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  • What is a speakers bureau?

  • Why develop a speakers bureau?

  • Who can you reach with a speakers bureau?

  • How do you set up a speakers bureau?

One of the best ways to gain understanding of what it's like to experience something you yourself have never been through is to hear someone who has had that experience talk about it. You can tell teenagers that drunk driving is dangerous over and over, but you'll never have the same impact as someone who has survived a drunk driving accident. Hearing personal stories has a unique kind of impact; it's very effective in making the audience think, This could happen to me,or someone I know could be going through this.

By the same token, another very effective way of really getting the point across to somebody is to have an expert or an authority on the subject present the information. For example, a group of women hearing about breast cancer screening may be more interested in what a doctor has to say than they would be in the views of a layperson.

Speakers can narrow the gap between talking about something and fully understanding it. For this reason, speakers bureau programs are a very popular and effective means of promoting education and understanding.

What is a speakers bureau?

When an organization decides to start a speakers bureau, it puts together a list of potential speakers it feels are qualified to talk to the public about its area of interest or expertise is put together. These speakers may be people who have had life experiences related to the organization's mission, or they may be people who are particularly educated or knowledgeable about the subject. The organization lets the public know that these speakers are available to talk to different groups, and speaking engagements can be scheduled by contacting the sponsoring organization. Speakers bureaus educate and inform the public about the organization and its issues and are usually made up of volunteers.

Speakers bureaus can send a single speaker or an entire panel, depending on the focus and purpose of the organization and the occasion of the speaking engagement. Your organization can set up multiple bureaus made up of speakers qualified to speak on several very specific topics, or a single, more general one.

Why develop a speakers bureau?

There are a variety of reasons to use a speakers bureau in your organization or initiative. Since they're usually made up of volunteers, the bureaus are generally inexpensive to run. They can be used for a variety of purposes, such as:

  • Raising public awareness about your issues: Many issues that can be confusing, scary, or unclear to people can be explained best by those who have personal experience with them. For example, speakers bureaus have been very effective in educating the public about HIV and AIDS, because hearing about it from people who are living with HIV and AIDS or who have been close to someone who has can make the issue more understandable and real to the audience.
  • Increasing your organization's visibility: Speakers bureaus can reach large numbers of people. For example, the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender student organization at the University of Kansas sends speakers to almost every freshman psychology course each semester, so the majority of students on campus are familiar with the organization's purpose and services. Many KU students say they first learned of the group's existence from speakers bureau panels in their classes.
  • Increasing public understanding of your organization: If you find that the public doesn't seem to have a good understanding of what your group is and what you do, a speakers bureau can help clear up misconceptions and educate people about your purpose, services, and activities.
  • Providing positive role models: People who have experienced a particular problem or condition can serve as an inspiration to others who hear them speak. Recovering drug addicts, for example, can show those struggling with addiction in a drug treatment center that a much better, drug-free life is possible for them.
  • Recruiting new members or volunteers: Speaking to groups that include potential members or volunteers is a good way to spark their interest in getting involved with your efforts. For example, the local crisis counseling center in a college town might send small groups of its counseling volunteers out to speak to residential staff in campus student housing. The speakers bureau could not only explain the center's services and offer tips on how to handle students who may need counseling help, but also get people interested in volunteering for the center.
  • Attracting press coverage: The local media are often looking for public interest or feature story topics, and your speakers bureau might make a great subject for a report. The idea can be made especially appealing to the press if one of your speaking engagements coincides with a current event that is in the news. For example, a panel of women who have survived domestic violence might be of more interest to the local paper when a high-profile court case involving domestic violence is in the news.
  • Raising funds: You can have your speakers give out information about membership drives or upcoming benefit events, or simply describe how people can contribute to the organization. Some organizations even charge a fee for speaking engagements.

Who can you reach with a speakers bureau?

You can reach just about any sort of group imaginable with a speakers bureau. Here are a few ideas:

  • Business groups like the Rotary Club or the local Chamber of Commerce
  • Service organizations like the Kiwanis Club or your local women's shelter
  • Religious groups like church congregations
  • Working groups, like the employees at a campus dining center or the local police department
  • Training groups, like people going through volunteer training for social service agencies
  • Political groups like the local Democratic party or the League of Women Voters
  • Environmental groups like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club
  • Classes at local schools and universities
  • Professional organizations like the local chapter of the National Education Association or workers' union groups
  • Businesses or agencies that might be willing to have a speaking engagement for diversity training or some other type of staff development activity
  • Cultural or minority groups, like local organizations for African Americans or the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community

Later on in this section, we'll talk about how to decide which groups to approach about your speakers bureau program.

How do you set up a speakers bureau?

