What does it take to get paid to speak? What does it take to get a speaking bureau to represent you?
In 2006, I signed on with a professional speaking bureau and talent agency. I have been with that talent bureau ever since (almost 12 years and going strong). Along the way I have also added on a second bureau (based on where I live) to help in additional geographic regions (9 years with two separate agencies). Many speakers complain about the lack of gigs and support that bureaus provide, I have been really happy with my situation. That’s not bragging… that’s me establishing credibility for the content that follows. Because of my experience, I am often asked for introductions to speaking bureaus, or asked what it takes for a bureau to care about signing on a new speaker. It’s a tough question to answer. It’s easy for a speaker to get representation if they are a celebrity (and yes, even a micro-celebrity), a best-selling author, or someone with an incredible story (climbed Everest a few times? Survived and thrived after a horrific accident? If you can tell your story in a compelling way, speaker representation can be pretty easy to get). With that, most people are looking at professional speaking as a way to build their personal brand, their corporate brand or to evangelize their industry. It’s hard to get the bureaus to pay attention to these types of individuals, simply because there are so many of them. I am (usually) really happy to provide my speaking bureau with leads into people who they should represent. That being said, there is a minimal viable product that speakers must be able to deliver to the bureaus.
If you want to be represented by speaking bureau, consider this…
- Have something to REALLY say. This is already an article in and of itself. If you’re interested in learning how to give a better (and more valuable) presentation (or you’re not there yet), please read this before proceeding: How To Give A Great Presentation (Seriously). This article really breaks down (in steps) how to develop and prepare for a great presentation, keynote and/or speech.
- Have your materials prepped and ready to go. You can’t just want to speak, you have to have everything set and in place for the bureau to see. It can be a simple speaking page (here’s mine), or a website that is more robust (I think Todd Henry has nailed it). What does this entail? A professionally designed website (that is easy to engage with on mobile). With that you need a compelling speaking bio (not just your general corporate one, but one that speaks to event planners and bureaus about what you bring to an audience), your topics (smart titles, descriptive subtitles and a strong paragraph about what the audience will take-away when you’re done), testimonials from previous events (if you haven’t had any major events, maybe ask colleagues for testimonials on your quality of presentation skills, etc…), images of yourself (speaking and headshots) that can be easily downloaded (low and high resolution), and additional graphics (book covers, logos, etc…), and – most importantly – either a speaking reel or video clips of your speaking (we’re going to come back to the video and how critical this is shortly).
- Don’t ever say “no.” This is probably the biggest surprise to speakers who want representation. They see the glamor of speaking a few times a month, the planes, the hotels, the marketing materials, the speaking fees… oh, the romance of it all! What they don’t realize is the complexity of fitting professional speaking into a business (and personal) schedule. If you manage to get a talent agent, you really can’t say “no” when they bring you the gigs, because you quickly become the person who doesn’t want to work/make this happen. This means weekends, early morning flights, red-eyes, and more to make this work (not to mention flight delays, cancellations and grinds). No talent agent wants a speaker that can only speak some of the time. What they really want is a low maintenance speaker who will do whatever it takes to get the gig. So, if you really want representation, know that saying “no” to any gig is a really bad idea. With that, stop and think about missing your kid’s parent teacher interviews or not being home on the weekend (and much more), and ensure that the lifestyle of speaking is the right fit for what you want to do. Also, remember that speaking gigs usually get confirmed months in advance. Once the contract is signed, you’re locked in. Business and personal life happens. It’s hard to know what will be going on six months from now. Meaning, are you prepared to miss that big business development pitch next week, because you signed an agreement four months ago and now the dates clash? It’s not as easy as it looks.
Why is the video reel so important?
Unless you are a certain kind of celebrity (see above), the event planners are looking to ensure that you are going to make their lives (extremely) easy for the hour that you are onstage. You are (usually) not being hired because of your name and content and company, but because you fill a box that is needed for their event (i.e. “we need someone who can speak about the intersection between consumers, technology and our business”). In order to ensure that you are the right person, you not only need everything above, but you need to present your ideas in a strong and palatable way on that video demo.
Here are some tips on what event planners don’t want to see in a speaking reel/presentation video:
- Dragging on and on. Start strong. Be compelling. Out of the gates. So many videos start with five minutes of the speaker going on and on about the event so far, their travel experience, why they’re in the room, making jokes that don’t land and more. Start strong. You can get to the jokes or the more relevant customized content as you go along. Spending several minutes at the top talking about their event and the conference event the night before is zzzzzzzzz.
