5 things you should know about speakers bureaus

Introduction

At The Speaker Lab, we’re dedicated to helping people from all walks of life become professional, paid speakers. As a result, we field a lot of questions about speakers bureaus. Aspiring speakers often think that they have to get listed by a bureau before they can really build their business. Alternatively some well-established speakers worry they’re doing something wrong because they aren’t booking most of their gigs through a bureau.

Today, we’re going to clear up some of those misconceptions by going through five essential things you should know about speakers bureaus. (If you’re still figuring out how to get started as a speaker and haven’t gotten to the bureau question yet, start here).

Before we dive into everything you need to know about speakers bureaus, you might be wondering…what is a speakers bureau?

A speakers bureau is a company that helps you book gigs in exchange for a commission. Clients book you through the bureau, who manages the contract, negotiations, fees, etc. A speakers bureau gets you gigs in two ways. Sometimes, the bureau gives a pitch to the client for how great of a speaker you are. More often, the bureau fields client requests for your services and helps you land the best gigs.

A speaker can choose whether you’re “exclusive” or “non-exclusive” with bureaus. An “exclusive” speaker only works with one bureau. If you want to get them at your event, you have no choice but to go through that bureau. A “non-exclusive” speaker works with various bureaus and probably gets a few independent gigs. Being a non-exclusive speaker helps you appeal to various audiences and expand your network. Unless you are really in the big leagues (in which case, thanks for listening to our advice!) an exclusive bureau relationship is probably too limiting.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are five things that you should know about speakers bureaus. These are some of the most common questions we get at TSL, so we’ve tried to answer as thoroughly as possible!

1. Do I need a speakers bureau to get gigs?

Feeling inadequate because they aren’t listed by a bureau holds back a lot of high potential speakers. But the truth is, you do not need a speakers bureau to get gigs. Not being listed by a bureau does not reflect poorly on the quality of your speaking.

Furthermore, focusing on bureaus too much can actually harm your speaking business. Building a speaking business takes a lot of time, energy, and systems-building. If you spend too much time wondering how to find a bureau rather than creating a repeatable system for getting gigs yourself, your business will grow more slowly.

Bureaus are so tempting because they seem to promise a shortcut. Let’s face it, the more demanding business tasks required of speakers are no fun. Many speakers are proud to be creatives and feel at sea when it comes to spreadsheets, accounting, and business forecasts. (If you’re struggling this, we highly recommend our piece on what metrics to track to grow your speaking business). Isn’t a bureau the middleman who can help you achieve your goals without the number-crunching and cold-calling?

Unfortunately, this perception is entirely a false promise. Your time is far better spent putting work into those unglamorous systems. The systems you put in place at the start of your career will become sustainable sources of business. While bureaus can be a great asset in your speaking toolkit (which we cover in sections three and five!), they are not a sustainable foundation. If you are still working on establishing client relationships, getting booked regularly, and achieving sustainable growth, focus on those essentials.

A bureau might well be a dangerous distraction from laying the foundational groundwork. And here’s the thing. If you’re not already booking gigs, you don’t stand a chance with a bureau. We cover why in section 2.

2. Is a speakers bureau an easy way to get gigs?

Absolutely not. We run into this misconception all the time. Bureaus are businesses that exist to help their clients (event planners) find speakers who are a good fit. Bureaus make money off of the fees that event planners pay to those speakers.

What does that mean for you?

Well, if you’re still struggling to generate demand for your speaking services, the speakers bureau has no guarantee you will make them any money. The speakers who come to us asking how to find a bureau are often under the impression that the really big name, high-dollar speakers only got where they are because a bureau got them there. But that’s really not what bureaus do. Bureaus don’t create demand, they manage it. Any given bureau could have thousands of speakers on their roster. Once they list your name, it’s up to you to keep client requests coming in through the bureau. Your marketing efforts should already be so successful that the bureau can trust those requests will continue coming in. Otherwise, the time spent working with you is a bad investment.

In short, getting on a speakers bureau roster is no easy task. If you feel like you need a bureau to get gigs, they probably aren’t interested in you. If you aren’t already getting booked regularly and ideally dealing with more requests for speaking engagements than you can handle, a bureau has very little incentive to work with you. And even once they do, your responsibility for creating demand never goes away.

This can be a painful realization for some speakers, especially if you have poured a lot of time into getting listed by bureaus. But don’t be discouraged! If you understand that you shouldn’t treat bureaus as a shortcut to booking gigs, there are some fantastic advantages to working with them.

3. How can a speakers bureau help you grow your business?

Fear not that we are being a Debbie Downer, we have plenty of good things to say about speakers bureaus. So long as you have the right expectations, working with a bureau is a fantastic tool to incorporate into your business strategy. In fact, your interactions with bureaus don’t necessarily have to be limited to getting gigs!

But how do you actually find a bureau? Well, a big part of starting a speaking business comes down to building your network. The best way to get involved with a bureau is always through a mutual connection, not a cold-call. Fortunately, people who work at bureaus tend to be extremely approachable. Even if you don’t have a pressing desire or need to work with a bureau, connecting with the people who work at them is a great early-career strategy. These bureau connections can help your business in many ways, since they interact with so many speakers and event planners alike!

Tip: Since bureau agents field so many client requests, they have their fingers on the pulse of what topics are up-and-coming. If you’re looking ahead to gauge where your audience’s needs are pivoting, ask your bureau friends for input!

