One of the questions I am often asked is: “How do I get speaker agents to book me more?” I am asked this because I have a good relationship with many speaker agents and bureaus, and have had these relationships for many years. For the record, I have been a professional speaker for over a decade. My company, TomorrowToday has developed many people into professional speakers and I have mentored many speakers during that time. I am a Fellow of the Professional Speakers Association of the UK, and a member of the Global Speakers Federation. And I get about 20% of all my bookings through agents and bureaus.
The question of how speakers can get agents to book them more is a good one – for speaker newbies and old hands alike – and I hope my comments below provide a helpful and comprehensive answer. But I’d also appreciate your insights, wisdom, corrections and critique – please feel free to add to this by leaving your comments below.
NOTE: For the sake of this article I am not going to differentiate between an agent and a bureau. I mainly have bureaus in mind, but the titles are used in such different ways in different parts of the world that it’s impossible to be more specific. And I will use the terms interchangeably. In this article I am focusing attention on agents/bureaus who have relationships with clients looking to book speakers, and who provide a variety of options for those clients and then handle the booking of a selected speaker.
Even if you’re a seasoned speaker, it can be quite tough to connect with a new agent. Look at it from their perspective. They get literally hundreds (even thousands) of speaker packs every year. They don’t have a lot of time to sift through the rubbish to find the gold (I am assuming you think of yourself as a nugget of shiny stuff, rather than a pile of… well, you know what I mean). So, how do you stand out from the pack?
Send an email – the days of glossy speaker brochures is over. Your email should be short and to the point, and should minimise the marketing speak. You have about 3 minutes to convince the agent to consider you. Your email should contain the following (probably in the order listed below):
OK, so what if you don’t have some of these things? Well if you don’t have ALL of these things available (except possibly the agent friendly website), then you’re not ready to connect with an agent yet. By all means go ahead and try, but remember that agents will probably only give you one chance. So, if you look like an amateur and you feel like you haven’t done all your prework, they’ll just bin your email and remember your name in order to bin future attempts to make contact.
By the way, here are a few DONT’S for your initial contact:
One of the best ways to get noticed by an agent or bureau is to have a speaker who is already trusted by the agent recommend you. (NOTE: Not just a speaker who is LISTED with the agent, but one who is booked regularly and liked by that agent).
This brings me to a side point here. As a professional speaker, it is really worth your while to develop good relationships with other speakers. Yes, there are times when these people might be competition for you as you all vie for one particular speaking job. But over time you’ll find there is huge benefit to being friends with other professional speakers. You can recommend each other for jobs, promote each other in the industry and just enjoy together what is otherwise an often lonely profession. I have joined Professional Speaking Associations for just that reason.
How (and why) they choose you
A speaker agent’s sole and only purpose is to sell speakers to paying clients with the least amount of work on their part (that’s just for efficiency purposes, I am not saying they’re lazy). As a speaker, you therefore need to understand clearly the nature of the relationship between the agent and their clients (the event organiser).
Typically, a speaker agent will be approached with a specific request. The reason the client has gone to an agent is because (1) they don’t know who would be best (if they had a specific speaker in mind, they’d probably go direct), and (2) they want protection if something goes wrong (many clients see the agents as providing this protection, such as the ability to provide a substitute speaker if their first choice pulls out at late notice).
So, they come with a request. Often it’s vague. “We need someone to speak at our annual staff conference on leadership. They need to be funny, it’s the after lunch session on the 3rd day. Who would you recommend?”. Agents typically give three recommendations, most often in order.
The agents select these choices based on at least the following:
The bottom line is these two things: sometimes you’re just not what a client is looking for or needs, so don’t blame the agent for not booking you; and, until you know what you’ll say NO to you don’t really know what you’re good at (and until you know what you’re good at, most speaker agents will be slow to sell you).
Being good enough
I have to be careful here, but let’s be honest, there are lots of terrible speakers in the world. I’ve sat through many of them at conferences, and I think ‘how on earth do you make a living doing this’? Speaker agents see countless videos from speakers who really are not good enough to make it on the professional circuit. They also see speaker packs from speakers who don’t have anything to say. This is especially true of the speakers who fall into the ‘motivational’ category. But maybe it’s true of you too.
Do you know what you would say NO to?
Are you really world class in your area of expertise? More important question: how do you know? (Who have you benchmarked yourself against? When last did you go on a training course? When last did you get someone who really knows what they’re talking about to critique your work?)
How much do you really know about the area of expertise you speak on? My view is that if you get to speak for an hour on stage and tell the audience more than 10% of what you know, then you don’t know enough. Put another way, for every 15 minutes you speak, you should be able to comfortably host a 3 hour Q&A afterwards – a Q&A session that goes deep and technical and needs specific and practical outcomes from you. If you can’t do that, you are not an expert. The good news is that you can become one – on any topic. But it does time and effort.
