We had the good fortune of connecting with Joel Zeff and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Joel, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
In September of this year, I will celebrate 30 years on my own. I really didn’t have a plan or thought process when I started my business. My only thought was “I don’t want to work at the advertising agency that was currently employing me”. It was that simple. There had to be something better.

When I started my business, my focus was on media and customer relations, corporate communications, video production and writing. I did an occasional keynote, or a client would hire me to be the loud guy at their trade show booth or in their internal video. I knew that keynote speaking fulfilled and rewarded me more than the corporate communications. I loved sharing what improvisation taught me. I loved making the audience laugh. In 1997, I asked a production company to record my keynote and edit a demo. Again, there wasn’t a huge plan other than, “I want to do more of this.”

Clients loved the demo tape. I had found a niche in the keynote speaking world, combining awesome messages, interactive improvisation games with the audience, and humor. Building a speaking business takes time. I spoke for free MANY times. My payment sometimes was a $50 gift card to Chili’s. I was just thrilled to be standing in front of an audience doing what I loved. I didn’t worry about the money. I have learned that if you focus on your passion and love your work, the money will follow. I started booking bigger events. My clients would hire me again. By the end of 1999, my keynotes and emcee work had taken over my business.

I took a risk leaving my job at the advertising agency. I made a bet on myself when I made my first keynote demo tape. And now, I am talking to you and have presented at more than 2,500 events. That is a huge TA DA!

Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
I bring the TA DA energy and fun to my client’s events. As a keynote speaker and emcee, I energize and engage audiences with a blend of improvisational comedy and powerful choices about leadership; finding success during change and disruption; teamwork; passion; fun; and communication. I have spoken to more than 2,500 groups that range from 8 people to 7,000.

There are many great speakers with awesome messages. There are far fewer keynote speakers that have an awesome message and are funny. There are even fewer keynote speakers that have an awesome message, are funny, and are interactive. And that is my wheelhouse. I use audience volunteers and play improvisation games. The games are hilarious. Audience members are laughing and playing, and then we discuss the choices made by the volunteers, and that is how I make my point.

When I first started speaking, I didn’t even know there were keynote speakers. I knew little about the event business. I loved improvisation and performing. My wife says that I really only want to make people laugh and tell people what I thought. Boom. I figured out how to make a living doing what I love. My goal is always to be a refreshing alternative to the rote speakers that all sound the same. I want to connect with the audience and break the fourth wall. Each presentation is unique, and full of surprises. When I first started speaking, I had to explain improvisation comedy. Few clients understood the concept. Clients would often say, “I don’t know if my team will do that,” because improvisation didn’t have enough exposure. It is different now. Everyone knows and understands improvisation. Audiences want engaging and entertaining keynotes. The first thing I tell my audience is that I just want them to have fun. There is no better way to spend time together than through laughter and fun. And if they happen to get something out of it, even better.

I loved speaking. I loved sharing my passion for improvisation and what lessons the art form taught me. I also realized audiences were thirsty for something fresh. They wanted to laugh. They wanted a unique perspective. They wanted to be engaged.

I love every moment as a keynote speaker and emcee. Everyone needs to laugh. And most people don’t have the opportunity to just play. My presentations create that opportunity. Every client tells me their people are stressed or had a tough year or quarter. They always say everyone is working hard. I come in and make them laugh and let them embrace the silliness. I can’t believe I get paid for this.

Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Any visit must start with food. Our current favorite spots for breakfast are Hill’s Cafe in Lewisville and Seven Mile Cafe (either in Flower Mound or Lewisville). If we are brunching, then Ida Claire in Addison or Tupelo Honey in Frisco next to The Star. At this point, we need to walk off breakfast. The Dallas Arboretum is perfect place for a great walk. If we have friends with kids visiting, we usually take them to the Dallas World Aquarium or the Perot Museum. Now, it is probably time for lunch. For BBQ, Pecan Lodge is my number one and Hutchins BBQ in McKinney is also a player. My new favorite lunch spot is Quartino in the Grandscape development in The Colony. The whole Grandscape area is awesome. Andretti’s is fun for indoor games and go karts. Back to food, my favorite dish in the Metroplex is the Garlic Noodles dish at TrueFire in Southlake. Another great lunch spot is Mexican Sugar in Irving. My favorite restaurant in Dallas is still Cafe Izmir. Still the best hummus I have ever eaten. And I have many fond memories of that place. My family loves live entertainment. We love seeing shows at the Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Summer Musicals. I also highly recommend a minor league baseball game in Frisco to watch the RoughRiders. One of the best minor league stadiums in the country.

I also asked my daughter who is a junior at UT in Austin for her “cooler” DFW recommendations.

Union Coffee in Oak Lawn (Isabella says: “very cute coffee shop.”)
Recycled Books in Denton (Isabella says: “super cool used book and record store.”)
Sidecar Social at the Star in Frisco (Isabella says: “restaurant plus activity center with Ping Pong, Darts and other games.”)
Legacy West Food Hall in Frisco
Angelika Move Theater in Frisco and Dallas (Isabella says: “cool movie theaters that play a lot of independent and international films that usually are hard to find.”)
Arcade 92 in Flower Mound (Isabella says: “All you can play arcade.”)

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Every client who hired me to present a keynote to their company. And a special Shoutout to the clients that hired me at the beginning of my career. Every audience member who laughed, listened, engaged and, of course, volunteered to join me on stage for an improvisation game.

I also want to give a Shoutout to my magic harmonica. My career really started the day I lost my job as a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald.

I always say the day I lost my job at the newspaper was one of the best days of my life. That day in December 1991 started me on the path I am on today. I tell a story sometimes in my keynote about the day I lost my job and a magic harmonica. When I left my one-bedroom apartment with little furniture to clean out my desk on the last day of the newspaper, I grabbed my magic harmonica. I arrived at the newspaper, and everyone had a range of emotions: sadness, anger, confusion, defeat. To me, it felt like a weight had lifted off my shoulders. I saw this day as opportunity and a new beginning. For some reason, I found myself on the back loading dock where the media covering the paper’s demise had assembled. I took out my magic harmonica and started poorly playing a blues note. The lyrics went something like this: “I lost my job. I got no money …” Well, I ended up on two local television newscasts, my photo in the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the story of me playing the harmonica was picked up nationally. True story. I chose my attitude. I chose how I reacted to change and disruption.

It is always a tough day when you lose your job. The magic harmonica taught me there is always something else out there. I had a desire that I was ignoring. A path I wasn’t taking.

That magic harmonica (which I still have) taught me to embrace change and disruption. It taught me that fun and whimsy are part of my life. It taught me to stay in the game and create opportunity. Soon after the Herald closed, I started doing stand up and improvisational comedy. I auditioned and was asked to join an improvisational comedy troupe. Years later, I would use those skills as the foundation for my keynote speaking and emcee business. And that led me to this interview. All because of a magic harmonica.

I often wonder what would have happened if I didn’t lose my job that day. How long would I continue as a journalist? Would I move to another reporting job? I loved being a newspaper reporter. I love speaking and performing more.

The day in 1991 changed my life. What is your magic harmonica moment?

Website: www.joelzeff.com

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joelzeff

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thejoelzeff/

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/joelzeffcreative

Other: Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/joelzeff E-Speakers: https://www.espeakers.com/marketplace/profile/15037?btsc=1

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