out to a bureau to help them select the right speaker for their audience, budget and event goals.
I sat down with 12 industry professionals to answer common questions and find out what it takes to become a successful speaker who works with bureaus.
Why do speakers work with bureaus?
Speakers typically pay bureaus between 25 and 30 percent of their speaker fee. Bruce Turkel, who speaks about innovation, says fellow speakers are often horrified at the commission. His reply: “70% of something is worth a lot more than 100% of nothing.”
He also sees long-term benefits, explaining that if you do a good job on stage, you’ll work with that client one or two times, but with a bureau, they can keep booking you for the rest of your career. Turkel says, “It’s not a really tough decision.”
Customer service expert Laurie Guest describes another significant advantage to bureaus: they connect her with great clients that may not have heard of her otherwise.
Christine Cashen, a humorous motivational speaker, notes the common reflection from speakers: when you need bureaus to help you book business at the start of your career, they’re not interested. Once you start booking your own gigs and developing demand, that’s when they’ll pay attention. Now a veteran speaker, Cashen calls her earnings from bureau gigs “bonus money” – money she wouldn’t get from her own business development efforts. Like Turkel, she’s happy to give them their cut.
Charlotte Raybourn is president of the International Association of Speakers Bureaus. As she explains it, bureaus provide a level of protection to both the speaker and the event planner. If a speaker faces travel delays or gets sick, the bureau can step in and provide an alternative speaker on short notice.
What are bureaus looking for in a new speaker?
Strong speaking ability and stage presence: This is a baseline for any speaker who wants to be a professional.
Content expertise: For Kiela Hine, President of Convention Connection, “There’s more humanity now than there used to be within the industry.” Whereas speakers used to approach her and ask what hot topic they should focus on in their speeches, now the expectation is for speakers to bring authentic, relevant expertise on their subject.
Content is shifting to focus on substantively helping and challenging audiences with important concepts like diversity and inclusion, employee and customer engagement, innovation, technology and work-life balance.
Hine is excited about the shift, telling me, “I love these new messages that help people be better leaders and listeners.”
- A great hook: President of Goodman Speakers, Jenna Jorge puts it simply, “People want someone who’s doing something amazing and can talk about it.” The more unique a speaker’s approach or story, the better they’ll likely do.
- Credibility: Bureaus are looking for someone who is tied to a well-known company, wrote a recognizable book or is a credible expert in their field.
- Profitability: Typically, bureaus want to work with speakers who are already consistently booking gigs for a minimum of $7,500. There’s often fluidity there, though. Some bureaus pursue unique, new talent, while others won’t consider a speaker billing less than $10,000 per event.
- Easy to work with: Having a flexible, can-do attitude is a necessity to work well with both the event planner and the bureau itself. Multiple bureau representatives shared stories of great speakers that are difficult to work with and therefore don’t get booked.
How do bureaus find new speakers?
- Existing bureau clients and potential clients: Jorge explains, “We have such great relationships with clients, they give us the good, bad and the ugly.”
Richard Schelp, Co-Owner and CEO of Executive Speakers Bureaus suggests that speakers leverage relationships with their existing clients and ask former clients to talk to bureaus on their behalf. When an event planner says, “I just had speaker X, and we’d like you to take a look at him in the future,” bureaus listen.
If the bureau thinks there’s a possibility of getting return business from the event planner, they’ll bite. Schelp also says, “If a good customer reaches out, 100 out of 100 times, I’ll do it. That’ll get you in the door.”
- Speakers the bureau already works with: When a speaker recommends a colleague, often bureaus will pay closer attention.
- If the competition beats them: Betty Garrett, who owns Garrett Speakers International, says when she misses out on landing a gig, she wants to know what speaker the event planner ended up choosing and then may try to add that speaker to her roster.
- Conferences and events: Brian Palmer, President and Owner of National Speakers Bureau, talked about quietly going to events to scope out speakers. Customers often ask whether he’s seen a speaker live. He says his ability to say yes is very powerful.
What’s the relationship between bureaus and speakers like?
While many bureau professionals described the event planner as the end customer and therefore the bureau’s top priority, others focused on mutuality.
Palmer talks about how his father, who started the National Speakers Bureau over forty years ago, would draw parallels between the speaking industry and his former experience as a band leader.
At one event space, the venue manager would tell the band, “We’d rather you not come into the venue until 7pm. If you need a bathroom before then, there’s a gas station up the street.” At another, the manager would say, “Come on in! We’ve got showers here, and we’re having a dinner catered for you.”
His father explained that the latter venue would get a better show because the musicians created a better sound when they were treated well.
Palmer and his father share this philosophy: treat the talent well, as you would the customer, and everyone will have a better experience.
“That expression that, ‘it doesn’t hurt’ to ask isn’t true,” Palmer says, “If someone wants me to offer a speaker half their usual fee, and there’s no other component of negotiation, I think that can be potentially insulting.”
Jorge echoes the sentiment, “Speakers are not monkeys. They’re human beings. They’re not just there to dance for you. We ask them to do things within reason.” The speakers she represents know her bureau won’t suggest them to an event unless they’re confident it’s a fit for both sides.
Like many bureaus I spoke with, Jorge says her top priority is to make sure that the event is a huge success – the speaker gets rave reviews, the meeting planner gets to be a hero and attendees are happy.