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Launching a public-speaking career

Ask FSB explores how professional public speakers can land representation and gigs.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Dear FSB: I work as a professional keynote speaker and am interested in finding a salesperson who will accept a commissions-only pay structure for booking me. How do I target my search, and what career expertise should I specify in my search criteria?

- Esther Jeles, Chicago

Dear Esther: Congratulations on forging a career as a public speaker; it can be both rewarding and lucrative. However, as you've already found, the key is to keep a steady flow of speaking engagements coming.

Experts we spoke with were skeptical that hiring a commissioned sales individual to book your speaking engagements is the right way to go. Officials at the Public Relations Society of America said that the position you describe is more in the realm of a publicity agent, but those familiar with the speaking circuit said that even a publicist would have a hard time scaring up enough speaking engagements.

"You hire a publicist if you've written a book or want to get your name into the print media, and they find you speaking engagements," says Mark Castel, president of AEI Speakers Bureau in Boston.

Professional speakers, on the other hand, join bureaus such as AEI that promote hundreds or thousands of speakers for conferences, business events and other engagements. Like a mall with hundreds of shops, these bureaus are destination sites for anyone who is looking for just the right speaker for their event - from industry trade shows to company events to university graduations. There are bureaus serving different niches: motivational speakers, business executives, subject experts and those working in specific geographic regions.

Most bureaus don't charge speakers a fee, but take a commission for the work they arrange. However, getting accepted at a reputable bureau is not easy. AEI receives around 100 videos a month from aspiring public speakers that want to be affiliated with AEI, says Castel.

"And those are just the ones that are viewable," he adds.

Should you decide to hire a publicist, look for someone affiliated with professional societies such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Entertainment Publicists Professional Society (EPPS), or others like it.

"Membership in these organizations indicates a serious intent to address the work in a professional way," according to Henri Bollinger, president of the EPPS.

As for compensation, Bollinger says your desire to hire a representative on a commission-only basis isn't likely to get a lot of reception, given the nature of the PR business.

"Unlike agents, publicists do not select or seek revenue-generating opportunities. We merely promote the work or activities that our clients perform," Bollinger says.

However, you may have luck finding a publicist who will agree to a nominal fee, as well as a cut of the money you earn through engagements they help arrange.

Regardless of how you decide to promote yourself, a good first step on the road to a career as a public speaker is to join a professional speakers association, like the National Speakers Association, which provides resources, workshops and networking opportunities.

Such groups can help you improve your skills and speaking style, which will lead to more work, and may provide you with a peer group who can help you weigh your options when it comes to promoting your services, Castel says.  To top of page

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