Booking celebrities for appearances is one of the most important functions of public relations and management teams because those appearances, more often than not, really do mean a lot to the people there to witness it. Just being in that space with a speaker who’s also a storyteller can take a person to so many worlds beyond themselves. Bruce Merrin is the Founder and Owner of the Celebrity Speakers & Entertainment Bureau. Joining John Livesay, he shares some of his most heartwarming stories on the job about both celebrity speakers and the people who got to see these celebrities in the flesh.
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Booking Celebrities: The New Storytellers With Bruce Merrin
Our guest is Bruce Merrin who is the Celebrity Speakers Bureau Founder which is then a top ten grossing firm in both Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In 1973, Bruce booked his PR client, actor Michael Landon, on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Bruce credits Carson for inspiring the idea to launch a Celebrity Speakers Bureau. After the show at NBC in Burbank, Johnny Carson invited Michael Landon and Bruce to his Malibu home for dinner. When Carson suggested that he create Bruce Merrin’s Celebrity Speakers Bureau, Landon offered to be Bruce’s first client. That’s quite a wonderful story of origin. Bruce, welcome to the show.
Thank you. It’s an honor and a privilege.
I am fascinated not only to know the story of the origin of how your Celebrity Speakers Bureau started, but also to hear your personal story. You can take us back to your childhood, school, wherever you want that you knew you wanted to be in the entertainment business or the speaking business or PR. Tell us what your early childhood inspirations were.
First of all, I was born in Louisville. My first and big sports star was Muhammad Ali. When I met him, he got such a kick that I was born in Louisville and he was too. We moved to New York City. I lived there until I was graduating in the sixth grade. The important story that ties into my business is my dad was a big Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He took me to the Brooklyn Dodgers games often. One of my favorite players was Jackie Robinson who wore number 42. Fast forward, he became my second sports client that I ever represented. When we were living in New York, that was a real impactful thing for me that I became a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and that Jackie was my hero and became my client.
After graduating sixth grade, we moved to Las Vegas where I am. My dad was the President of the Flamingo Hotel back then and this is where the entertainment side comes in. Dad, because he was the president of the Flamingo, he and my mom would take me to all the big headlining shows here in Vegas. Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, the way the entertainment side comes with a great story. When I was in the seventh grade, they took me to see Sammy Davis Jr., certainly one of the greatest performers of all time. I was a young junior high guy at the time. I had heard of Sammy Davis, but I had never seen him perform.
We went to the Sands Hotel, we sat in the front row and Sammy as his closing number does a song that was called Mr. Bojangles. Everybody knew that was his song. After the show was over, dad and mom took me to Sammy Davis Jr.’s dressing room and I got to meet him and I was impressed with Sammy. He’s one of the greatest entertainers that I’ve ever seen. We were driving back home and I was in the seventh grade then, I said to my mom and dad, “Mom and dad, I want to work in the entertainment industry.” At a young age, after seeing Sammy Davis Jr., thanks to Las Vegas and my mom and dad, those are what gave me that first spark of loving entertainment.
I imagine that being around that much talent and seeing it close-up gives you a different perspective that you get to see them as people and not somebody famous that doesn’t have challenges and things that other people have.
Thanks to my mom and dad, I did. I get to meet these people up close and on a friendly basis as well. The other Vegas story that I’ll share because this is something that affected my life as well. Brenda Lee, the great country music artist, had over 40 top ten Billboard hits. When she first headlined in Las Vegas at the Flamingo where my dad was president, she was only twelve years old. She was the youngest headliner ever to perform in Las Vegas. She was twelve and I was twelve. My dad said, “How would you like to come to the Flamingo pool? We’re having a twelve-year birthday party for Brenda. You can meet Brenda and then you’ll sit in the front row and watch her show.” She had a big hit. It was a number one hit. It was called Jambalaya. I was familiar with her because I would hear her song all the time on KRM Radio here in Vegas. Not only was I her date at the Flamingo pool party, but at the dinner show, I sat in the front row. I’m blessed at a young age. Thanks to my mom and dad, I got exposed to the entertainment industry and it was in my blood from a young age.
