Joel Zeff - The Tao of Ta-Da

Joel Zeff
January 12, 2021

Joel Zeff

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Intro:

Welcome to Beyond Speaking with Brian Lord, a podcast featuring deeper conversations with the world's top speakers.

Brian Lord:

I'm Brian Lord, your host for the Beyond Speaking podcast, our guest today is the inestimable Joel Zeff. He's a national workplace expert, speaker, author, humorist. Joel captivates audiences with his unique blend of hilarious improv comedy- which I agree with. It actually is hilarious. It's not just part of an intro along with essential ideas on work and life. His book Make the Right Choice: Creating a Positive, Innovative and Productive Workplace Life is consistently listed as one of the top work-life balance books on Amazon. He's appeared on CNBC, the Fox Network and many other media outlets. Sometimes he has a big bushy beard and sometimes, like now, he doesn't. So ladies and gentlemen, Joel Zeff. Joel, welcome.

Joel Zeff:

Thank you. That was an excellent introduction! And I feel, I feel like we were just joking, but I feel like somebody from Shark Tank is canceled that's why you're interviewing me. Or there's a general, or someone that climbed Mount Everest or invented something incredible, and then they've canceled and that's why I've gotten a spot. That's kind of how I'm feeling.

Brian Lord:

That's all very true. Totally true. Like we were like everybody- no one else literally can do this right now. I had a free half-hour.

Joel Zeff:

Free half-hour. Everybody from Shark Tank that's ever been on Shark Tank has canceled on you or you've already interviewed them. [Laughing] You're like, "Uh, we're down to Joel now."

Brian Lord:

This is, this is what we get to, but it's like, "Hey, life is improvisation." We go on. Joel just happened to call up on a video call right now. We're making up questions as we go along. I mean, I could... I do have my Shark Tank questions I could ask you about, you know, how you start-

Joel Zeff:

I'd love to answer them.

Brian Lord:

- And how you were in rap videos in the nineties. I think that would be that's the answer.

Joel Zeff:

I'd love to answer them.

Brian Lord:

So so from that, so your background actually is improvisation. How do the secrets of, well actually, how did you get into improv? I'm going to start with that one.

Joel Zeff:

That's a good one. Well, I, actually... My degree is in journalism. I was a newspaper reporter and I'm very proud of that and that's how I got to Dallas. I was working, we had two major newspapers in Dallas and I joined the one that was going to close six months after I joined. So I did- the Titanic was leaving the dock and I was like, "Wait, Hey, one more. Let me jump on board!" And so I jumped on board six months later, the paper closes, not my fault. It, and I don't think there's any anybody would say it was not my fault just because, I mean, it just coincidence that six months later it closed. But so when I got to Dallas, literally the first weekend I was in Dallas, a friend of mine took me to an improv comedy show and I was an audience volunteer. And I asked for audience volunteers now in my event. So I, I, you know, I was an audience volunteer, so I relate. And literally it was like a Disney movie. It was, you know, the light, there was like, you know, chorus and birds singing and everything. And I was like, oh my, you know, I'm sure people feel this way often, but it was like a calling. It was like, this I've, this is it. I don't know how I'm going to make it happen, but this has to happen. And so I started taking some workshops and I started, and then when the paper closed, obviously I had a lot of free time and I used that free time wisely. I had free time and a severance check, two really important things that happened in my life. And so I started really you know, I started doing open mics, stand up, open mic. So I started, I continued taking workshops and improvisation I auditioned got in got invited to be part of the, the cast. They have their own, they had their own theater at that time in Dallas. And that's just, that's how it was born. And then my other side, my responsible side, my responsible personality side, you know, said, "Well, I, I actually have to work and have money and, you know, pay rent and buy food." And so I started working at a PR firm and then an advertising firm and one of my clients was Texas Instruments. And they were having it an executive retreat. It was all VP level. It was a technology you know, small group and they said, "Hey, we know you do improv on the weekends. Can you come up and, you know, do some of those improv games with us?" And, you know, I was like "Sure. Yes." I mean, the answer in improv is always yes. Right? That's the, one of the first things they teach you in improv is you always say "Yes, yes!" And then you figure it out from there after you say yes. And I took another performer with me and we had a blast. More importantly, this group had had an amazing time and we didn't know what we were doing. We were just playing this game, playing this game. There was no message. There's like, well, let's do that. Okay. And you know, the little light bulb started flickering on. I said, well, maybe I could offer this to some of my other clients. And at that time I was just thinking, well, you know, it'd be about creativity. It'd be about innovation because, you know, that's what improv is about. But the more I really, the more I did, the more I analyze, the more I thought about it, you know, improv teaches so much about teamwork, so much about change, so much about, communication and leadership. And so it started evolving and, you know, one event led to the next event and it just, I would do something- and I always spoke from the heart or I would do something and it might not work, or I would evolve it or change it and incorporate some new things or new ways of doing it or where I placed myself and the audience volunteers. And then we created something and, and it just kept evolving and it continues to evolve today.