Recruit and select your speakers

You probably already know of people who either work for or have been served by your organization who are articulate, well-informed, and appealing when talking about your issues in public. These are the kind of folks you'd like to have on your speakers bureau - people who are:

  • Well-spoken
  • Appropriately dressed
  • Knowledgeable about your organization's issues
  • Engaging
  • Likeable
  • Passionate about your organization and/or its issues

Think carefully about what kind of impression you want to make. Different people may have different ideas about what makes a good speaker. For example, while a professor may be an interesting speaker for a group of people with graduate degrees, but he may put a less educated audience to sleep. Give some thought to what kind of impression you want your speakers to make, who they'll be speaking to, what kind of presentation will be most appropriate to convey the desired message, and so on.

Unless you are planning to put together a pretty massive speakers bureau, it's probably best to simply use word-of-mouth and personal invitations to recruit people for your speakers bureau. When considering what sort of people to approach, remember that these folks will be representing your organization or initiative in public, so it's imperative that they have a good working knowledge of your group's purpose, services, etc., although this is of course information you can provide them with after contacting them.

In general, however, you're probably better off using people who are already involved in some way with your organization. You'll rarely find someone who isn't intimately involved in the organization who will do the kind of presentation you want unless you're just giving out information on an issue. In that case, using experts or those working in a particular field can work very well.

If you decide you need more people than those you are able to contact this way, it might be a good idea to use your connections with other agencies, organizations, and activists in your area to find good candidates. This might be as simple as calling people and asking them who they think might be good, or it could be more formal, such as sending out a mailing. If you do this, be sure that you are very specific about what you're looking for and what you want to avoid. No matter how much you trust someone to refer a potential speaker to you, you should meet any potential speakers and, if possible, hear them speak. Whatever way you decide to go about it, this stage should end with you creating a list of potential speakers.

Next, you need to go through that list and decide which people you'll actually use. Again, how much work you do on this will depend largely on how big you want your speakers bureau program to be. If the candidates are all people you know, you may very easily be able to sit down and decide who would probably be good and who might not. If you don't know the candidates well, you may decide to put together a small committee and come up with a set of your own criteria by which to select speakers.

  • Keep in mind that these people will be representing your organization. Whether they are actually members or not, the fact that they are doing speaking engagements on behalf of your group means that audiences will perceive them as attached to your organization by audiences. Therefore it's important that you don't pick anyone who you aren't sure will be a positive representative for your organization.
  • Speakers should be able to answer basic questions about your organization that may come up at a presentation, or at least be able to tell the audience where they can go to get those answers. This is certainly information that they can be provided with once you've selected them, so don't rule out people who might not already know this information just be sure they're folks who can articulately give out this information when they start doing panels.
  • When it comes to speakers that talk about their personal experiences, don't expect all of your speakers to have a similar set of life experiences. In fact, it's better to have a variety of viewpoints and experiences among your speakers bureau members, so that audiences don't come away with the impression that the experiences of all people affected by whatever it is your speakers are talking about are the same.

Varied experiences on a speakers bureau panel

Louise and José work for teen pregnancy prevention programs in two different towns. Both of them were setting up speakers bureau programs featuring teens who had experienced unplanned pregnancies.

Louise's bureau was made up entirely of young women who had decided to have their babies, had full support from their families, and had gone on to finish high school or get G.E.D.'s; some were even enrolled in college classes. When Louise's speakers bureau started making appearances at local high schools, she found that the girls who attended the presentations left with an unrealistic impression of what it's like to experience an unplanned pregnancy. Most of the girls who saw these panels speak concluded that while being a teen mother is hard, it's something perfectly manageable, and that teen mothers are just as likely as anyone else to be successful in life.

José's bureau was made up of young women who had more varied experiences: some had been as successful as those in Louise's group, but others had been rejected by their families, some had been forced to go on welfare to make ends meet, some had decided to end their pregnancies, and many had to stop pursuing their educational dreams. The girls who attended panels from José's speakers bureau had a more realistic perception of what it's like to be a teen mother. They learned that while success is possible, it doesn't happen for every teen mother, and they got a sobering look at the hardships that face many young women that experience unplanned pregnancies.

Decide whether you plan on having a single speaker go out on each occasion or a panel. A panel might be better suited to more general topics where the speakers are likely to have a wide variety of experiences, but a single speaker might be the way to go if you'd like the speech to be more in-depth or last a shorter length of time. You can also vary between having a single speaker and an entire panel, of course. You will want to have several people available. Having 10 or 12 people may seem like enough if you only do three-person panels, but that really depends on how often you will have speakers bureau engagements. Panelists can quickly become burned out if they are asked to speak on panels very often, so be sure to have a much larger number of people on your roster if you plan to have a lot of engagements.

