Should you hire a speaking agent?

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 speaking agents, such as “Should you hire a speaking agent?”. Aspiring speakers often think that they have to have an agent 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 an agent.

Today, we’re going to clear up some of those misconceptions by going through some of the questions people ask about speaker agents. You might have some of the following questions: Where do I find a speaking agent? Where can I find a speaking agent or agency? Where can I find someone who wants to help me find bookings? Do I even need a agent? How do I get someone else to book me? (If you’re still figuring out how to get started as a speaker and haven’t gotten to the agent question yet, start here).

For answers to these questions and more, read on.

What does a speaker agent do?

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

An agent is basically someone whose job it is to find you bookings. However, agents, like bureaus and agencies, generally work with people who already have momentum. This means that they already have either name recognition or some type of national or international platform. In other words: The phone is basically already ringing with people who are interested in booking that person.

Agents cannot create momentum for someone. So if you’re not already getting some bookings, inquiries and requests, then it’s probably not worth looking for an agent.

As Grant Baldwin discusses in one of our podcasts on speaking agents, an agent does not possess magical powers. They can’t simply sprinkle some pixie dust to suddenly create interest in you. Rather, they are more like a startup founder making a pitch to investors. Agents, like seasoned investors, are more likely to be interested in working with someone who is already a proven speaker. They are looking for people who have a few years of a track record and revenue for their speaking business. They are NOT looking for people who haven’t thought much about their business or only just gotten started.

If an agent has the ability to work with any number of other speakers, why would want to work with someone who is brand new? Agents want to work with someone who has a lot of experience, or someone who is already getting a consistent flow of booking requests, and ideally both.

How do you hire a speaking agent?

But how do you actually find an agent? Well, a big part of starting a speaking business comes down to building your network. The best way to get involved with an agent is always through a mutual connection, not a cold-call. You might do a search for agents on Linkedin and look for those with whom you have a mutual connection, for example. But even then, reaching out should come after generating demand for your talk.

So how do you generate demand? Li Hayes, a speaking agent herself, said in an episode of The Speaker Lab podcast that “pull marketing works better than push marketing.” In other words, Hayes said, “I think it’s more successful to find a market and say, I’m an expert and here’s how I can help you, and I’m gonna help you through social media. I’m gonna help you by sending my book.” This is much more appealing than someone cold-emailing a lead and asking, “Are you hiring? Could you hire me?” which Li calls “pull marketing.”

Once you’ve generated demand from leads who want to book you, and made a mutual connection with a speaking agent, 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 agent taking some of the work off your plate. Eventually you will reach the sweet spot where you don’t really need the agent and they really need you…and working with them is a choice you can make not out of desperation, but out of confidence.

Speaking agents help manage demand

As Li Hayes points out, agents are there not to generate demand but to manage it. Some speakers don’t want to handle the money part of it, for example. From a demand perspective, an event planner or organizer who is looking to book a speaker is ultimately “looking for a successful event,” Hayes says, and “for the audience to go, wow, they were great, not only on stage, but because they took a picture with me and they autographed my book and they answered my question.”

Before you engage with an agent, you have to be ready. Make sure that all your assets are in place before you start trying to find an agent. A website, professional photography, a demo reel with recent videos, a well-articulated topic, a tailored niche audience… If any of these are missing, most agents 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.

How much do agents get paid?

Agents generally work on commission, the way that bureaus do. So they get paid when you get paid, which is great for the speaker, because generally you’re not having to pay for anything unless they actually book you.

But most bureaus and agents take anywhere from 20 to 30% of your speaking fee. That’s a pretty big cut. If you’re charging $2000 per gig, the agent is probably going to spend more time one-on-one with someone charging $10,000 per gig. That’s much more lucrative for the agent. So again, agents are most useful for established speakers who are already getting gigs.

Should you hire a speaking agent?

If you’re a brand new speaker, getting an agent is likely not the first thing you need to be worrying about, as outlined above. But even if you are fairly established, an agent may still not be what you need. If you’re just looking for the easy button to starting a speaking business, you shouldn’t expect for someone else to do the hard work for you.

Furthermore, focusing on agents 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 an agent rather than creating a repeatable system for getting gigs yourself, your business will grow more slowly.

You have to be willing to put in the work yourself. You have to be willing to put yourself out there to potential clients, which can be tough. That said, there’s nothing wrong at all with bringing someone in later in the process. But for 99% of people who aren’t famous already, an agent is going to be less helpful than finding gigs yourself.

As Grant Baldwin pointed out in his podcast on agents, “I’ve had over 450 paid speaking engagements and probably less than 10 of them have come from a bureau or an agent and agency. So if I get one, great, but if I was dependent on an agent booking me, I would be broke.”

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, you know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the question, should you hire a speaking agent? 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).

Finding an agent can be 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. They feel lost 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 an agent the middleman who can help you achieve your goals without the number-crunching and cold-calling?

Unfortunately, for many speakers, this perception is entirely a false promise. You should invest your time into developing your own (perhaps unglamorous) systems. The systems you establish at the start of your career will become sustainable sources of business. While agents can be a great asset in your speaking toolkit, they are not a sustainable foundation. Are you still working on establishing client relationships, getting booked regularly, and achieving sustainable growth? If not, you should focus on those essentials.

However, if you are already getting booked and paid to speak, you might find an agent especially useful for handling the nitty-gritty of booking gigs. You might need help sorting out which gigs to take and how much to ask for, and an agent can help with that. This is likely to be the case after you’ve found your niche, generated demand, and honed your signature talk.

So you’ve gotten a sense of what an agent can do for you. But perhaps you’d still like to learn more about how to get started with your public speaker business. Is that you? Find out more about public speaking by checking out The Speaker Lab blog here. Happy speaking!

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