Do you do everything? You’ll speak for $500 or $50,000? You can speak on leadership, supply chain management and the social media implications of Middle Eastern political change? You can speak for 15 minutes or 15 hours? You’ll speak before breakfast or after dinner or anytime in between?
It’s good to be flexible, and to have a topic (or two or three or more) that allow you to customise for your clients. But until you know what you WON’T speak about, you won’t have credibility with agents. I know of at least one agent who early on in a relationship with a speaker will test the speaker by asking them to speak on something they are definitely not an expert on. If they say, “Yes”, they’ve just ruined it with this agent. You’ve taken time to build your expertise and reputation – keep it in tact by knowing what we can and can’t do well. If you won’t be the best speaker the client has ever heard on a topic, rather don’t accept the job.
Which leads to the next obvious point. Why do you think a bureau would be interested in getting you started? There are some agents that might want to represent you from the start, but you can bet they’d prefer to be management and take a much bigger slice of your fee. Most agents and all bureaus are there to represent established speakers. They have no incentive to take a chance on a newcomer. I know it’s a “chicken and egg” situation, but unfortunately you’ll have to build your own reputation up before agents will be really interested. Don’t go to the agents until you have some clients testimonials, some video snippets and a track record of adding real value to a few clients.
What I’m really trying to get you to do is to be honest with yourself about how good you really are. Agents only really have time for speakers who are really good. If you’re not that good yet, spend your time speaking to smaller groups and getting paid less. Build up your ability and reputation, and then go to the agents. Bureaus are not there to help you build your career from scratch. They’re not there to help you get better. They’re there to help good speakers get bookings.
This is the different mindset you need when working with an agent. You see, if a client books you for their annual conference, you’re only likely to ever speak at that event once. No matter how good you are this year, they’re unlikely to rebook you next year. So, maybe (just maybe) you can get away with doing something outside your specialty and expertise as a once off with a single client. But an agent needs to book you again and again. You can’t afford to not be your very best for every one of their engagements.
How to get agents to love you
Very simple: help them make money.
Help them get repeat business by speaking them up to the clients.
Help them fall in love with you and what you do. Most of this has got to do with what I have said above. But there are one or two more tricks.
In some of the larger agencies, you can think about how to do something for the specific agent you might deal with (who gets a percentage of the percentage the agency itself gets). A lot of people don’t like it (or at least don’t like talking about it), but one of the ways you can do this is offer incentives directly to the agents. At very least, send them a thank you note after the engagement. But also consider giving them a token of appreciation – if not cash then maybe a little gift or something that makes them feel valued.
But probably the best way to get in with an agent is this: Invite them to come and see you present at a client. Say it like this, “I am speaking for a client in your area soon. They do a lot of conferences and regularly book speakers, and I’d like to introduce you to them. Please come along to a presentation I am doing with them – you can see my in action, and I’ll connect you with their conference organiser.” Yes, give them a “free” booking. hand over a client to them.
If you’re not prepared to “give away” a client in order to create a speaker agent relationship, then probably look elsewhere to build your business. It’s a partnership of give and take, and you have to do both if you’re going to be successful in the long term. Many speakers are shocked by my suggestion of paying commission on an event when they could just book the date themselves. If you’re one of those speakers who are offended by the idea of paying such a commission, then you’re not the type of speaker who will get booked much by bureaus.
How to get an agent to stop booking you
There are a thousand ways to lose both a lover and an agent. I won’t bore you with the full list – most are obvious, since the speaker-agent partnership is just that: a partnership and a relationship. You can break both of those in so many ways. And especially given the egos that are so obviously involved in this industry.
But the best way to ensure they STOP booking you is to “steal” a client from them. If an agent gets you a booking at a client, that client and any work that flows from that booking belongs to that agent. At minimum, you should be paying them commission, even if you handle subsequent bookings. But better is to keep the relationship flowing through the agent. Keep detailed records of how a client came to you, and be faithful to the agents for future bookings. (You may ask how long you do this for – is it for a year, or two? I’d say: forever. But that’s just me).
Build your business for the long term
The speaker-agent relationship is both a profitable and fragile one, but can be good for both of you. In fact, that’s the key. As soon as it starts feeling like it’s hard work, or not worth the effort, by either of the parties, it will break down. As a speaker, think long term, think relationship and think give-before-take, and you should be fine.
I have certainly enjoyed my many years of working with some really great speaker agents and bureaus around the world. I look forward to many more years too.
Now that you’re read my thoughts, I’d love to hear yours. Please provide your top tips, and join the discussion as it emerges below.