The fact you got invited to Johnny Carson’s Malibu home and he was such a private person, that shows that celebrities feel safe to be with you. I want to put that out to everyone reading this episode. In life, whether it’s your personal life or your career, if people feel safe to be themselves around you that you’re not going to judge them or be star struck or whatever the issue is, it’s the best compliment anyone can ever give is I feel safe to be myself. Certainly for me, if someone feels that they can be safe to be themselves with me, that’s what I try to create here as the host of the show. In my personal and business life, that is what’s jumping out at me about you is that all these people felt safe to be themselves in front of you.Be A Giver, Not A Taker. Click To Tweet
That’s a kind comment to make and you’re right, because imagine I was a young guy at the time when I went to Johnny Carson’s home and Michael Landon was my first big celebrity client. What you’re saying is certainly correct but think this was 46 years that I was at Johnny Carson’s home. Think about how Johnny and Michael impacted my life? Your comment is accurate. The funny story is the next day after the dinner, Ed McMahon calls me up. He said, “Johnny tells me you’re starting a celebrity bureau. I’d like to be your third client.” He was. I’m blessed but that’s an insightful comment that you make because if people don’t have that trust, it never would’ve happened.
One of my big inspirations, I like to quote him quite often, it’s Dr. Wayne Dyer. One of his wonderful quotes is, “If you squeeze an orange, you always get orange juice. It doesn’t matter what time of day, middle of the room, in the corner.” He said, “What happens when you get squeezed and you’re under stress and you’re squeezed into a corner?” It was such a great metaphor. I know that you booked him with Steve Jobs and Apple. Would you share that story with us?
Having done this many years, I’ve been blessed to book about everybody in the world. Dr. Dyer, without question, would be in my top five of all time because I use the term. I already know you and you’d like this term as well, impact lives. I like to have the ability to impact people’s lives. One of the ways that I can do that is by booking clients like Dr. Wayne Dyer, and he was such an amazing speaker. Whenever I booked him, I’d always get a call or a text or some message from the client saying, “Dr. Dyer was the best speaker we’ve ever had. Bruce, you’re my hero.” Dr. Dyer was an amazing man. The lady that was the main executive that worked with Dr. Dyer lived in Miami.
I was in touch with her all the time, but Dr. Dyer truly, he’d be in my top five because of what he talks about and writes about in the books. He had a great quote that you mentioned. For me, he’s still alive. He was such an amazing guy and every time he went out and talked to audiences, he did impact their lives. I will say, of all the speakers that I booked them all. He would sell more books at his engagements than anybody because everybody wanted to get a copy of his book. I’m glad that you did mention Dr. Dyer. He truly was one of the greatest of all time. I love him and I do miss him.
The other thing that you talk about is the impact and there’s a whole philosophy of a good speaker can hold an audience’s attention. A great speaker might give them some takeaways that they can start using in their career, but an extraordinary speaker is someone who has an impact for months, if not years after their talk. I know for myself when I hear people echo back something I’ve said, the old way of selling is to Always Be Closing, the old ABC. I reframe that to ABK, which is Always Be Kind and to the way you talk to yourself and your coworkers and the people you’re working with, telling people to put ABK on a Post-It note. That one little takeaway, people will come up to me and say, “ABK,” and it stuck. It had an impact. That feels like you’re on purpose and doing what you’re supposed to be doing in your life. Do you have a story of a speaker you booked had that impact either there’s a story or when so-and-so spoke they said this, and people still talk about it?
Yeah, and I love what you’re saying about kindness because I believe you find out the true value of a person. If they’re at a hotel, how do they treat the valet? How do they treat the concierge? It’s not the people that are millionaires or billionaires. How did they treat regular people? I love what you’re saying about kind. The instance story that hit me was President Gerald Ford. I, as you know, have been lucky to book all of the past presidents, starting with President Reagan. Here in Nevada, we booked President Ford for a big event along with many other people. One of the people on the stage that same day was Bruce Jenner. We get a talk show about some stories there. President Ford was such an amazing gentleman. A gentleman is a word that I would think. He was on the stage in front of about 5,000 people. When he finished his talk, he got a well-deserved standing ovation with the past presidents.
