We had the good fortune of connecting with Joel Zeff and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Joel, how did you come up with the idea for your business?
After I lost my job as a journalist at the Dallas Times Herald in 1991, I started performing first stand-up and then improvisational comedy on nights and weekends. After my severance dried up, I started working at a public relations firm, and later an advertising agency. During the day, I was a writer and an account executive, and in 1994 I started my own marketing communications business. One of my clients was Texas Instruments. They were having an executive retreat and asked if I could come up and perform some improvisation comedy after dinner. This was 1994 or 1995. The audience was small (maybe 15 or 20), executive level, all men, and from a technology company. I sensed doom. Another performer joined me for the event. We had no plan. We were just winging it, playing whatever improvisation game that came to our minds. The audience loved it. More importantly, I loved it. That is when the light bulb started flickering. I thought I could offer this to my other clients, thinking it would only be for small groups and focus on innovation. I didn’t think it would become my whole business. Soon, clients were asking me to speak on teamwork, leadership, and communication. A client would call and say, “Hey, we have 200 people can you give a keynote about teamwork.” The answer was always, “Yes!” I would then have to figure out what I was going to do; and often that would happen right before I walked on stage. I spoke from the heart. I shared what improvisation taught me and filtered it through my own business experience. And I brought the energy and fun. The audience sizes kept getting larger. I looked around and I realized that I was a keynote speaker. I had merged my business and comedy worlds into something new. There really wasn’t a plan. My keynotes and performances continually evolved. I would try different exercises, tell different stories, and let each keynote develop with the audience. My clients and audiences loved the presentations, and would be bring me back again and again. Clients started asking me to emcee their events. In 2007, Wiley published my first book, “Make the Right Choice: Creating a Positive, Innovative, and Productive Work Life” (available on Amazon). Whether I was the keynote speaker or emcee, my business is about bringing fun and energy to a client’s event. At this point, I have presented at close to 2,500 events in almost every state, and six countries. I love every minute.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Corporations, organizations and associations bring people together for conferences and events. My clients hire me to deliver keynotes at these events about leadership, change, teamwork, passion, fun, and communication. I have spoken to 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. After the laughter subsides, we talk about the choices the volunteers made, 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. Clients are more open to different ideas for their events. My business now has moved to the virtual world where clients really need my energy and humor. I still include interactive surprises, tell stories and focus on my messages of staying in the game, creating opportunity, helping each other be successful, reacting to change, and many more. I have quite a bit of experience in front of the camera, so the move to virtual wasn’t difficult. I know how to connect to the audience through the camera. Seeing the audience members up close (via Zoom or other platform) creates even more opportunity to connect through improvisation. 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.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I am going to assume this trip happens after the pandemic subsides. Breakfast is always important. Our current favorite spots are Ellen’s in the West End 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. Hutchins BBQ in McKinney and Hard Eight in Coppell are also big players. One of my favorite dishes in the Metroplex is the Garlic Noodles dish at TrueFire in Southlake. 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 first comedy stage in Dallas was Backdoor Comedy Club, and they are still rocking in Richardson. My family loves live entertainment. We have had season tickets at the Dallas Symphony for years, and have seen some incredible shows. We also have enjoyed season tickets to the Dallas Summer Musicals. We are looking forward to the return of live shows. Hopefully, there is a live sporting event the week of the visit. Everyone knows about the Dallas teams. 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. If we want to take our guests on a day trip, we head to Glen Rose for hiking, Fossil Rim and pie. The constant theme of this trip seems to be food.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
When I first started speaking, I did not make much money. If the client gave me a paper weight clock and a t-shirt, I was thrilled. If a client gave me a $50 gift card to Chili’s, I thought I had won the lottery. I spoke for free to anyone that asked. I loved what I was doing. I worked quite a bit with non-profit organizations, such as the United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA, American Red Cross, HOBY Youth Leadership, and many more. Speaking for free introduced me to so many other clients and helped build my business. The first clients took a chance on me, referred me, gave me an opportunity to grow and develop. Some of the first DFW companies to hire me were Allstate Insurance, JPI, Texas Instruments, Texas Credit Union League (which became Cornerstone), Samsung, KPMG, Hydrotex, Meeting Professionals International, and many more. The credit for my success goes to every client that hired me. Every person who referred me. Every audience member that laughed or clapped or said a kind work after my performance. The clients and audiences give me the opportunity to do this. I am lucky and blessed they chose me, and appreciate every moment. I always say that the art of speaking chose me. I never planned on being a keynote speaker and emcee. When I began my career, I didn’t event know keynote speaking existed. I just followed what I loved to do: perform, make people laugh, and create fun. I am damn lucky.
Other: https://vimeo.com/joelzeff https://www.espeakers.com/marketplace/profile/15037?btsc=1