Can we talk?

Grant_mccracken_bDeep summer is probably not a good time to address a weighty topic, but I can’t leave this one till fall. 

I am waiting for my speaker’s agency to find me more speaking gigs, and they are not forthcoming.  Of course, this may reflect the market’s assessment of my value as a speaker.  And I bow before this assessment. 

On the other hand, I used to talk all the time, and sometimes the crowd seemed to love me, especially when I did my mechanical hand trick (eyes right).  It rotates all the way around.  Kidding, I’m kidding.

So I am thinking about going out on my own.  This may be a good idea.  It may be a bad idea.  I welcome thoughts, suggestions and advice from my readers.  As your comments demonstrate, you’re almost always smarter than me.

There are a couple of issues worth thinking through:

1) speaker’s agencies are subject to new competitive pressure.  The worst of these is those "conferences" that draw people from industry, pay them nothing but the honor of this 15 minutes of celebrity.  These ventures can drop their prices because there costs are so low.  And this floods the market with supply. 

I like the peer to peer notion that’s happening here.  On the whole, it is probably more interesting to listen to your peers than a pompous would-be guru who thinks too well of himself.  On the other hand, we might be looking at a race to the commodity basement here and that’s not a market I want any part of. 

2) when you are represented by an agency, you stop looking for gigs on your own.  You leave it to the professionals.  And if they have more potent speakers, they organize the competition arrayed against us. 

3) the speaker’s bureau charges a lot.  I am happy to work for single digit thousands.  They like to charge in the double digits.  I am being priced out of my market.

4) on the other hand, the bureau does beat the publicity drum.  They are the place that people go to look for candidates.  Visibility is everything and this is where it is, er, this is where it’s at.

5) Going on my own would force me to look for myself, and it would allow me to charge less.  Is this benefit worth the risk of diminished visibility?

Thoughts and suggestions, and illuminations from your own experience would be appreciated. 

17 thoughts on “Can we talk?”

  1. Grant, first a caveat, speaking is not my business. So let me start with a simple question: In your experience, is speaking a repeat business? Does speaking to one organization typically result in your being invited back again? Or is each gig a one-time opportunity?

    I ask because our business, translating and copywriting, depends primarily on long-term relationships and word-of-mouth (one happy customer tells another). We get lots of repeat business and don’t use an agent. If, on the other hand, every new job meant finding a new client, an agent would certainly come in handy. Thus, my tentative conclusion: If your personal network is robust enough to bring you all the business you want, get rid of the agent. If you have to depend on the agent’s network, treat him or her very nicely.

  2. Seth Godin arranges his own talks, and only makes a proposed talk happen if he gets the minimum necessary commitment.

    It’s a model to look into…

  3. the few times i was involved in hiring a payed speaker we did this mainly for motivational reasons (or in certain cases maybe as some kind of a change agent). content absolutely secondary. focus on personality, entertainment and ‘glamor’-factors (which of course largely depend on how the speaker is introduced/positioned). to my experience the process of choosing a speaker is the following: you list the people that come to mind, shortlist those where you do not expect an unwanted surprise and contact them. if you then deal with a speakers bureau or an individual does not make much of a difference.
    as i said: personal and maybe not very representative experience.

  4. Are you able to ascertain whether the effect is related to your subject matter or to some broader category in which you fall (or are perceived) or is an extremely general trend.

    For example, a few years ago, people who spoke about anything related to Six Sigma were booked and over-booked. Now, focus has moved elsewhere (or possibly everyone interested in Six Sigma has heard all the speakers they wish to hear).

  5. Back in the day, I used to do booking for bands (including the masters of satirical bluegrass, the Austin Lounge Lizards), and I concluded that the best of all possible worlds might be to secure bookings on your own while also working through some sort of agency that is non-exclusive (which usually means the agency is not promoting you so much as making you available for their regular customer base). That way you get the opportunity to build your on network and exposure to your network as well as to theirs. If the networks are non-exclusive enough, that’s a win-win. Second thing is you need to make sure that your site, blog, etc., all include some sort of language presenting you as a speaker. This can range from Peter’s suggestion all the way up to making an explicit offer on your site. Depends on how you want to present your brand…..!