The Secret Service is with them. As soon as he finished, they were storming the stage and they wanted to whisk them away to the limousine. President Ford holds his hand up to all the Secret Service and says, “Gentlemen, these nice people out here have some questions they’d like to ask me.” He was kind about that and he stayed for 30 extra minutes answering questions. He didn’t have to do that. He easily could’ve gotten into the limousine and left. In terms of kindness, that was a story that immediately made because he was such a kind person that he cared about all the people there in the audience that was there instead of leaving and getting in the limo. He wanted to answer some questions and make them happy. To me, that showed a lot of his character, which had nothing to do with politics.
One of the things I talk about is trying to find something you can do that’s unexpected. Luxury is defined as giving somebody something that they didn’t even know they needed. If you can do something that makes you irresistible and helps you stand out against other people, that extra bit staying for an extra 30 minutes, people want to know that it’s not another job to you. When you come and give a talk and then the more you can customize it and be available and sign books or take pictures or talk to people before you give a talk and customize it to them. I know when I spoke to Anthem Insurance after my talks and said, “How long have you worked in healthcare? I don’t, I took the time to learn your acronyms.” Some people said to me, “Our biggest challenge is, we’re asking people who are nurses and MBAs to sell.” I said, “Let’s ask them to become a storyteller instead of a salesperson.” “They’d like that.” Here’s the secret sauce, Bruce, that people can read, which is trying to do what you’re afforded. What else could I do to give extra value?
In this case with Anthem, I said to them, “What’s happening after I give my talk?” They go, “At the end of the day, we’re going to have an improv session and people from the audience are going to shout out objections they get from doctors and people are going to on stage role-playing.” I said, “What if I stayed and was helping them if they got stuck in the improv of what to say? I could whisper in their ear?” They went, “No one’s offered that. We didn’t even think to ask a speaker to do that.” That’s what made them select me versus someone else. They said, “I wish you could be in my ear all the time. You are The Pitch Whisperer.” It became that extra bond. There’s another example of letting people who are reading our blog think to themselves, “What can I do that would show part of my character and give extra value that’s not even anticipated or requested?”
It’s a beautiful story and I admire and respect what you do. When you mentioned storyteller, no matter who the speaker is, if they are a good storyteller, then they got me at hello. You can get people that are experts and then you can throw out all these different facts. If they’re a good storyteller, especially one of the things I tell to younger speakers who are starting to try to make it, I said, “At the beginning of your talk, if you can touch the hearts of the people in the audience, that goes a long way. If you can touch their hearts, what is your story that would touch their heart and have them at hello? Also, if you can make them laugh, that’s great too.” I love what you were mentioning about storytelling. It’s such an important aspect of a good speaker to be a good storyteller.When people feel safe to be themselves with you, they want to work with you Click To Tweet
Stories make us memorable. A lot of clients that I work with, whether they’re architects or law firms or tech companies or healthcare companies, they usually get down to a final three where they have to present. Fill out all the paperwork and it’s between them and two other people, and they say, “We hope we get to go because we think whoever goes is memorable.” The problem is you can’t control the order you present like an interview for a job. I said, “Whoever tells the best story are people going to be memorable.” That’s what our brain is wired to remember a story. It’s coming up with things that touch the heart. One of the upcoming social media posts I’m going to be doing, because buildings and restaurants are being closed does not mean you have to close your heart to other people. That’s what good communicators and storytellers do is you take what’s going on and try to have people see it differently. That everything is closing. Don’t close your heart. Still have heart connections with people.
It goes back to the networking phrase, “Givers gain.” It’s not having your hand out saying, “What can you do for me? Instead, it’s what can I do for you?” Especially at this time. I love what you’re sharing. To me, that’s important. I believe the greatest gifts are free. What can you do for somebody else that doesn’t have to do with the money? The way you can touch your heart or impact your life, I applaud you. I’m giving you a sitting ovation.
