5 Promises to Myself (And You) After My Third Year as a Professional Keynote Speaker


In my third annual installment of keeping myself accountable — and trying both to be transparent and to rally others to do so — I’m continuing my personal battle against BS in my industry. But first, my annual confession, because the nature of this post makes me truly uncomfortable: I realize this post is largely about me. While I write personal stories often, my goal is to do just that with my writing: Tell stories, not laud my work. If I talk about myself, I have to earn that right over time with you, and sharing stories (when they aren’t about others) seems like a good way to do that. So, I’ve given myself permission to write this one article each year to refer to myself almost exclusively.

This post provides the space for me to be introspective about the bigger picture when so much of my time is spent just trying to push the boulder forward. It keeps me centered, and it helps me remember the first principles of why I do this job and what I stand for. 

I’d also encourage other speakers and creators to try this since, let’s face it, this job can warp your sense of self and inflate your ego in a dangerous way. 

Last year, I added a fifth promise to my original four, then graded my progress against each. Now that Year Three is coming to a close, here’s a look at how I’m doing across all five.

2018 Grades

#1: I promise that my Personal Attitude Dial will always be set to “Grateful.”

Public speakers tend to separate into two camps: those who remember this job is a privilege and those who have forgotten. I realized that (and wrote that) last year. But I’ve changed my perspective slightly this year. See, I used to think ego and selfishness caused a speaker to forget just how grateful we should feel to do this work. Now I think it’s more nuanced. Sure, there are those ridiculous speakers you meet who make you go, “Okay, pal. Please just be a human.” But as you slog through endless flights, hotel rooms, and “grip and grin” photo opportunities, it can definitely cause even the most gracious and warm of individuals to forget just how AMAZING this job really is.

Resetting your attitude to Grateful is paramount. It not only makes the work and the speaker more enjoyable for all people involved, it grows the business! Ever hear of the word “heliotropic”? I hadn’t either, until I started to research for my next book. Then I uncovered this notion that organisms tend to move towards the light. So, be the light. Be GRATEFUL. Always.

2017: B-

2018: A

I started by giving myself a B+ but, screw it, I’ve been all-in on gratitude the entire year. Events outside my work actually inspired this: Several friends endured hardships like the loss of a parent or trying times as parents themselves. On the positive end of the spectrum, my parents both turned 60 this year, and while my dad underwent successful surgery, they’re both in good health. My wife and I celebrated 5 years of marriage and 10 years together, and this December, we will welcome our first child, a baby girl. Whether through big moments like these or the small moments like an old friend visiting or the dog deciding, yanno, I’d be more comfortable on dad’s lap right now … I became more aware of good things and more focused on gratitude in 2018. I’m proud of that.

As a speaker, I realize each moment I’m introduced before a talk that, holy crap, this is so much fun. I also recognize that millions of people work their entire lives without so much as a thank you from a customer, colleague, or boss. Then there’s us performers. We do 45 minutes to an hour on stage and people literally applaud — TWICE if you count your introduction! I know there are always frustrating things about every job, but given that clap-happy reality, I think most speakers need to keep a lid on it. Be grateful, always. Stay humble, forever. You’re at an event to serve others, and in doing so, your business will be better served too.

Still, even with an A grade here, I can do better. Last year, I committed to scheduling more 1:1 calls with listeners and subscribers. I did a ton of that this year, but I can be more consistent still. Additionally, I have two ideas to set my Personal Attitude Dial to Gratitude … and then break the lever clean off so it remains stuck there. 

What I’m doing to improve: Celebrate great work, and give away more things more often.

Celebrating and giving: Those are my two tenets when trying to improve this promise to myself to remain grateful.

Celebrate great work: Three years ago, I launched a public journey to explore why there’s so much commodity or crappy work being created out there. I set my personal crosshairs on all the hollow tips and tricks, cheats and hacks, and gurus and get-rich-quick-schemes. I railed against all that stuff, trying hard to build the case for a better way of making decisions than clinging to conventional wisdom or trend-hopping. The culmination of that journey was supposed to be my book, Break the Wheel, published earlier this month. (More info | Amazon)

However, as I wrote to my subscribers this week, this journey is far from over. I’m still “bothered by suck.” But I’m now focused more on celebrating people who do great work.

If my first book was about identifying problems, breaking from old patterns, and enacting change, then my next book (and all content leading up to it) should be about what happens when you enact that change. In other words, in my journey to both remain grateful and continue my ORIGINAL journey, I plan to celebrate great work more often. I’m not just fighting AGAINST something. I’m fighting FOR something.

Then, there’s this idea of giving away more things, more often. This includes my time, but that’s such a finite and precious resource to me, so I’m also announcing things like the Break the Wheel Book Scholarship, whereby I give away a book for free to people whose financial circumstances preclude them from buying nice-to-have things like books (email me for details: jay@unthinkablemedia.com), and my Buy One, Give One program, exclusively for newsletter subscribers, which I plan to announce soon.

