3 Levels of Speaking Engagements

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The speaking business has three levels as follows:

  1. The free circuit.
  2. The cheap circuit ($1,000 to $3,000)
  3. The pro circuit ($5,000+)

These are my own labels. If you approach other speakers and ask them about “the cheap circuit,” they won’t know what you’re talking about.

The Free Circuit

The free circuit speaks for itself. And because you don’t get paid at these events, the only way you can make money is to sell stuff. So this circuit is pretty much reserved for platform speakers. Read Platform versus Keynote Speakers for more information on platform speaking.

Actually, let me add a bit more clarification. Just because it’s called “the free circuit,” doesn’t mean attendees don’t pay to attend. With the free circuit name, I’m not referring to registration fees. Instead, I’m referring to speaking fees. In the free circuit, speakers do not get paid. They speak for free. But attendees may or may not pay to attend.

The reason I make this distinction is because platform speakers definitely prefer to speak to audiences that did indeed pay to attend the event. The reason? Free events attract lower-quality attendees. People who attend free events are far less likely to purchase anything while at the event. By contrast, people who had to pay a registration fee to attend have already demonstrated that they are buyers.

Close ratios are consistently higher at paid events. So even if the speaker didn’t get a penny to speak, he or she will always be happier speaking at a paid event.

Recently, Tim Ferriss (author of the bestselling books The Four Hour Workweek and The Four Hour Body) held his first platform event. It was entitled Opening the Kimono and was held up in Napa on August 19 to 21, 2011. The sold-out event was limited to 200 attendees and the registration was a cool $10,000 each.

Anyway, he had two platform speakers at the event: Brendon Burchard and Eben Pagan. Although I wasn’t at the event, it’s safe to bet that Brendon and Eben both offered expensive programs to that audience. It’s a tremendous opportunity for them because every single attendee has already demonstrated that they’re ready to throw down some serious denaro for valuable information.

Tim Ferriss’ Opening the Kimono event was obviously an extravagant one but the free circuit also includes countless other events hosted by Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, Lions Clubs, local Chambers of Commerce, small associations, Meetup organizers and church groups. These are all great places to practice your speaking, refine your message and fine tune your delivery. And if you have something to sell, you can make some money at the same time.

The Cheap Circuit

The cheap circuit is the beginning of the keynote category. If you’re getting paid to speak, you’re doing keynote. The difference between the cheap circuit and the pro circuit is that you book cheap circuit gigs directly while most pro circuit gigs are booked through bureaus and agents. But obviously, there are also substantial budgetary distinctions between the two.

All events are hosted by either non-profit or for-profit organizations. In the non-profit category, you’ll find associations and other small groups like Chambers of Commerce. In the for-profit category, you’ll find all the corporate events. Well, not surprisingly, the non-profit events tend to have smaller budgets. For example, although there are certainly exceptions, the majority of associations pay speakers in the $1,000 to $3,000 range.

No speaker’s bureau would waste their time on events like this. It wouldn’t be worth their time. So all these cheap circuit events are booked directly by the speaker. That means it’s the responsibility of the speaker to find these events and submit proposals.

In many cases, the industry association posts a calendar of events on their website. Industry-specific media outlets sometimes do the same thing (like Insurance Journal does for the insurance industry). Speakers can also rely on Google Alerts to notify them when new conferences or conventions are posted online (see Chapter 11). Lastly, platforms like SpeakerMatch help speakers and event planners connect directly.

The Pro Circuit

Events with speaking fees of $5,000 or more are generally booked through speaker’s bureaus or agents. So what’s the difference between bureaus and agents? Good question.

Speaker’s bureaus work for the client. A conference planner might call a bureau and say they’re looking for a motivational speaker. The bureau responds by offering a list of hundreds (or even thousands) of motivational speakers. They then offer recommendations and try to find the perfect fit between the organization, the event, the attendees and, of course, the speaker. But there’s no loyalty to the speaker. The loyalty is exclusively to the client. Speaker’s bureaus keep between 20% and 30% of the speaking fee as payment.

Speaker’s agents work for the speaker. A speaker can hire an agent to represent him or her directly. The agent then makes outbound calls to their rolodex of event coordinators, program directors and conference planners. The agent tries to sell the speaker into their upcoming events. In this case, the loyalty is entirely to the speaker and for that, agents commonly keep 50% or even 75% (!!) of the speaking fee as payment.

Between the two, representation from a bureau carries a lot more credibility. It shows that you’re good enough to be included in their rosters on your own merits. By contrast, any speaker can hire an agent. An agent is just like a publicist. No additional credibility is implied. In my opinion, it makes the speaker look desperate.

Speakers can work with as many bureaus as they want. Personally, I send my marketing collateral to about 200 speakers bureaus all around the world. But there are some advantages to “going exclusive” with one particular bureau. When you’re exclusive with a particular bureau, all incoming inquiries about speaking engagements are referred back to that bureau, even those coming to the speaker from other bureaus. If you’re a well-known speaker, that’s a great situation for the bureau. And in exchange, the bureau will promote the speaker more aggressively.

If you’re not a well-known speaker, there’s no advantage to offer exclusivity to a bureau. So until you’re rockin’ and rollin’, don’t worry about it.

Working with Bureaus

I’ve been told that you won’t get representation by a bureau until you no longer need one. In other words, bureaus want to work with well-known speakers. They don’t want to waste their time with unproven newbie speakers. Meanwhile, it is precisely these new speakers who need the representation. This dilemma exists in almost every corner of life and the speaking business is no different.

The key is to understand the value proposition. Speaker’s bureaus don’t exist to promote speakers. Instead, they exist to alleviate the administrative burden from the process. Calendar management, travel arrangements, logistic, contracts and fee collection are all frustrating aspects of the speaking business. Bureaus will handle all of that for you and that’s their value.

Don’t believe that a speaker’s bureau will solve your marketing challenges. That’s not their job. Marketing is always your own responsibility.

Having said all that, there’s also no question that you can establish a familiarity and track record with a bureau. If they book you for a few events and they all go well, the bureau will be more likely to recommend you in the future. And in that sense, they can indeed bring you new opportunities. The important thing is to always do a great job. If you’re truly a good speaker, the rest will take care of itself.

I hope this post helps you better understand the structure of the speaking business. I also have a comprehensive $97 Keynote Mastery program designed to help aspiring speakers build their speaking careers faster. Read all the details here.

Have you worked with a speaker’s bureau? If so, which one? What has your experience been like? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  1. […] into one of three different strata: the free circuit, the cheap circuit and the pro circuit. Read 3 Levels in the Speaking Business for more information. Becoming a keynote speaker implies that you’re getting paid to […]