One of the things that you have talked about, great soundbites and I love a good sound bite because it’s memorable, you tell people that hire you, whether it’s IBM or other Fortune 500 companies. Never hear the sound of one hand clapping at your event. Can you tell us a story of a speaker that you booked that took people from being bored to being entertained and how that all works?
It’s interesting when you’re talking like this, it’s what pops into your head because I’ve been doing this so long, I got to work with all of the astronauts starting from the beginning of the John Glenn’s of the world but Wally Schirra was one of the early astronauts to became famous and he was good that he wound up going on CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. What impressed me with Wally Schirra is he was able to connect with his audience by inspiring and motivating them with experiences that he had in space, but yet taking it down to the earth and the people got what he was trying to say. As an astronaut, he was somebody that I enjoyed working with because he was a hero to everybody in the United States and around the world. He was able to speak on the same level with the people in the audience. He was one of my favorite speakers of all time because, while I worked with all the astronauts, he was one of the early ones, but it shows how good he was the fact that Walter Cronkite, the great newsman, said, “Wally, I want you on my broadcasts.”
I know I’ve had the privilege of being interviewed by Larry King. I did my homework. You can imagine and I read that he does not like small talk. I read his story of origin because I’m always fascinated to hear that. It turns out his big break was interviewing Frank Sinatra. At a time when Frank Sinatra was not doing interviews because his son had been kidnapped and the media was saying it was because of possible mafia connections. Larry has a great story about all of that. I brought that up to him before we went on camera and he said, “That was a great night.” When he asked me what makes a good story in my interview, I was able to say, “You have a great story how you got your big break interviewing Frank Sinatra. Would you mind telling that story and then we could break it down for everyone watching as to what the elements to that story?” The famous tennis pro Arthur Ashe said, “The key to success is confidence. The key to confidence is preparation.” If you’re going to interact with somebody iconic, whether it’s Walter Cronkite or Larry King, you best be prepared.
Larry is one of my favorite people of all time. I first met Larry when he was hosting his radio show in Florida. I was booking clients on his radio show and then when he went to CNN because of the nature of our public relations to business, I got to know him well and I did book them. I’d say maybe about ten times for speaking engagements. When you mentioned Larry, I love him and I was sad when he finally did go off CNN because I thought he did a great job. I love the story about Larry, and I’ll trace it back to Johnny Carson. One of the great things about Johnny Carson, he was a comic genius, but something that I heard from all the celebrities that went on his show when he did his interviews, all the celebrities would say, “Bruce, he is such a great listener. He didn’t always interrupt and he left the person who was his guest do the talking.” Larry had that same quality. Without mentioning names, some people who do shows are always interrupting and they always want to give their point of view and get in but Larry was a good listener. Whenever I book PR clients, they loved it because he was able to listen without always having to feel that he had to throw in his two cents. I love Larry King.
One of the things I work with salespeople on is improving their listening skills because if you ask someone a question and they don’t hear the question properly and they answer something, you feel like, “What is this? A politician trying to avoid the question?” Sometimes it is because you didn’t hear it. I often tell people, “Before they’re willing to listen to you, they have to know you care enough to listen to them.”
That’s a brilliant comment that you’re making. One of our clients is a gentleman named David Fabricius. He’s spoken in over 100 countries. He’s one of the best speakers that I’ve ever seen, but he has a tagline that he shares with audiences in the sales area that you can identify with and certainly people that are reading. That is instead of trying to sell them and close them, ask them this question, “What is most important to you?” Not selling them but try to find out from them what’s most important to them. When they answer that question, that can give you a good idea of how to then follow-up.
That helps people ask good questions when they’re interviewing for a job. When I was on television that was what they wanted to talk about. We have to sell ourselves, including getting a job and daytime TV. Help anybody who’s watching tell stories, bring your resume to life through storytelling. At the end of most interviews and when they’ve asked you hundreds of questions, they will typically say, “Do you have any questions for us?” Unfortunately, a lot of the younger people are saying, “When does my vacation start?” I ask this question, which is, “What would it look like if I were to exceed your expectations in this job?” You’re future pacing and you’re showing not telling that you’re someone who goes above and beyond the minimum job requirements. That’s the joy of well-crafted story question that makes people start to think of, “I got somebody hired from asking that question.”