Here’s an idea for how to engage with bureaus early on. Say a client reaches out to you with a paid offer. If you already have made contact with a bureau, you can offer to run the contract negotiations through them and give them the commission. Even if you don’t work with the bureau long term, this is a great way to nurture relationships and contribute to the speaking community as a whole. In the future, you could be in a position to refer other speakers to the bureau (or warn them away) based on your experience.

Once you’ve started a dialogue with a bureau, you can let that relationship bloom over time. As you get more and more inbound inquiries (rather than constantly cold-calling contacts yourself), you might welcome the bureau taking some of the work off your plate. Eventually you will reach the sweet spot where you don’t really need the bureau and they really need you…and working with them is a choice you can make not out of desperation, but out of confidence.

One final piece of advice on how to use bureaus to your advantage: make sure your fees are appropriate. Bureaus want speakers who make it from inquiry to booking about 70% of the time. If a bureau has a hard time selling you because your fees are too high, they won’t want to work with you anymore. Before you try to lock down a bureau, look at their website (and those of competitors) to see which speakers land in which fee ranges. Realistically evaluate how you match up to the speakers in each range. Adjust your own fees if necessary so you are level with the competition, and you’ll stand a much better chance of bureau success!

4. Are speakers bureaus for everybody?

Quite frankly, no. And that is perfectly ok! Here are a common few reasons why working with a bureau might not be for you. Don’t worry–in section 5, we’ll talk about situations where working with a speakers bureau is a great idea.

Before you engage with bureaus, you have to be bureau–ready. You need all your assets in place to be taken seriously before you start trying to find a bureau. A website, professional photography, a demo reel with recent videos, a well-articulated topic, a tailored niche audience…if any of these are missing, bureaus will write you off as an amateur. To really give yourself an edge, we also recommend building up a content creation channel–a blog, a book, a podcast you name it.

If you are still working on launching any of those fundamental speaking assets, put your time and energy there. Speakers bureaus can wait. Bureaus help you maintain momentum, but they don’t create it. It’s very normal for none or very few of your gigs to come through bureaus in the early years. Yes, even for super-successful speakers. Building sustainable momentum for your speaking business takes time. Often it’s wisest to hold off on the bureau channel during that time. As time goes on and demand for your speaking grows, you get to decide whether to work with a bureau from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.

The inherent dangers of doing business through a third party are one reason you might avoid speakers bureaus, especially an exclusive relationship with one. If you count on all your gigs coming through a bureau and they go out of business tomorrow, you are back to square one. And if we’ve learned anything from COVID, which profoundly impacted speakers bureaus, it’s that you can’t rule out a catastrophe like that.

All in all, you might find that you prefer building an independent business with your own staff and methodology anyway. Very few people make a living just off of bureau gigs. Even for the most successful speakers, a bureau usually functions as a supplement. If you have a great groove, you might find bureaus aren’t worth the trouble. That’s how internationally acclaimed keynote speaker Marcus Sheridan feels. On the TSL podcast, he shared how he rose to success without bureaus, and why he thinks they’re a little overrated. Listen here.

5. So…should I use a speakers bureau?

There are several situations when it is a great idea for you to use a speakers bureau!

Speakers bureaus control a great deal of the highest-paying speaking opportunities, so in certain industries it is a natural next step once your speaking fees hit a certain range. That’s why it’s so important to price yourself right, as we covered in section 3.

If you notice that a lot of speakers in your space and at your level use speakers bureaus, working with one is a wise choice for your personal brand. Even if you aren’t dependent on the bureau for very many gigs, there are certain advantages that come with the relationship. Industry or topic-specific bureaus, for example, can help you become a household name in the field. If you’ve launched your speaking business, but need help getting plugged into certain networks, a bureau can help you do exactly that. If you’re hankering for fresh audiences, bureaus are a great way to get your name in front of new clients. Working with a bureau can also help you better recognize the needs of your current audience as you get feedback about the types of inquiries coming in.

Bureaus love speakers who can bring them new leads. If you field a lot of client inquiries that you have to turn down for whatever reason, there is probably a bureau specializing in speakers like you who could use those leads. A relationship with that bureau would help you field your inquiries and connect the event planners you can’t serve with speakers who can. If you’re in this situation, it is probably a good time to get in touch with a bureau!

Since the best way to find a bureau that’s a good fit is through mutual friends, don’t be discouraged if the first couple you work with don’t stick. As you advance along your speaking career, you will meet many new contacts. With the forging of new relationships, better bureau opportunities will be on your horizon. Like everything in the speaking industry, you have to play the long game! Often, a bureau can be the next new channel that helps you level up your speaking business when things start to coast. Here’s our best tip for navigating these situations: Ask your mentors and role models who work with bureaus for advice!

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, you know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to whether you need a speakers bureau. We can’t answer that question for you because there are so many diverse paths to speaking success (though there are some key steps that are essential to getting there).

Our goal with this article is to help you understand what a speakers bureau is and how to find one when the time comes. Maybe you realized that your time is better spent on other aspects of your speaking business right now. Or maybe you’re finally confident it’s time to reach out to that bureau guy you met at a cocktail party. Either way, hopefully this has dispelled the misconceptions around speaking bureaus and shined a light on the reality!

If you want to learn more about what a speakers bureau is and how to find one that works with your business goals, we have a great podcast covering all of that. Keynote speaker Josh Linkner ran through all the topics we’ve covered today and more with TSL founder Grant Baldwin in Episode 266 of our podcast.

Want to know exactly what to say to finally land paid speaking gigs?

We’ll send you the exact three emails you can send to conference planners and event organizers that Grant Baldwin (our founder) used to book over $2M in speaking gigs. 

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Here are a few other resources you might find helpful. 

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