Could You Benefit From Involvement in a Speakers Bureau?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Jul 19, 2013
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Speaking engagements can be a way to prospect for new clients and augment revenue. HR consultants hoping to extend their reach beyond local commitments may be able to benefit from a speakers bureau. But first, learn what’s involved in associating with a speakers bureau, how to choose the best ones and what to look out for when considering this route.

What Is a Speakers Bureau?

Speakers bureaus maintain databases of speakers from a variety of backgrounds, including business, politics, sports and entertainment. These organizations help facilitate the relationship between speakers and hosting organization, often from the initial contact through the completion of the engagement.

Some of the big names in speakers bureaus include:

American Program Bureau, for instance, lists a number of human resources/workforce-related speakers, including Ted Childs, Esther Jeles, Sharon Jordan-Evans, Dan Schawbel, Randy Street and Bruce Tulgan.

These are big names, of course, and they’re competing with other big names. Breaking into the top agencies can be challenging—in addition to a certain amount of “star power,” those who are chosen also must demonstrate their ability to effectively engage an audience.

On a smaller scale, there are many other speakers bureaus, often on a local or regional level and affiliated with educational institutions or chambers of commerce. Involvement in any of these organizations can be a good way to gain exposure and get access to venues that might otherwise have been closed. However, while a speakers bureau might present significant opportunities for HR consultants hoping to build their thought leadership status and generate additional revenue, there are some drawbacks.

Not All That Glitters …

Potential speakers need to think carefully about their ultimate goal when it comes to speakers bureaus, says Laurence J. Stybel of Stybel, Peabody and Associates in Boston. “If your goal is to generate income through consulting fees, giving speeches to associations is a great way to get your name to prospective buyers without having to pay for advertising,” Stybel said. In this sense, speakers bureaus are worth it even if the engagements are not paid, because the primary goal is the exposure.

On the other hand, if your primary goal is to make money from speaking engagements, you need to be able to command a considerable fee—at least $5,000, said Styble. This is because speakers bureaus charge a commission on bookings made through them.

Marketing expert David Newman, author of Do It! Marketing (AMACOM, 2013), puts that number even higher. “A speakers bureau is not an appropriate fit for most HR professionals, simply because they are not paid professional speakers,” said Newman. “A commercial speakers bureau works on a commission-only basis, usually with speakers earning in excess of $10,000 per speech who are already speaking 30 or more times a year before any bureau bookings.”

Furthermore, Newman points out that speakers bureaus are working on behalf of the organizations hiring the speaker, not the other way around, as the term “speakers bureau” might lead some to suspect. The bureaus get paid on commission and, consequently, “the bureau agent doesn’t care which speaker fills the slot as long as it’s one of theirs,” said Newman. “And if the contest is between a $20,000 keynote speaker and a VP of HR who speaks for free, you can see where that speakers bureau will make their money.”

That’s not to say that speakers bureaus are never a good option for HR consultants. Kristen Brown, bestselling author, coach, speaker and founder of Happy Hour Effect LLC, based in Minneapolis says there are also important benefits involved with working with speakers bureaus, including:

  • Exposure to companies that exclusively use speakers bureaus.
  • Credibility in the eyes of the hiring company.
  • Pre-screened clients in terms of budget, audience fit and needs.

For HR consultants who think that a speakers bureau just might provide some benefit, there are some key things they can to do stand out.

Making Your Mark

To command those $20,000 fees, HR consultants obviously must be able to justify their value to potential audiences. How?

Maybe, suggested Stybel, “you were chief HR officer of a company that made the Fortune magazine best employer list for the last 15 years in a row, or you are chief HR officer of today’s darling company. Sometimes writing a best-selling book will justify that fee. Sometimes a marginal selling self-published book with a nifty title might generate enough interest for such a fee.”

Aside from enticing the speakers bureau with a big fee, you’ll want to pique the interest of the organization that will be your audience. Cathy Paper of RockPaperStar, based in Minneapolis, does a lot of work with both HR organizations and speakers bureaus. “We recommend that companies that want to hire a speaker go off of three things: online video, recommendations and their phone conversation with the speaker,” says Paper.

“You can tell a lot about a speaker if they will make the time to talk to you during the selection process. As you get higher up in the price range, the speakers are busy and may not make the time, but the best speakers know that knowing the audience and having every one of the decision makers have confidence in the selection is crucial to a great speaking event.”

The bottom line: While the big-name speakers bureaus may not be quite right for most HR consultants, in some situations they may provide the impetus to move beyond “local gigs” to “the big time.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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