Going back to your story about your astronaut speaker. People often will say to me, “I’m looking for your help in coming up with a story. I haven’t climbed Mount Everest. I haven’t been to the moon.” I opened my TEDx Talk, which is called Be The Lifeguard of Your Own Life, with a story of being a lifeguard when I was in high school, having to save a young girl. The lesson I learned from that situation is to don’t panic and stay calm. How that helped me in my career when I got laid off and that’s another takeaway that people say, “Not only does that help me in my career, but it’s helped me with my life when things get off track.” With the entire world being disruptive, we want to be people who stay calm and don’t panic when the world is panicking. Buying everything off the shelves and all that other stuff that’s going on that is creating such. We don’t want to contribute to that. We want to be the voice of calm and confidence in our social circle and certainly when we’re able to be in front of an audience. I thought you might have a story of your career when you didn’t panic and stayed calm.The greatest gifts are free. Click To Tweet
I’ve got to throw in one thing because when you mentioned the astronaut. We booked Buzz Aldrin many times and he was on the moon. He has the most spectacular videos and stills from the moon. When I do book Buzz Aldrin, I always get big thank you’s from everybody because they’re dazzling and they’re amazing. There’s one story that comes to mind. I had booked Magic Johnson for a big event in California and this was before we had iPhones and texting. He was late. He was over 45 minutes late. Number one, my face was getting red and I was getting nervous. I thought, “What if he doesn’t show up?” We didn’t have cell phones at this particular time. I couldn’t use a cell phone. What I decided to do was I took the microphone and for about fifteen minutes, I interacted with the audience and I told them some stories.
Thank goodness after I did my best to charm the people in the audience because for me, it was an emergency, it was a red alert. He wasn’t there. There were about 100 kids there that were going to get signed basketball. Instead of panicking and maybe going in the other direction, I decided to take charge, stay calm, and interact with the audience. They appreciated that I did that rather than making them keep looking at their watches and like, “Where is Magic Johnson?” I felt good about the fact that even though it was a mini crisis, for me because he was a big star. I’m a Lakers fan and one of the greatest Lakers fan of all time. Instead of panicking, I did that and thank goodness it ended up good.
That’s another example of your professionalism. In the entertainment business, they call it vamping, to keep it going because that dead time seems eternal if someone’s not up there filling the space with other questions and ideas. That’s as good a place as any to leave. Is there a quote or a book that you’d like to leave us with that you recommend, that you find inspirational or helpful?
I can’t think of a quote, but I will say, because when you said inspirational, the greatest stand-up comic and actor to me in showbiz was Robin Williams. I booked Robin Williams many times and Robin at the end of his speaking engagement, would come up to me and shake my hand and say, “Bruce, you’re the greatest.” It’s meaningful to me because Robin is my all-time hero in the comedy area. The fact Robin Williams would say to Bruce, “You’re the greatest,” that does stand out in my mind.
That shows that no matter how successful you are, it’s important to give people feedback to appreciate them. Do you want to tell people how else they can find you or follow you on social media?
On Twitter, it is @CelebSpkrs4U. We have Bruce Merrin’s Celebrity Speakers on Facebook. On LinkedIn, they can follow me on Bruce Merrin and then on Instagram, it is @BruceMerrinSpeakers. Those are four different ways that they can follow me. You’re a delight and I admire and respect all that you’re doing in this area because you impact lives. That’s a plus.
Thank you, Bruce. That means a lot. I appreciate that.
- Celebrity Speakers & Entertainment
- Bruce Merrin
- Be The Lifeguard of Your Own Life – John’s TEDx Talk
- @CelebSpkrs4U – Twitter
- Bruce Merrin’s Celebrity Speakers – Facebook
- Bruce Merrin – LinkedIn
- @BruceMerrinSpeakers – Instagram
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