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?

15 Comments

  1. Nick, I see a very valuable continued role for speaker bureaus for the decades to come. But it will only be the very smart ones that survive and then thrive in the new environment you describe.

    I’ve had the good fortune to work with dozens of speakers bureaus over the years. The great ones add tremendous service to their clients and to me as a speaker and they more than earn their commission. Sadly, the not so great ones are simply opportunistic order takers.

    The best speakers bureaus have a team of dedicated professionals who understand all aspects of the conference and event business. They develop relationships with clients for the long term. They remember who keynoted last year’s big event, they review feedback from it, and they suggest speakers for next year based on what worked and what didn’t.

    The people who work in the best bureaus prepare the speakers they book for the event. They advise on any special situations to make sure speakers are prepared. It’s such a pleasure when a bureau rep shares with me details such as: “there will be a lunch after your keynote and the conference organizer really likes when the speaker moves from table to table to greet attendees.” That’s the sort of detail that makes everyone better off – the speaker, the planner, and the attendees.

    1. Agreed, David, and thanks for that valuable perspective coming from a master speaker! The bureaus that figure out a new role such as I’m suggesting in the Internet age will thrive, but there’s also a role for bureaus that do the essential work of being a trusted liaison between speaker, event planners, events, and audience.

  2. Nick, Very useful post as always! There is one funny typo in it though 🙂 “if you are selling your sneakers at a loss”

    1. Thanks, Maureen — that was no typo, that was supposed to be a joke. Comparing speakers to sneakers, you see. OK, so perhaps I should have said “widgets.” The idea was to liken speakers as a salable commodity to sneakers — you can’t make either one up in volume. If you sell an object for $5, and each one costs you $5.50, selling more of them won’t help.

  3. Hi NIck – Great blog post, as always! As the founder and owner of a 25-year-old speakers bureau, SPEAKING.com, that has successfully adapted to the many changes that have disrupted our industry, I can illustrate a few things that we have done to stay relevant by creating a menu of services that have helped us grow.

    1) Curation: We go far beyond just listing a few links to speakers for clients to review. Before suggesting speaker candidates, we have multiple in-depth calls with our clients – and even potential audience members – to determine the deeper goals for the engagement and how the speaker can best align with their needs. We then submit our proposal detailing how each speaker can address their specific themes. Many times the client will also want to have a call with their top few candidates, so we brief each speaker and arrange the calls.

    2) Vetting clients: Many speakers don’t realize this, but we handle approximately 7 client requests/proposals for each 1 confirmed booking. There is a lot of pre-client work that we do for clients that never end up booking. Since we only get paid on commission, all this work is done for free.

    3) Logistics: In addition to contracting (reconciling demands from clients and speakers has become more complicated), event details, accounting / payment procurement (which has become even more time consuming dealing with large companies and government institutions), etc., we have also gotten more involved with all aspects of event logistics, including: travel, pre-event calls, 24/7 emergency assistance, etc. In our over 25 years in business, we have never had an unpaid speaker, even when a client has not ended up paying us. This payment guarantee alone is worth gold in the oftentimes unstable events world.

    4) Experiential event design: This is a new, growing complicated area with many moving parts. We are helping clients and speakers harness new technologies and presentation formats to make events more interactive and memorable. This service can add dozens of hours per event to our workload and takes a lot of research/investment capital.

    5) Speaker Management: Many “general” bureaus like SPEAKING.com have started offering speaker management services, in addition to representing freelance speakers. And, in this also, we have had to reinvent and do more… especially to stay competitive with the traditional “exclusive” bureaus. So, we also offer our managed speakers coaching, program development, proactive marketing, developing other bureau relations, shepherding books, etc. Since many of the speakers that are managed are not the big names that generate all the speaking leads they want (IE: ex-presidents, celebrities, etc.), we have to do more to help our lesser known managed speakers build their speaking careers.

    There are many other things we have been doing – and will continue to do – as our industry constantly changes, but this just gives you a few ideas of what a modern bureau needs to do: keep offering more value and continuously adapting to the needs of both speakers and clients.

    While our net profit margins have gone down over the past 20 years due to all the extra staff time we are spending on each engagement, the additional capital it takes to invest in new technologies and services, and on client procurement – the number of events we are doing is up. But is worth it when a client says, “You helped us produce the best event we have ever had!” … or a speaker says, “Your level of service and innovation is outstanding, I love working with you!” 🙂

  4. Nick, speaker bureaus are indeed ripe for disruption and no one has yet cracked the code (at least that I’ve found). As a current speaker and former conference producer, I long for the disruption to come.

    There are several, interdependent factors and you mention some of these in your post: An exponential growth of people who call themselves speakers–one regional bureau I recently checked out had 36 online pages of leadership speakers. While I am sure they are all lovely, accomplished people, are they all as equal as they appear on the website? The purely online platforms make this even worse. Related is the growth of the number of people willing to speak for little or no fee as they are promoting a book, consulting business, or whatever. The increase in supply drives down prices and results in a bewildering number of options for bookers.