Promise #2: I promise to wedge my brain’s loading dock permanently open.

2017: A

2018: C

I really slacked off on this one, my friend. Hoo boy…

After working really hard last year to attend other speeches at my gigs, as well as to read more and to ask great questions of what I assume I know or assume I’m good at … I lapsed on all that.

I can try to explain why: I wanted to get my non-speaking revenue engine running more smoothly, i.e., building docuseries with B2B clients. Plus, I felt burnt out towards the end of September and into most of October, and I’d attended one too many talks with an open mind, only to leave disappointed at events past.

But those are excuses. My goal is to be a lifelong learner, to always question my own biases and assumptions, and to focus my work on building a thriving BODY of work. To do that, I need to focus on improvement and learning, not simply rest easy knowing I am good at a few things. That’s the path to stagnation. Honestly? It’s lazy. I was lazy.

What I’m doing to improve: Systemizing how I learn

When something feels hard, our choices are simple: Don’t do it, or find a way to do it (which usually means, make it easier). I’ve been trying to make other areas of my business run more easily without my needing to work up tons of energy, like hiring Meg, my Manager of Awesome, and working with Annie, Daniela, Stephanie, and Jordan as editors and producers of my episodes at various times this year. I’ve been looking at how I spend my time, documenting my processes and goals, and trying to hire smart, creative people to assist where I need it. 

I can do the same with my personal development. 

In my case, that means trying two things, one at events, and one in the content I create. (I’m concocting this on the fly right now, so bear with me. I mean that figuratively, as I’m just thinking through this mid-stream, but also literally, as I’m 35,962 feet above Nebraska right now according to this screen on JetBlue.)

  1. At events: I commit to attending one speech at each event that seems like it will push me to be better, either a keynote with a big idea that can change me, or a breakout session about something I know very little about. 

  2. In my content: I promise to get back to publishing Unthinkable episodes. My podcast took a back seat to client work and writing the book all year long, but it was the main vehicle for exploring new stories and aerating/improving my ideas prior to 2018. I need to get back to that, and I think have a system in place for doing so sustainably. I make no direct revenue from this show, but in a very concrete way, everything I do on that show forms the basis of every dollar I earn.

Promise #3: I promise that being impressively nice is the only time I’ll actively try to be impressive.

2017: A

2018: A-

Yes, it’s another A(ish) grade, but mama didn’t raise no jerk. I’m a nice guy. I know that about myself. I struggled with being the “nice guy” in high school and college perhaps, but since entering the workplace, it turns out that being nice is a distinct advantage. (Sad, but true.) So I genuinely love this about myself (and, hey, you gotta love yourself!).

If I’m in danger of being not-so-nice in any way, it’s when I reply to people sending spammy DMs or emails to try and sell me on something. When it’s laughably terrible or super aggressive or feigns saying the right things to trigger a result, not build a relationship … I tend to clap back. But I should have more empathy. We’re all struggling with something. We’ve all learned to do our work a certain way. If I do reply (and maybe I shouldn’t), I should just explain how their obnoxious tactic made me feel and leave it at that. No need to berate or make fun. 

What I’m doing to improve: Remembering my work’s raisin deeter. (Hashtag French?)

The driving impulse behind my work is “make ’em feel.” In a world of superficial content and surface-level interactions, I want to trigger big emotions and big questions in the hearts and minds of others. This could be sappy and cheesy or funny and exciting. This could create questions about your work or questions about your life. I love consuming content that makes you feel, and I love creating it even more. So if I can remind myself of that mantra every day, I’ll be just about the nicest person ever. After all, it’s really hard to be a douchebag when you have a goofy smile on your face at all times 🙂

Promise #4: I promise to never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever (times infinity) promise others any “secrets.”

2017: B+

2018: B

In my first inaugural Promise post, I wrote the following: 

“Let’s rip the bandaid right off, leaving the hairless red rash of truth behind: THERE ARE NO SECRETS! There’s only hard work done with the right intent. I can’t teach you to be rich. I can’t give you the one thing every successful person knows. I can’t impart THE steps you must follow, no matter who you are or what you’re doing.”

I’ve upheld this in every thing I’ve said or done over the past 12 months. So why did I take a step back from a B+ to a B? Because not only did I make the same mistake I did last year, I literally promised that I wouldn’t do so.

That mistake? I let others package my work as “secrets.” 

Look, it’s not like I’m going to scrunch up my nose, wag an index finger, and whine to a journalist or podcaster kind enough to interview me, “Ah, actually: You can’t call what I’m sharing a ‘secret,’ mmkay?” But I could try two subtle things…

What I’m doing to improve: These two things…

  1. Never share a link to my guest appearances wherein they call anything I said a “secret” in the headline without first writing my own version of that headline. Rather than simply tweet the link as is, I should write something original to qualify what was said.

  2. Bring up this idea more frequently in the interviews I give. When I’m a guest, I can address this notion that there are no secrets in my answers. I shouldn’t correct an interviewer — that’s condescending. But I could espouse my belief that there are no secrets a bit more loudly in my answers.