- Asking questions out of the gate. This doesn’t work. “How many of you here today, in attendance, have a strong marketing technology stack?”… “what makes it important to you?”… These are not bad questions, but when you start with questions like this, on video, it looks very weak. All you see is a speaker asking questions, nodding and looking at the audience. The energy is drained. Plus, most people don’t answer these questions well, until the speaker establishes rapport. Start strong, deliver value, and then move to audience questions or getting feedback. Build trust and establish rapport first.
- Your technology is not a part of the presentation. Looking at your remote presenter, futzing around with your computer, pointing out that you have a timer in front of you, etc… All bad plays. Make your technology seamless. Even if there is technical issues. A talent agent that sees a speaker making their technology a co-speaker is one that they will ignore. A talent agent that sees a speaker, where the technology is invisible is impressed.
- What’s behind you does not concern you. Another surefire way to get a talent agent to ignore your reel, is to constantly be looking back at your slides or (worse!) reading from them. Know your content. Don’t look back. Don’t even acknowledge your slides (unless you are pointing out a very specific piece of data). The slides are there to support whatever it is that is coming out of your mouth. Don’t look back at your slides… it’s not professional.
- This is nothing that you don’t know. “I’m not telling you anything new” or “I am not telling you anything that you don’t already know” or “You’ve probably seen this before.” Then why, exactly, are you here and wasting my time? Even if it’s true, kill these phrases. One, the audience dies a little on the inside if they hear that. Two, no talent agent wants to work with someone new… who doesn’t have anything new to say.
- Throwing the leadership under the bus. I’ve seen countless speakers say something like: “I am here to tell you why your leadership is not paying attention to the work that you/your team/your department is doing.” In context, this may seem smart (i.e. if you do what I say, you will get that promotion or make your team so much better), but in reality, it looks like you are diminishing the role of the people in the room, and throwing their leadership under a bus. Comments like that may establish you as a thought leader or more credible, but it could kill your ability to truly help the entire organization move forward. Don’t highlight their silos or leadership challenges… work around them in a positive fashion.
- Deer in the headlights. Like most people, I am very nervous when speaking. I’m nervous as I travel to the event, right before I go on, and even during a presentation. Yes, you read that right. After over a decade and thousands of presentations, I still get nervous. That’s because I care. I want the audience and event planners to really benefit, and I put that weight on myself. Still, don’t make it apparent in the video. I’ve been asked countless times by speakers to make an intro to the bureaus, and their videos (sadly) demonstrate how nervous they are. Being nervous is normal. It’s fine. It’s human. Having it be so apparent on your demo/speaking reel makes is not good. Shoot a lot of video, get more and more confirmable, and only present your best self in it. Try to make your nerves not so apparent. Avoid video that has you licking your lips, shuffling too much, stammering, trying to make bad jokes to calm your own nerves, etc…
- Play to the room. I’ve seen speakers use props, intro music or even a video intro for a small, half-filled breakout session. Don’t play too big to a small room, and don’t play small in a big room. You have to figure out the balance and “box in the weight class.” You don’t want to make things too over the top (don’t act like wrestler making an entrance for Wrestlemania) when it’s a concurrent breakout. Play to the room, not to how you imagined the room might be.
- Drama out. Keep all personal/work drama out of your presentation and social media (unless the drama is related to the content that you are presenting). The analogy would be this: be very personable, but not too personal (unless that’s what you content is about). Event planners, talent agents, etc… don’t want to deal with a speaker that has too much drama attached to them. It makes their job difficult. A planner wants to know how you’re going to capture the audience, maintain their energy for an hour, help them get better at the work that they do… and do so with as little drama as possible.
- Show multiple shows. Lastly, if your video (or videos) can show you in different environments for different types of organizations – all the better. Think about the ideal audiences in business and deliver video that shows you presenting to those kind of audiences. Think B2B or B2B. Think small, medium or large brands. Think small, medium and large audiences. Show how you speak differently within those different dynamics.
Always remember: You are not (always) the star, just because you are onstage and doing the keynote.
This is a tough one for many speakers to comprehend. You’re actually (often) not the star. You may be giving the keynote, but you are simply one cog in a very big wheel of a multi-day event. Often, your sole purpose is to be great in your moment, and ensure that the event planners get hired again to organize the businesses event again next year. Your goal is to ensure that they remember how respectful you were of their work and how much the audience enjoyed hearing you speak, so that everyone want to see you again. A strong speaking demo reel (or multiple videos on YouTube) that ooze that, are the real ways that will make an agency want to work with you.
Make your video as professional as possible, and you might have many of the top talent agents knocking on your door.