Working with Speaker Bureaus

Bureaus need the talent. Speakers want the bookings. What’s the key to making it work? Trust and communication.

By the NSA/IASB Council

The relationship between bureaus and speakers is sometimes tricky. It used to be simple – the bureau had a client and booked a speaker. The bureau took a commission for the speech they booked or the product that was sold. The client belonged to the bureau and the speaker limited post-speech direct contact to a thank-you note. However, the speaking business has changed. The Internet changed how bureaus and speakers market and sell, sometimes blurring lines and creating gray areas. Training and consulting contracts can be a big part of a speaker’s business. How does the bureau sell these services and what type of commission is reasonable? And now there is online learning, teleseminars, webcasts and more. The business has become much more complicated than simply booking a speech with a straightforward commission. The ultimate speaker and bureau relationship rests on reason, mutual trust, and respect. Bureaus have different policies. And speakers have different opinions about how they want to be represented. Both parties have to want to work together. They agree on the terms and live by those terms. Remember, both sides have a choice. Below are some frequently asked questions. These are not the final answers, yet they represent majority opinions of the NSA/IASB Council. They are offered only as guidelines to help you develop your relationships with speaker bureaus.

Getting booked by bureaus

How does a speaker go about getting booked by bureaus? Let’s get one of the hardest questions out of the way. This article is not meant to be a source for a speaker to get booked by bureaus. That said, the subject needs to be addressed, so here is one idea: If a speaker is not already doing business with bureaus, there are right and wrong ways to go about it. First and foremost, the bureau has to be interested in the speaker. How does that happen? The speaker could call them, mail them, visit them, or email them – basically make them aware. Once in a while, the speaker may get lucky and start a relationship that way. Yet bureau owners and their agents are called all the time by speakers they don’t know. It’s tough to stand out. Some bureaus receive dozens of videos and brochures every week. It would take a full-time employee to review the large number of submissions a bureau might receive on any given day. So a short answer to this question is that the bureau finds out about the speaker from another source. Perhaps another speaker already working for the bureau makes a recommendation. Perhaps a bureau’s client specifically asks for the speaker. A speaker’s reputation is what sells him or her, not persistent phone calls and a mailing campaign. The bottom line is that the interest is generated by a third party.


What is the typical speaker bureau commission? The range of commissions varies, typically from 20-30%. At the time of this writing, most bureaus are taking a 25% commission. Some bureaus start their commissions at 30%. There are even a few that are charging 35%. In rare cases, some bureaus charge less than 20%. Speakers sometimes complain about bureaus that charge a higher commission. It’s the speaker bureau’s choice to do so. And it’s the speaker’s choice not to do business with a bureau if they disagree with the commission structure. Alan Parisse, MBA, CSP, CPAE has a different view of the commission structure. He says, “Frankly, if a speaker wants to work with bureaus on an ongoing basis, they should reframe their view. Rather than seeing it as a charge, view it as a sharing arrangement between valued partners. If you must view it as a charge, turn it around. It’s not the bureau taking ___% of my speaking fee. It’s the bureau giving me ___% of the amount the client pays them.”

Gross fees and net fees

What is the difference between gross and net fees? A gross fee is what the speaker typically asks for. Example, a speaker may say, “My keynote fee is $500.” A net fee is what is left after the bureau takes its commission. Let’s say the bureau takes a 25% commission. The speaker’s net fee would be $375 ($500 less the 25% commission of $125).


What is spin-off, and what are the speaker’s and bureau’s responsibilities/obligations to each other regarding spin-off? Spin-off business is simply the bookings that result from the speaker presenting to an audience. This may come from someone in the audience booking the speaker or recommending the speaker to someone else who ultimately books the speaker. Hence, one speech spins-off more business. The second part of the question is somewhat complicated. If you ask any number of bureaus and speakers, you may get different answers to the second part of the question. What is the speaker’s responsibility to the bureau and vice versa? If a bureau books a speaker into a company’s event and three people come up after the program expressing interest in future bookings, it seems obvious that the bureau should be given the leads. What about when a speaker receives a call six months after the event? Consider this. Even though it has been six months, the speaker would not have received this phone call if the bureau hadn’t booked the speaker in the first place. Again, it would seem obvious that the lead goes back to the bureau. The bureau expects (and the speaker should hopefully agree) to turn all leads back to the bureau to book. Some speakers have complained that when they turn in leads to the bureau, nothing happens with them. In some cases, unfortunately, this may be true, but it’s usually not the case. More than likely, the bureau did follow up and this was the result:

  1. “I want the information on file for the future, just in case.”
  2. “I did have a date in mind, but had no idea how much the speaker charged. That’s way out of our budget.”
  3. “I just wanted his/her slides.”