Promise #5: I promise to always treat my speech like a product.

2017: n/a (new promise I introduced last year)

2018: B+

Great product managers and designers intimately understand the problems facing their audiences, then build their products in iterative fashion to solve those problems. They test, launch and learn. Similarly, great speakers constantly talk to their audiences when they’re NOT on a stage to investigate the problems they want to solve in the world. The key is to own the problem, not profess to have “the” solution. In my world, that means incrementally evolving the same speech constantly based on new insights and feedback, as well as customizing larger parts to fit a given event. 

Essentially, I’ve created a talk that's “modular.” That’s pretty standard practice for regularly touring speakers. I’m hired to address the same problem and share the same insights with each event, but it must be customized to land with a given audience. As a result, my speech has the same spine every time, but I'm able to build an original body around it according to the needs of that specific room. 

“Modular” speeches enable you to unplug a given story or lesson and plug in another one from your research that feels more relevant for those specific attendees. One easy example is my section about finding first-principle insights about your customers to inform your thinking, instead of leaning on generalized advice or ideas from an internal boardroom or industry expert. The “big” module in that section is the story itself. I alternate between two, using the software company InVision for B2B-heavy audiences or attendees from large corporations, and a construction business from Oklahoma for consumer-focused events, nonprofits, SMBs, or other groups with limited budgets or small teams.

The “beats” of both stories are similar: the set-up, the moment I introduce conflict, and so on. But the content itself is different. So that’s the “big” module: the story itself.

But there are also smaller sub-modules contained in this section. It could be as small as a single word I change. For instance, if I were to say “customer” at an A/E/C marketing event (architecture, engineering, and construction), it wouldn’t make as much sense as saying “homeowner” or “client.”

In addition to this idea of iterative improvement and flexible “use cases,” speeches are similar to products in that both improve when they’re receiving regular use. The more you can analyze what works and doesn’t from real-world delivery of a speech, the better it becomes and the quicker you improve. If I only give a speech once, drafting it in my office and delivering it to ZERO attendees ever, I’m actually not serving the attendees in the room as well as I could. I haven’t refined my product for them at all. (So, yes, there’s such a thing as over-customization. IMHO, you owe it to audiences to practice alone and, more crucially, improve your material by pressure-testing it with real audiences. In this way, it’s like being a standup comedian at smaller clubs working to perfect your Netflix special.)

Lastly, products create compounding value for their users, just as speeches should for attendees. The audience should get more value out of a speaker’s big idea and methodology the more they use them. That means speakers shouldn’t share a one-time fix or promise a (gasp) “secret,” nor should the attendee’s exploration of a speaker’s ideas stop when they leave the room.

Great speakers offer (A) additional content to continue the journey with attendees, and (B) the ideas or frameworks from a speech should also contain a certain level of depth. Attendees can constantly revisit and explore and use them in new ways.

When you achieve that level of depth as a speaker, you write the book. There’s enough meat on the bone. When a speaker’s book sucks, I think it’s because they tried to stretch a talk or a series of blog posts too far, and it becomes thin and flimsy. The object was for the author to write a book, not serve the reader by exploring something worthy of exploring in more detail.

So why the B+ for me under this promise to build my speech as a product?

I think I have a ways to go to improve, but I’m reasonably proud of how much I remixed and refreshed my talk this year compared to last year. In 2017, I didn’t change much gig to gig. In 2018, I did fewer gigs. That lower volume helped give me the time I needed to think critically about each talk and customize more material more of the time. (I still grew my speaking business to six figures this year, but I did so by raising my fee and reaching bigger events, not by churning out more talks.)

Writing the book was also an ENORMOUS boost to my “product," because I now have all these extra research and stories and, crucially, a consistent language to speak more clearly and concisely. The book also gives me the confidence to improvise new moments that weren’t part of the usual “talk track” in a speech. That’s because all the material is to top-of-mind for me. Even if I didn’t rehearse a small moment here and there, I can move and change with the room in real-time, which creates a stronger bond and makes me a better servant to those attendees. 

What I’m doing to improve: More of the same

Sometimes, I think the best thing you can do to succeed is keep doing what you’re doing. As my friend Andy Cook, founder of the software startup Tettra, likes to say, “Most of success is just being disciplined and not getting bored.”

Being a public speaker is amazing. 

It’s rewarding. It’s nuanced. It’s hard. But above all else, it’s FUN. And dammit, I want this fun to continue for years and years. 

Whenever I walk into my home office, I’m greeted by a sign on the wall. When I switch the light on, I see a simple idea: “Always do the right thing, even when no one is watching.” 

Whenever I walk onto a stage, I’m greeted by an audience. When they switch the spotlights on, I remember a simple idea: Always do the right thing, especially for the people watching.

THANKS FOR READING! I welcome your comments and ideas. If you want to learn more about my speaking, visit jayacunzo.com. You can also email me at jay@unthinkablemedia.com

Posted on October 23, 2018 .