CEO reveals secrets of the political speaking circuit

With more than four decades of experience, Don Epstein has a pretty solid track record of choosing up-and-coming orators who will be a hit on the speaking circuit.

But there’s at least one person he admits he was reluctant to give a shot.

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While a student at the University of Florida in the 1970s, Epstein would book speakers to come to the school. He remembers getting a phone call about a governor from Georgia who wanted to give a lecture on campus the same day that actress Jane Fonda was at the university. Epstein says he replied, “Look, no one’s ever heard of him and no one’s ever going to.”

That “nobody” was future President Jimmy Carter.

Epstein relented and gave the Democrat a speaking slot: “There were about 60 or 80 people seeing Jimmy Carter in one part of the university and about 10,000 people seeing Jane Fonda in the other part of the university … But I gave him a platform and I don’t think he ever forgot that either.”

Five presidents later, Don Epstein, 56, is still at it. He’s the founder and CEO of Greater Talent Network, a New York-based agency celebrating its 30th anniversary booking top talent in politics, entertainment, business, technology and sports. The company’s roster includes Gen. Wesley Clark, former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Meghan McCain, former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and former Attorney General Janet Reno.

Paid speech can mean big bucks for some of the country’s in-demand speakers. Epstein says his lineup can command anywhere from $7,500 to hundreds of thousands of dollars per speech.

But ex-lawmakers dreaming of cash registers ringing when they open their mouths probably shouldn’t get their hopes up. Epstein says, “We turn down probably about 99 percent of the people who come to us.”

For those who make the cut, Epstein contends a successful speaker can’t just do some tired shtick at the podium. The first thing the colleges and associations that book Greater Talent Network tell Epstein is, “We don’t want a canned speech. We don’t want a speech that has been delivered like a stump speech.” Epstein says the trend in public speaking these days is to do a Q-and-A format or a discussion between people with different views on issues.

Since starting his company in 1982, Epstein has compiled endless memories. But he says one of his favorites is walking the streets of Croatia with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

And it was Holbrooke, who died in 2010, who helped Epstein to avoid overlooking one of his now most popular speakers.

“If it was not for Holbrooke constantly calling, calling, calling me, telling me that I really had to speak to [former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn.], I didn’t see it. And then Ford became one of the greatest speakers I’ve ever seen.”

Epstein says the ex-congressman still ribs him about that one. “Oh, he kids me all the time. And we’ve both been very successful with him being in the circuit!”