Ever since the Internet blew apart the old analogue job of speaker bureaus – to present speakers to their buyers, the meeting planners and conference organizers – many bureaus have struggled to clarify their real purpose in our half-online, half-in-person world. Some have indeed simply added more and speakers, trying to make up for the lack of value they’re adding in volume.
But last time I checked, if you are selling your sneakers at a loss, selling more of them won’t help.
What should be the creative role of a speakers’ bureau in a world in which the basic marketing and availability of speakers can be handled by the websites of those speakers?
I see two related roles, both of which are essential for both ends of the market – the speakers and the meeting planners. First, curation, and second, trusted analysis.
Why are these roles important? How might bureaus do this work?
Let’s pursue this thinking a little more deeply to find answers to these questions. With that half-online, half-in-person world, we live in a time of weak connections and easily broken trust. It’s not a comfortable state of affairs for humanity – which has evolved from face-to-face interactions among tribes. To be sure, it’s a frontier with the usual good as well as bad effects frontiers offer. On the plus side, the online space is vastly more democratic than it ever was when gatekeepers of various kinds ruled the day. For speakers, that means that you can lift yourself up by your bootstraps with more facility than you ever could in the past. The opportunities are vast, tempting, apparently there for the taking, often just out of reach, frustrating, tantalizing — a chimera of potential riches. Score a TED talk! Grow as big as Tony Robbins! Speak to entrepreneurs around the world!
On the minus end of things, a democratic online world opens us all up to scam artists, malware, viruses, fakes and charlatans, and so on through a whole cast of unsavory characters and schemes. Speakers have to exist in that world too, and since they have to be open to connecting with strangers, that makes them more vulnerable than many others who are simply minding their own business posting about their dogs and reunions on Facebook. Travel to someplace I’ve never heard of in Africa to speak? How exciting? What are you offering?
Because it’s a new world making things up as it goes along, we only become truly aware of potential problems slowly, when they actually affect our lives, rather than expecting them and heading them off before they happen, as we might in a better-ordered world with a slower pace of change. That means a lot of speaking disasters will happen before the word spreads, people get savvy to the cheats, and the system can self-police.
Could it be any different, for the public speaking tribe? There’s very little proactive work going on to try to create a safe and trusted space for speakers and their conferences, meeting planners, speakers bureaus, managers, and so on to get to know, to vet, to police, to endorse, and simply to help one another. Groups like the NSA and its counterparts around the world, Toastmasters, and various industry groups grew up before the online world become the reality that it is today, so they have been reacting like everyone else and have no inherent way to help with the challenges and issues arising from weak connections and fragile trust.
What’s needed is a way to strengthen connections and make trust more robust. Of course there’s the relatively straightforward curation role the bureaus already offer to their customers (and in reverse to the speakers, too). Here are the half-dozen leadership speakers you should consider for your next meeting.
The problem with that limited curation role is that it keeps out great up-and-coming new speakers in favor of the familiar, tried-and-true already-established ones. And speaker bureaus, like everyone else, can’t keep up (or even hear about) all the new speakers out there — there are simply too many — let alone curate them in any real way beyond chance and word of mouth.
But what if one speaker bureau stepped forward (or a group of them) and offered a virtual meeting place with a certification system? There have been various attempts to create online speaker associations. But no single one has taken hold yet, partly because the various sub-groups involved have different interests and needs. Could that change?
It seems to me that in addition to fulfilling the limited curation role, a good speaker bureau could also build trust by adding a certification system to their curation.
Most of us speakers travel a good deal, of course, so we’ve all signed up for the trusted traveler options the TSA and other organizations offer to streamline that necessary evil. Might there be a trusted traveler organization for speakers, bureaus, and planners organized by the bureaus?