Bureau celebrates 10 years of matching groups with speakers

For 10 years. Burr Ridge resident  Ginny Richardson had been dispelling the myth that nothing in life comes for free.

The president of GR-PR public relations firm in Hinsdale founded the Free Speech speakers bureau after a colleague asked if she had any contacts who would speak for free at a club meeting.

Enjoying this new role as  a matchmaker between organizations looking for an interesting speaker and people who love to talk, Richardson decided to take the next step. In summer 1996, she formalized Free Speech after typing up a list of names – come clients, some friends – and a short description of each person’s topic. she mailed out this listing, at her own expense, to various clubs and organizations in the suburbs – mainly DuPage County.

Free Speech was launched with six speakers . Today the speaker’s bureau provides a roster of 170 speakers who all speak for free with more than 200 speeches available. Recently, Free Speech went national after a friend of Richardson’s modeled her own speaker’s bureau Speak Freely in Arlington, Texas, after Free Speech.

“To this day, no one makes money (doing Free Speech). That was never the point. The point was community service,” Richardson said. “It’s such a feel good project. It’s very gratifying. I think that’s why we do it. Doing something for nothing can feel real good.”

Other than a one-time fee speakers pay to join Free Speech, there are no costs associated for this bureau. The money is used to help offset the postage costs of mailing out ahard copy of the speakers list.

“It’s so many pages now it costs $1.11 (to mail),” said Ginny’s son Andy Richardson, senior account executive at GR-PR, adding they get requests on a daily basis for the list.

When new people join Free Speech, GR-PR sends out a list of 10 to 12 new speakers to all the groups in the database.

“As soon as we do a blast, the phone rings,” Ginny Richardson said.

Andy Richardson, who took over the reins of Free Speech a few years ago, said the main idea and concepts of Free Speech have not changed in 10 years.

“I kind of brought it up to speed technologically,” he said, including creating an electronic database of groups and speakers. He also included a link for Free Speech on GR-PR’s website.

Making a connection

The process of connecting groups with speakers is fairly simple.

Groups like libraries, chambers of commerce and service organizations request a list of Free Speech speakers . After perusing the list, the groups request a speaker for an upcoming meeting. Free Speech informs a speaker there’s been a request and asks the speaker to call back the group.

“At that point, Free Speech is done. It’s up to the speakers to contact the group,” Andy Richardson said.

Requests come in in at least two weeks in advance and at the most six months in advance as people are already planning for 2007 meetings. Some organizations even request up to a year of programs in advance.

Program chairmen at groups love Free Speech,” Ginny Richardson said, adding groups can set up a year of programs in advance.

For Bil Sutton of Oak Brook, program director of the Hinsdale / Oak Brook Gateway Rotary, Free Speech has helped him line up speakers for the club’s weekly meetings.

“And the majority of them we get from Free Speech,” he noted.

After going through the speakers list, Sutton will check off about 20 at a time, let Free Speech know which ones he’s interested in, then wait to hear from the speakers.

“Most of them respond,” Sutton said. “That saves one a lot of time in trying to find a speaker.”

Several times a year Indian Prairie Public Library in Darien will turn to Free Speech when looking for speakers  for its monthly programs.

“Since they are free, they stretch out budget,” said Cindy Kline, adult program coordinator. “It was wonderful to find Free Speech.

“We do a program evaluation and it’s always been very positive. People can’t believe they’re free,” she said.

Something to talk about

Free Speech topics / speakers include health, humor, financial, motivational and business. There’s even talks about the Illinois & Michigan Canal complete with  costumes and a “backstage” look at the Theatre of Western Springs. Ginny Richardson even gives a publicity talk , “Yes, You Have News,” to teach groups how to recognize news and promote their cause.

“There’s a lot of different topics and opportunities to speak to different groups,” said Elyse Hultgren of La Grange Park, junior account executive at GR-PR and Free Speech coordinator.

One of the most requested speakers in Larry Bergnach. His nostalgia topics include “Old Time Radio,” Riverview Amusement Park” and “The Big Bands.”

“Now for being a retired person, I do 100 talks a year,” Bergnach said., adding a third of those talks are done through Free Speech. His audiences are often community and church groups, retirement communities and libraries – “any place seniors would be an audience for,” he said.

By Vicki Martinka
The Suburban Life – Sept. 6, 2006