Put together a roster of your speakers that includes information to help you schedule them most efficiently

You'll need a roster to schedule speakers as well as to call them with reminders of scheduled appearances. If you have a very small bureau or plan to only do a few appearances, this roster can be a simple phone list, along with the times that your speakers are available for speaking engagements.

You might also think about including some or all of the following information:

  • Dates that each speaker has already done engagements - this can help you keep from using some of your speakers far more frequently than others
  • Upcoming engagements each speaker is scheduled for
  • How many times each speaker has been a no-show or has been late to scheduled appearances (working with volunteer speakers, you will almost definitely have this happen sometimes!)

Each speaker's particular area of expertise or experience this can help you put together varied panels, as we talked about earlier

Here's an example of a roster for a student diversity speakers bureau that includes some of the information mentioned above:

Speakers Bureau Roster: Peers for Diversity Program

Name Phone # Availability Area of expertise / experience
Adams, Sally 555-9368 Mon, Wed evenings Native American
Chao, Ken 555-8964 weeknights, weekend days Asian American
Franklin, Elvis 555-1334 Saturday afternoons gay male
Lieberman, Jay 555-4678 weeknights Jewish male
Lopez, Teresa 555-0683 weeknights & Sundays Latina
Pratt, Jenny 555-2478 weeknights bisexual woman
Rogers, Lakisha 555-8243 weekend days, Tues nights African American
Reynolds, Bob 555-2121 Tues, Wed afternoons differently abled
Silverstein, Amy 555-4240 varies; call & ask about dates Jewish, differently abled
Wood, Al 555-7874 weekdays before 5 PM African American

Your own roster may have the same column headings, but feel free to come up with your own version.

If you are going to have certain speakers designated to speak on particular topics, you should make up a list on what topics are available, which you can then include with any materials you send out in the next step.

Contact groups and organizations that might be interested in scheduling a speaking engagement

Spend some time brainstorming about the types of groups that might be interested in (or could benefit from) hearing from your speakers. For the most part you?ll be looking for groups that have the same interests or goals as your organization, but you might also ask yourself the following questions:

  • What groups come from the same cultural background as our speakers bureau representatives?
  • What groups would best be suited to our style of presentation?
  • What groups might be most likely to have potential volunteers or donors?

Find out who is the contact person in each group responsible for scheduling speaking engagements, then create a phone list and mailing list that can be used in sending out information about your speakers bureau. It's important to follow up later with phone calls and mailings. Keep a file or database on potential audiences.

Depending on how large you want your speakers bureau operation to be, you might consider using other methods of getting the word out. Some options include paid advertising, announcing your speakers bureau in your newsletter, public service announcements, issuing a press release, or making posters and fliers.

Once you've come up with your mailing list, send letters out to everyone on it in which you introduce your program or initiative, explain the speakers bureau program, and offer to have a speaker or a panel of speakers visit the group. You might also want to try to explain why it would be a good idea to have your speakers bureau do an engagement with this organization.

Speakers bureau appeal letter

Williamsburg Peer Power Speakers Bureau
Williamsburg Peer Power Program
2349 West 89th Street
Williamsburg, OR 09834
555-0987

Anne Thornton
Girl Scout Troop #978
PO Box 56
Williamsburg, OR 09837

October 9, 2001

Dear Ms. Thornton,

The Williamsburg Peer Power Program seeks to prevent young men and women in our community from falling into unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking, and risky sexual behavior. One of our most successful efforts is our speakers bureau, which sends groups of local youth out to various types of groups to talk about how such behaviors have had a negative impact on their lives.

I read in the paper last week that your troop is planning to focus on the dangers of smoking next month, and I would like to offer our speakers bureau as a possible activity during that time. We have several young women involved in the speakers bureau who are ex-smokers. I think they would connect well with the girls in your troop.

I will call you in a few days to talk about this possibility further. In the meantime, please feel free to call me at 555-0987 if you have any questions. I hope that you'll consider using our speakers bureau in talking to your troop about the dangers of smoking.

Sincerely,

Peter Markos
Williamsburg Peer Power Program

You can try targeting your speakers bureau appeals to tie in with something that?s been in the news. There are a variety of ways to do this.

Targeted speakers bureau appeals

Here are four examples of ways that you can tie your speakers bureau appeals in with a current event:

  • After an incident in which an female student was verbally harassed by some landscaping workers at a small college, the campus womens student union sent a letter to the campus landscaping supervisor, offering to set up a speakers bureau engagement with workers to promote understanding and discussion.
  • During a hotly contested ballot initiative to extend employment discrimination protection to include sexual orientation, a large segment of the faith community was opposed to the change. The city's largest human rights group offered to send gay, lesbian, and bisexual speakers to various churches to talk about their lives in general and what sort of discrimination they've faced in the community.
  • On the weekend of the prom, a popular high school student was killed in a drunk driving accident. A local Mothers Against Drunk Driving group sent speakers bureaus out to do presentations to a variety of groups including high school classes, church youth groups, school clubs, and sports teams. The panels were made up of young people who had been injured or had caused others to die in drunk driving accidents.
  • A few weeks before Black History Month, African American high school students from town contacted the principals of high schools in nearby rural, largely white areas and offered to send panels in to talk with groups of students about what its like to be an African American youth in a small Southern town today.