  6. one more thing: i had a look at what is your speakers bureau i believe… http://www.brightsightgroup.com
    given some of the peers i found there you seem to be in good company but – given their dreadful presentation – brightsightgroup does not seem to be a very good and up-to-date company at all.
    they’d better have real good contacts and a super excellent reputation – but from afar they look much like a sinking ship.

  7. Grant, the only thought I can share is that several friends who run such agencies seem to be busier than hell right now. Don’t know if one of them represents you, of course. Would be happy to connect you if such a thing would be of value.

  8. I think at this particular historical juncture, independence and entrepreneurial attitude will better serve than any situation which lulls you into a sense of complacency. Of course, that is probably always true;-)

  9. No one has disintermediated the speakers market yet? I’m surprised that no “Web 2.0” site has sprung up that eliminates the need for agents…

  10. Grant, questions for reflection while you have time to think – How do you feel after your presentations? Do some go better than others? Do you still feel excited before addressing a new group? Who is your favorite speaker, and why? Maybe these answers might help you answer your original question, or at least take care of yourself during the process.

  11. Dude, I am a comedian and anthropologist… who speaks, and I get most of my work from speaking agencies – but working in South Africa, so its a different market.

    From what I have read on your blog (its one of my favourite) you have loads of ideas that a coporate would like to hear, so it’s a mix of 1) how your agency sees you, 2) how you have packaged your talk, and how well it comes across.

    Speaker agencies sell what is going to get them more work, and what they think will fit the client’s brief. They are also really lazy, so I am guessing that your agency doesn’t get what you have to offer.

    Your ideas definately don’t give me the sense that you are being priced out of the market. rather raise your talk to where you feel you can charge $2000 for it – companies have more than enough dosh to pay for worthwhile cultural understandings – in fact the higher your price the more they value what you have to say (its rediculous).

    I am guessing that the best thing for you to do is 1) get a clearer sense of how your talks can help corporates (I hate how functionalist this sounds, but that is unfortunately how it seems to work), 2) refine your delivery by doing as many unpaid gigs as possible – ie Rotary Clubs, and the lecture circuit as is suggested above. Once you are really comfortable with your presentation selling it is a synch. You will also probably find that your agency has a showcase day where they get different speakers to demonstrate a piece of their talk for their clients (if they dont then get a new agency) – do as many of those as you possibly can. It gets your face as a speaker out there.

    Another point is that it might be best for you not to have a single agency – I find that one agency doesn’t get enough work, but accumulated there is plenty (I dont know if things can work that way in your speaking market).

    Another useful network connection is to get hold of the National Speaker’s Association in your area. They are helluva cheesy (they are bit like an Amway convention), but they deal with exactly the concerns you have raised regarding agents, pricing, etc. They are also a great networking resource for agents and speakers.

    There is a book on the topic called “Speak and Grow Rich” by Dottie and Lily Walters – I found some good ideas in there.

    Of course the idea of putting a link at the top of your blog is the best – you are appealing to what is effectively your fan base.

    Don’t know if this relates to where you are at,
    anhow, best of luck!

  12. I find my speaker’s bureau useful for negotiating fees and other arrangements, regardless of whether they or I generate the initial contact. But clients don’t just accept a bureau’s recommendations. They are much more likely to book a speaker they’ve heard of already. (Hence everyone wants Malcolm Gladwell.) My guess is that if you want more speech bookings, you need to be much more visible in the popular and business press. You also might want to ask your bureau what they think the problem is. Perhaps they can’t figure out how to peg you to clients or they’re unenthusiastic about you as a speaker or they’ve just forgotten about you and need a reminder.

  13. I’m happy to discover your blog (referred by Stephen Denny).

    I get about 10% of my speaking engagements from speakers bureaus (I’m not exclusive with any of them), and the other 90% from companies and organizations who call me directly. What helps greatly is having products “out there” that people see: usually these are books (but I have other products as well). I find that every time I come out with a new book (or product), interest in my speaking goes up.

    Question: do you have a new book (or product) in the works?

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