Talk is not cheap Featured

10:03am EDT July 22, 2002

"If I had a dime for every time I was asked to book Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates for a public speaking engagement," says Laura Fenamore, "I'd be rich."

Fenamore, president of the Golden Gate International Speakers Bureau in San Rafael, Calif., daily fields requests from businesses, charities, non-profit organizations and institutions seeking the benighted wisdom of celebrities from Apple Computer's Steve Jobs to filmmaker George Lucas, movie star Whoopi Goldberg to pop music legend Elton John. But, Fenamore adds, "I don't think people have a clue about how celebrities charge, and what it takes to get a celebrity speaker."

Every company would love to have Bill Gates as keynote speaker at their next company meeting. To that ambition, public speaking experts advise: Stop dreaming. Most are too much in demand even to respond to speaking requests, Fenamore says. Besides, adds Victoria Chorbajian, president of Chorbajian Speaking Enterprises: "I know more people who are sole proprietors who I would like to give [speaking] business to, because they are more particular, more careful, and give attention to how they can serve their customers."

Make no mistake: Fenamore can book heavy hitters for your next sales meeting or trade show. "With the cash, it's no problem," she notes. "Without the cash, it's a big challenge." But the biggest of Big Dogs - Gates, Winfrey, John and Goldberg - remain out of reach for even the most well-heeled meeting planners for one simple reason; they don't speak for money. If you have a large meeting dedicated to a cause near to their hearts (e.g., AIDS care for Elton John) or interests (e.g., Apple devotees for Steve Jobs), certain celebrities can be convinced to donate their time. But realize, Fenamore says, that there are a hundred equally sincere requests in line ahead of you.

If you're willing to step down from the Mount Olympus of the public speaking pantheon, these pros say there is plenty of worthy talent available to address your next engagement.

Do your homework. Consider the culture of your company, the nature of your audience, and the message you want to send. If you had a celebrity speak at last year's sales meeting, a lower-tier speaker this year may send an unintentionally negative message. Review your speaker's books, tapes and marketing material carefully before signing a contract.

Get referrals. Find a company satisfied with its last keynoter, and contact that individual's agent or speaker's bureau. If you don't want the same speaker, the bureau may refer you to appropriate alternatives. Trade journals, local newspapers and service organizations such as Rotary and Lions Clubs may suggest reputable speaking professionals.

Timing and location can be key for the budget-minded meeting planner, says Terry L. Paulson, president of the National Speakers Association in Tempe, Ariz. Local speakers won't have to make hotel arrangements; speakers visiting for another engagement will already have them made.

Negotiate the package. "People have this feeling that if I'm going to spend $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000, I should be able to get this extra time with [a celebrity speaker]," Fenamore notes. "And it's just not going to happen." Second- and third-tier celebrities, especially local heroes like Olympic medalists or high-profile entrepreneurs, will be more accessible for pre- or post-speaking duties including photo opportunities, autograph sessions and such.

"You will find typically that a celebrity speaker will not make many changes to their content for the audiences they address," Paulson observes. "They don't have to." A speaker's bureau can find a professional suitable to your business's specific needs at a reasonable price ("reasonable" is defined in the industry as starting around $2,000). You can then consult with the speaker about particular themes appropriate to your venue. If your budget allows for a celebrity speaker, consider hiring an additional professional who can deliver an address tailored to your audience.