Wait a week or two after you've sent out letters, then start following up with phone calls. Introduce yourself, remind the contact person about the letter, and ask if he or she has given any thought to using your speakers bureau. Be prepared to offer possible dates and times that you might have speakers available. Once you have an engagement scheduled, move on to the next step.

Contact speakers who are available for the time needed and line up enough people to cover the event

This is where the listing of times that your speakers are available comes in. Schedule people on your speakers bureau roster who are available to speak at the arranged time for the engagement. Call them and explain what kind of group they'll be speaking to. Be very clear about the date, time, and location. Once you've had enough people confirm that they can be there, be sure to write down who you've scheduled, and move on to the next step.

Send a confirmation letter to any group with which you've scheduled a speakers bureau presentation

After you've scheduled the speaking engagement, send a brief letter confirming the time, date, topic, location, duration of the event, and so on. You might want to send a postcard to your speakers with this information as well. Be sure to include the details about date, time, and location so that the recipient can let you know if you've gotten anything wrong. You may also include the speakers names as well; if there is a change later on, it won't be a big deal, but many groups like to know who to expect ahead of time.

Speakers bureau confirmation letter

Williamsburg Peer Power Speakers Bureau
Williamsburg Peer Power Program
2349 West 89th Street
Williamsburg, OR 09834
555-0987

Anne Thornton
Girl Scout Troop #978
PO Box 56
Williamsburg, OR 09837

November 4, 2001

Dear Ms. Thornton,

I'm writing to you today to confirm that the Williamsburg Peer Power Speakers Bureau will be sending a panel to speak on the dangers of smoking at your November 19 meeting at the Williamsburg Junior High gymnasium. Our panelists will be arriving in time to start at 5:30 p.m., and they are prepared to stay until 7 p.m., as you requested. As you requested, all four of the panelists are young women, and two of them happen to be former Girl Scouts themselves, so I think they will connect very well with the audience.

If I've made an error about any of the details of this engagement, please let me know as soon as possible so that I can give the correct information to the speakers. Thank you for this opportunity to talk to the girls in your troop about the dangers of teen smoking.

Sincerely,

Peter Markos
Williamsburg Peer Power Program

Remind your speakers about the engagement

A few days before the engagement, give your scheduled speakers a gentle reminder about the event. A quick message on an answering machine or a simple postcard is sufficient. Be sure to include the date, time, and location: Hi David, this is Lisa at Project WIN. I'm just calling to remind you that you're scheduled to be on a speaker's bureau panel at 7:00 p.m. this Tuesday at the First United Methodist Church at 787 Main Street.

Have your speakers make their presentation

The actual details of a speakers bureau presentation vary widely and are something your group can decide upon for yourselves. Generally, a speakers bureau presentation starts off with one person giving some basic information about your group, then the panel members briefly introducing themselves. If the panel is made up of people who will be talking about their experiences, speakers then tell their personal stories; if it is made up of people who are experts on a given topic, they will do an informative presentation. These are usually followed by a question-and-answer period. Depending on how much time you'd like to devote to question-and-answer time, the presentation or personal stories can be long or short. Whatever you do, panel members should have a rough idea ahead of time about how long each part should take.

At the end of the presentation, collect some sort of feedback from the audience

Finding out what the audience thought of the presentation helps your speakers know how they can improve as well as what they're doing well. A sample feedback form is included as a tool at the end of this section.

In Summary

There are many ways to get your message out and educate others about the work you do or the issues you care about. Elsewhere in the Community Tool Box, we have talked about many of those methods, such as media campaigns and public meetings. All of these methods can be effective, but there's nothing quite like hearing about something straight from someone who is an expert on the subject or has firsthand experience with it. While speakers bureaus can take some time and energy to set up, they're generally inexpensive to run and can be easily maintained once they've been set up. Creating a speakers bureau for your organization can help spread the word about your group's work, raise community awareness about the issues that concern you, raise money, and recruit volunteers. If you haven't already used a speakers bureau, why not consider one now?

Contributor 
Chris Hampton

Print Resources

League of Women Voters of the United States (1977). Speaking out: Setting up a speakers bureau. Washington, D.C.: League of Women Voters.

Steiglitz, M., and Cohen, J. S. (1980) Speaker's bureau: Career education for physically disabled students. Albertson, NY: Human Resources Center.