On Speakers Bureaus & the Business of Speaking

In my line of work as a Publisher, I work with about 250 different professional speakers. These speakers who write books use the books we publish to promote their speaking business, and vice versa. Their talent ranges from the up-and-comer to top tier speakers who give talks around the world. Many professional speakers engage with speakers bureaus and/or speaking managers to land gigs on their behalf.

Recently I attended a large association conference in Dallas. Besides attending the event, I make it a habit to touch base with authors I work with while in town. On this trip I took one of these authors out to lunch. She has a hilarious personality and is brimming with stories about this business.

But to me the most fascinating story was not new to me – how she keeps so busy. She uses the services of a speakers bureau. She works hard to stay top-of-mind with her favorite speakers bureaus to keep her speaking schedule full.

This speaker was typically engaged in nearly two speaking gigs per week, or just over 90 engagements per year. If you know something about the speaking business, you’ll agree that this is a phenomenal pace to maintain. Clearly the time invested in these relationships are paying off for her.

Navigating the ins and outs of using a speakers bureau can be somewhat complicated for a new speaker. With this in mind, here are a few salient points to consider when you choose to take your act on the road.

Getting A Little Help from Your (Professional) Friends

Cultivating relationships with a speakers bureau or speaking manager can greatly enhance your public speaking opportunities, giving you an entree into venues you wouldn’t otherwise reach. So what does this look like?

First, you’ll want to be sure you are working with a bureau that is motivated to assist you. However, you need to know that their goals may run counter to your objectives as a speaker. Typically, what the bureau wants is to close speaking engagements with their customers – corporations, associations and non-profits. They’re not necessarily “brand faithful” to one particular speaker because they make it their business to offer choices to their clients. Their role is to weed through the hundreds of speakers they like, and end-up with a handful of trusted performers for their client.

Does this mean you can’t become the darling of a particular speakers bureau? Not necessarily, but it will take consistent excellence and a proven track record to get their attention. You’ll also need to be persistent when it comes to staying in touch – essentially you’ll have to be the squeaky wheel.

Usually it’s best to work with more multiple bureaus in order to stay as busy as possible. Their standard rate is 25% of your speaking fee.

Some bureaus prefer to have exclusivity with the speaker. This sounds great, right? Instead of marketing yourself to dozens of bureaus, you only need to cultivate a relationship with one who provides a guarantee to book you 75 times per year for a period of time. However over the long run, an exclusive bureau relationship sometimes does not work in your favor. You may wind up with a long dry spell after they have worked through their list of contacts in in 2-3 years. Industry insiders suggest remaining open to working with multiple bureaus.

Working with a manager is similar to working with a speaking bureau. Like the bureau, they will land gigs for you and take a fee on top of the bureau fee – probably 10%. The difference is that are getting paid to be loyal to you. It can be worth it if you are generally strapped for time and are focused on running a business, speaking, writing or traveling. If your manager is working with a bureau, then 35% of your speaking fee may be consumed by the cost of getting the engagement in professional fees.

To Fee or Not To Fee – That Is the Question

There is a world of difference between a keynote speaker who charges $5,000 per one-hour speech and a speaker who charges $20,000 for the same amount of time.

In each case, the speaker works diligently to earn that speaking fee. The higher the fee, however, the greater the expectation that the keynoter is going to have rock star charisma and a dazzling presentation. Rehearsal and intentional work on your stage presence are keys to bringing home this much bacon. A corporate trainer isn’t going to be required to have the same Wow factor as a speaker who captivates an entire arena.

There are some folks who have become famous for reasons other than public speaking yet still find themselves needing to address a major audience. Best-selling authors and media celebrities fit this category. Even though their public speaking skills may leave a lot to be desired, they still may command a major price tag for what a appears to be a minor delivery. But this is the exception, not the rule.

When you set your speaking fee, one place to start is with your income goal. If you have a certain amount of overhead you need to meet, calculate the number of speaking gigs you will need to have in order to achieve that income. Be realistic about your level of talent, experience and degree of fame as you set your fees. Know also that buyers have very high expectations from speakers to charge over $15,000 per keynote speech.

Speaking fees run the gamut, from as little as $500 for a one-hour talk up to $50,000 for top-tier professionals. Legendary speakers like Zig Ziglar would command a $75,000 speaking fee. Some speakers choose to waive their speaking fee if they may be allowed to promote their books, products or services at the back of the room following the event. This can prove extremely profitable, despite the apparent discount. I’ve seen famous speakers who choose to waive their speaking fees and clear $50,000 per event selling product back of room.

The most common range for speakers just starting out is between $1,000 and $5,000. These lower-end gigs are widely available in every major city, and they often involve speaking at schools and service organizations.

The juicier gigs are typically reserved for members of the speakers bureaus, and these professionals are ready to go at a moment’s notice. It’s not uncommon for a keynote speaker to get a phone call in the evening to appear the following day deliver a performance. One such speaker got a last minute call and was asked if his schedule was clear the following week. He accepted the engagement and to his amazement, he found himself speaking at a formal dinner at the White House.

When you’re ready to play at this level you will be living the dream of the jet setters, complete with Champaign and caviar waiting in your hotel suite at check-in. After that, what more can you say?

Bryan Heathman is the President of Made for Success Publishing. Bryan works with best-selling authors in the role of publisher and marketer, including the late Zig Ziglar, Chris Widener and John C. Maxwell. Bryan is the author of Conversion Marketing, a marketing book that condenses knowledge on website conversion from 7-years running an online ad agency. Bryan’s Fortune 500 experience includes running high impact marketing campaigns for Microsoft, Eastman Kodak and Xerox.