    On the other side, many speaker bureaus seem to wait for the phone to ring with a request for a brand name speaker. When the caller can’t afford that person, they start working down the food chain. I am represented by three different outfits: One boutique firm with a relatively highly curated roster. They freely admit they do no outbound marketing but promise to negotiate a helluva deal if I hand an inquiry to them (they do) and charge a modest commission. The second is much larger, claims to be a magnet for leads though few emerge. Requests for how I might help are answered with requests, in turn, for me to do more marketing and bring them leads–for which they’ll charge a standard commission. The third claims to be proactive though very, very busy with other clients yet wants an above average commission. Again, all have lovely people though none are fully satisfying.

    I spoke on six continents last year with strong reviews across the board–all of those gigs came as a result of my writing, referrals, or my extended network. Similar to what you argue, the more selective boutique provides the most value–decent fee for me, good match for the client, and great liaison work between us. Yet all of the outreach remains with me (much like the book business these days). Marketing and promotion is yet one more job to do in addition to content research and development, etc.

    While you advocate for a better way to certify speakers–a good idea–I’d also like to see certification for bureau with data on median number of bookings per speaker at different fee tiers, number of organizations/events for which multiple bookings have been secured over time, etc. That might help level the playing field so that each party is oriented to investing in the relationship for mutual benefit.

    1. Eric, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I hope some bureaus read deeply into your perspective. And here’s to more gigs. You’re right, BTW, about the growth of speakers — the competition to the rest of us — especially since 2008-9, when so many wise people got laid off and saw little prospect of a job down the road. So they turned to speaking. And no doubt there are a number of other factors causing the increase. But, as I tell new speakers I coach, the competition has never been fiercer, and you have to embrace that and figure out ways to thrive in it, because it’s reality.

      1. I completely agree Nick… the competition for speaking slots has never been fiercer. The rise of “personal branding”, TED Talks and easy internet marketing has brought a huge increase of people wanting to speak. And, the quality and variety of presentations have gone up also… along with the demands clients are making on the talent they book. Many times it’s not enough to just swoop in, do a 45-minute keynote and then swoop out. You have to do a lot of customizing / research for the group, social media promotions, provide some interactive feature, post-event learning, etc.

        1. Yes, exactly. Back in the day, I heard Alvin Toffler talk about his book, Future Shock, and I was thrilled to be at the speech. He walked up to a podium, pulled out a sheaf of papers, looked down, and started reading. He never looked up. He could get away with that in those days (mid-90s). No one could today.

          1. This is such an interesting dialog between you two. I completely appreciate Michael’s post above about the growth of back end work that goes on without compensation. As a former conference producer, I know about a lot of those moving parts and have worked both dream and nightmare speakers when it comes to all of the non-content issues such as prep calls, travel logistics, etc.

            The lessons that I’ve carried forward as I’ve become a speaker is that being easy to work with on all of those issues makes me better when I hit the stage. If the organizer doesn’t ask for a prep call, I do–because I want to know as much as I can about the audience. I always arrive early enough to hear at least one session before my own so that I can get a sense of the room and find a thread or two to help weave my presentation into the larger narrative. I always customize my talk even if the general themes are consistent with others I’ve given because that’s the great opportunity of a live presentation for both speaker and audience. I am happy to attend breakfast, lunch, or another side event–it helps me better understand the group and its meeting and is an excellent way to extend my network. It is good to hear from Michael that organizers appreciate this.

            I never liked or understood those who want to rush in, take a bow, and rush out again. It serves neither the speaker (except perhaps his or her ego) or the audience.

          2. Thanks, Eric — What you’re describing is good, essential behavior/attitude on the part of speakers. That’s why you’ve got the good reputation you do. Other speakers reading this take note, measure yourself against this thinking! Of course, there are times when travel schedules mean you have to get in and out of an event quickly, but I encourage speakers to re-think the idea and build time at the conference into their planning, fees, etc.

    2. A bureau will never be able to make a speaker’s career or even generate a ton of leads. A bureau can help, though, with positioning, getting the word out, maximizing opportunities, promoting a speaker on proposals, handling logistics, etc. But, if a speaker’s topics or presentations are not resonating, it doesn’t matter how much promotion is done because clients won’t bite.

      Bureaus can also provide advice on program content and the presentation – providing insights into what clients are looking for currently. With the rapid pace of change, it’s always a difficult task to gauge what topics, themes, and types of speakers clients are looking for. This is where a bureau can help also… with positioning and how to capture client’s attention. But, the speaker will always need to be the one who generates the “buzz” and the work/experience that will offer value to the client.

      The best way to get bookings is through referrals and spinoffs. So, if the message/presentation (the “product”) is resonating with audiences, then the bookings will come. This is one of the things I learned from Nick and why his speech crafting services are so valuable! 🙂

      1. Mike, I did a blog post a while back on the questions that depress me the most from coachees — and one was, “Can you hook me up with a speakers’ bureau?” As you know, the answer is yes, but if you see “getting ‘represented’ by a bureau as the beginning and end of your marketing campaign, you’re going to languish in obscurity for a long, long time. Unless you’re an ex-President or a movie star.

      2. Michael, this is good to hear. One of the most frustrating things for me as a speaker is a lack of meaningful feedback when I call someone who represents me to ask what they’re hearing in the market, what’s trending, etc. There is a lot incumbent on the speaker but it really helps to have a sense of the market in terms of topics, formats, etc.

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