Don Epstein wants to captivate you. Not just for a minute or two, either. He wants you planted in your seat, transfixed, for 45 minutes minimum. Epstein, the CEO and founder of Greater Talent Network, books authors, athletes, business leaders and politicians for lectures all over the world, with clients that include Tom Wolfe, Michael Moore, Peggy Noonan, Mia Farrow, Mo Rocca, producer Mark Burnett, Ray Kelly and Tina Brown. Epstein tells DuJour the lowdown on the speaker circuit, a business that’s in full boom.
What made you want to go into this industry?
Even in high school I would bring people in to talk to students. In college I was fascinated by the celebrity culture, and I saw that the celebrity’s name might draw people to a big lecture. But when people left, they would be more excited about a story. It didn’t make a difference who the person was, if he or she was a great storyteller, then everybody was riveted.
So you look for people who naturally excel at telling stories?
It’s edutainment. Education and entertainment at the same time. People come to me and say they want to be a speaker and I tell them they must really be engaging, talk about the trials and tribulations. The life lessons are what’s valuable to everybody. You learn through other people’s mistakes.
Do you work with people to make sure they are polished before they make a speech?
Here’s the thing. Sometimes we don’t want them too polished. For example, there’s Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who wrote the book Lone Survivor, which became a movie with Mark Wahlberg. He is an incredible hero. People were telling Marcus he needed speech lessons, and when we met, I said, “Absolutely not.” He was raw, he was brilliant, he was original. He told the story from his perspective. And he’s become a hit on the circuit because he’s so genuine.
It does seem that for the lucky ones, this can be lucrative.
The great speakers who have an avocation for it can make $25,000 to $200,000.
That’s per event?
Yes. Some people say, “Wow those prices are crazy,” but at the same time there is real value to this.
What happens if someone isn’t a sensation in the lecture hall?
We have an evaluation process. We ask the buyer candidly how the person was, warts and all, and if it comes back that they’re not up to speed, we try to correct things. If it can’t be corrected…well, we have a reputation, and it’s about quality.
Sometimes you handle an author of a nonfiction book as well as the person who is the subject of the book.
Michael Lewis is a perfect example. He wrote Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, about the Oakland Athletics and manager Billy Beane. We work with Michael and Billy Beane. Then the book becomes a movie with Brad Pitt and that lends it a whole new life. It’s a very big synergy. That’s what you want. You send the people from the book around the world making speeches, and hopefully in two, three years a movie is made.
You’ve worked with some of your clients a long time.
I’ve known Tom Wolfe for 30 years. I knew Michael Moore before he made Roger & Me. Then there are politicians like Cory Booker—I met him before he was a councilman.
I didn’t realize how integral your business is to the entertainment world. There are books and movies, and then there’s the speaker circuit, which monetizes those properties even more. Where do you see the next trend coming, the next big thing?
The issue audiences want to hear about is analytics. How do you maximize the talent you have? Like in Moneyball, there’s an incredible team with no money whatsoever. How do they win over a period of time by using statistics to gauge the people they have? Corporations are fascinated by analytics: doing what you need to do with what you have. It’s a huge issue throughout the country right now.
Do you still go out on the lecture circuit yourself?
I love watching audiences. I am a student of this stuff. I usually stay at the back of the room, and when people leave I’ll go out in the hall so I can listen to what they are saying. I’m much more interested in people leaving an audience happy than in how they felt when they arrived.