Any of these responses result in the lead going nowhere for the speaker. However, the bureau was still able to establish a relationship with a potential client. This is very important to the bureau. Some speakers feel it’s okay to work the lead, and if a booking results, then the bureau is sent a commission. The problem with this thinking is the bureau misses out on being able to build a relationship with that client for future business. As mentioned, even if the bureau can’t place the speaker, at least they have the opportunity to start building a relationship with a new client. One bureau’s suggestion is to let the speaker follow up initially, yet the bureau would immediately step in to help book the speaker or help the client find a different speaker, if appropriate. Another bureau appreciates when the speaker takes the initiative to cultivate relationships at the booking. They see the speaker as an extension of the bureau’s sales force. The key is that the speaker brings the business back to the bureau versus trying to work with the client on his/her own. Other bureaus may want to have more control and request that the speaker turn over all leads that come from the booking, either on site or in the future when a client calls the speaker directly. How long does the bureau get to claim a client? For example, a date is booked and five years later the speaker gets a call from that client. Some bureaus would say that after a specific time, it doesn’t belong to the bureau anymore. We’re sure the bureau would like the business back. The speaker might think, “The bureau will never know.” And they might not, but is that really the point? As mentioned above, the bureau and speaker relationship is based on trust and respect. The bottom line is for the speaker to have an understanding of how the bureau wants to handle spin-off business. It’s sometimes written out clearly in their contracts. The bureaus’ favorite speakers are the ones who get great feedback from their bookings, and also bring in leads for future business.

Non-speech spin-off

Today’s speaker has a business model that is different from that of past speakers. How does one handle non-speech spin-off? Beyond keynotes and workshops, more speakers are getting into training, coaching and consulting. Add technology to the mix and you have teleseminars, webinars and more. And there is product: books, CDs, DVDs, etc. So what should a commission to the bureau be? What should it be based on? Some bureaus and speakers have thought this out. Each party should let the other know what they are thinking. Based on expenses that might be incurred, should the commission be based on gross or net revenue? And what should that commission be? Speakers with third-party publishers don’t have the margins to give commissions that self-published authors might have. Experience shows that simply communicating will lead to agreement on these issues.

Pre-program questionnaires

Who is responsible for the pre-program questionnaire? The pre-program questionnaire is important to both the speaker and the bureau. It helps the speaker learn about the audience, the organization, the theme of the meeting, logistics, and more. Most speakers have their own version of a pre-program questionnaire, as do bureaus. And, this is where confusion for the client arises. Some speakers’ questionnaires are extremely long and time-consuming for clients to complete. In addition, the speakers’ questionnaires may have similar questions that are on the bureaus’ contracts and questionnaires. Clients complain that they are filling out duplicate information. The speaker bureau likes to manage logistics for both the speaker and the client. The bureau wants to provide the speaker with venue, hotel, and other information about the meeting. The bureau also wants to provide the client with the speaker’s logistics: flights, hotel arrangements, ground transportation, etc. In addition, there is basic information about the meeting the speaker needs to know – and that the bureau might like to have on file. This shouldn’t preclude a speaker from doing his/her homework to learn about the client and their meeting. This is simply a matter of the bureau and speaker coming to an agreement about how this information should be obtained. The speaker can easily work with the bureau’s questionnaire. If the speaker needs more information, he/she can hold a conference call with the client.

Working with multiple bureaus

What happens when a speaker gets a call from multiple bureaus for the client/event? Many speakers are represented by multiple bureaus. Let’s say Bureau A calls the speaker and puts a date on hold. The next day, Bureau B puts the same date for the same client on hold. Does the speaker have the obligation to only work through the first bureau for this particular date and client? At the end of the day, this really isn’t about the speaker and the client. It’s about the bureaus and the client. The client will decide, not the speaker, which bureau they want to do business with. As a courtesy, the speaker could let the bureaus know that the client is looking at more than one bureau. This is really no different than a client considering several speakers, yet only choosing one.

What if the speaker already has a relationship with the client?

What happens when a speaker already has a relationship with a client, yet gets called by a bureau to hold a date for that client? Who should get the booking? There are several things to consider. First, does the speaker really have a relationship with the client? Or is it just a “soft” lead? Did the speaker work to build this relationship over time, and the client just happened to be talking to a bureau and mention the speaker’s name? In which case, the bureau is simply taking an order. Perhaps the bureau also had a relationship with the client. Maybe the bureau actually made the sale, pushing the client to make a decision that might not have been made without the bureau’s endorsement. In a perfect world, both parties could come to an agreement and create a win/win situation. In some cases it may be the opportunity for a new bureau/speaker relationship to begin. Or the parties can consider working out a one-time agreement on the commission. Many speakers give the bureau the booking, especially if that bureau already books them for other dates. Once again, the speaker and bureau have a choice. They don’t have to work with each other. The client may end up coming back to the speaker, or the bureau may end up recommending a different speaker. The boundaries are blurred. Sometimes both sides have to get creative.

Holds on the speaker’s calendar

Let’s say a bureau places a hold on a calendar for a date that is a year away. A year later the date is still on hold, yet the bureau never told the speaker that the opportunity went to a different speaker or the client decided to go in a different direction. Some speakers complain that their calendar is filled with holds that come and go. When they call to check on the hold they are told the bureau can’t possibly call all of the speakers to release holds. A number of bureaus do call their speakers to release holds. Some bureaus don’t mind the speaker calling. Some speakers let the bureau know they will check back every 45 days to ensure the hold is still valid. Some speakers state that the hold will be released after a certain amount of time, say 60 days. Expectations should be stated up front. Bureaus and speakers should work together to come to agreements. Both parties should know about the other’s policies or procedures. It’s all about the relationship.

Final words

The following statement is worth repeating: It’s about the relationship. People like doing business with people they know, like, and trust. Both sides must put their best efforts forward. We need each other. Speaker bureaus need the talent. Speakers want the bookings. Together the system works.


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