Brian Lord:

So how does that work virtually? So like, I know you're doing a lot. You're like, "I'm doing, having a good year." We were talking before we got on camera here. And and so how does that work virtually?

Joel Zeff:

Well, I really- virtually, I think it works a couple of different ways. I don't do the audience volunteer games like I do in a live event virtually. It's just that just because of the platforms and the way things work. I've done a few things like in, you know, in a breakout room we've done some word games but I really incorporate the energy of improv in my virtual events, you know and if I like, if we're on a, on a Zoom call and I see everybody, you know, we can really interact, you know, we can do some interaction stuff. You know, I talk about the spirit of ta-da, and we get everybody to, you know, everybody to a ta-da and we talk about some of the little things that we can do. Like we do a buddy buddy buddy thing that talks about, you know, not being able to take a risk and not being afraid to, to make a mistake. And so we can do little things it's different, but we really focus on the energy, the messages the fun. I still bring, I mean, it's really me doing the improv, me being fun, me creating that energy and bringing it to their virtual event and, and the really powerful messages that improv taught.

Brian Lord:

What are some of those messages? So I know you've got like, especially for in books, like that's one of the things I think is great is that improv is something that's very spontaneous. A book is something that's very much not. You know, you talk about making the right choice, creating positive, innovative, productive, productive work life.

Joel Zeff:

Right now that is a tough thing to do for a lot of people. If they're working from home, and, they're working from work sometimes, or, or, you know, in these complete different ways. So improvisation is, is, people are probably haven't thought about it is a really important thing to be able to do right now.

Brian Lord:

What advice would you give to people who are trying to balance work and life right now from sort of an improv perspective?

Joel Zeff:

Well, we're all improvising all the time, whether we know it or not, and there are certain rules that allow us to be more successful within an improv game, in a theater. If we take some of those rules, as we're improving each and every day, I think that's going to help us be successful. And some of the things that I talk about, I talk about change, and obviously, we are dealing with a tremendous amount of change and disruption. Improv is all about change and disruption and embracing that and learning to lead through that disruption, finding that creativity, find that innovation finds that success through that change. And improv teaches us a few very simple choices. One is to prepare for change. You know, when I asked an audience volunteer to come up on stage, you know, they, they, I see them walking up on stage and, you know, and I'm kind of reading them, I'm reading their body language their eyes, their voice. And inevitably they've all made a really important choice. They're prepared. They have no idea what I'm going to ask them to do or what the responsibility is going to be, but they are prepared for change. Changes their whole attitude, right? Changes their whole tone and allow them to be successful. That's the first choice. The second choice about change is being present and in the moment, you know, especially so much- so many of us are working virtually and you know, we have to be more present. Sometimes it's very difficult to be present, you know, through virtual, whether it's Zoom or teams or WebEx or whatever you're using, but we've really gotta be more present and, and be in the moment that's when we create that, that partnership. That's when we create that, that ability to be successful. And the other really important choice about change, I want to talk about is openness and flexibility, to be more open and flexible. We are all dealing with so much disruption and change. We have to be more open and flexible to how we work with each other's ideas to something new. And I think when we do that when we embrace that companies are going to find success and, and we look at the companies that are succeeding right now, they're the ones that are changing quickly. They're the ones that are adapting quickly, you know think about, I'm sure you, and, and whoever's watching, we all do a lot of takeout. Now. We kind of tend to go to restaurants that have really adapted the technology that makes it easy. Right? Which restaurants make it easy, you know, which the technology, the online ordering, you know, the pickup, whoever has done it and embraced it, that's who, that's, who we, we spend our money with. Right? And because they're embracing that change, realizing they're going to have to, to adapt. And, and that's what improv is all about is, is just adapting, is embracing that change and disruption and finding success within it.

Brian Lord:

What'd you think of the, of those three is the hardest for either individuals or companies to do?

Joel Zeff:

You know, I think, I don't know if it's a company, I let's talk about the individual because it's really the individual making the choices. And then, you know, the company can make the overall choice, but the individuals have to, have to buy in. The individuals have to say, "Okay, I'm willing to adapt. I'm willing to change." And you know, when, when this is over, when we're back to some form of normal, there's going to be some other gigantic shift, some other huge disruption, some other change, small change, big change every day. It's what we do and what our choices are and how we adapt to that change. It's what our choices are when we're faced, how we react to that change. We can't control change. Whether the company, the individual, we can't control change. We only control how we react to change. And so and that's, again, what improv teaches us is how we react, what our attitudes, what our energy, what our choices are. And I think when we create a level of support when we appreciate people when you give each other that positive support, it's easier for individuals to make that choice. And that's what companies really have to focus on. Leaders have to focus on giving their teams that appreciation, that positive support, that energy, that fuel, that gives them that fuel to make those choices. So it's easier, easier to react to change by being open and flexible and being present in the moment and being prepared for change and other choices being a great teammate, being a great leader.

Brian Lord:

That's one of those things, I think that gets into it. So like I was inspired after seeing one of your corporate presentations, I booked you for an event in Nashville and checked it out. And I went and took an improv class-

Joel Zeff:

You did?

Brian Lord:

I did, I did. And so it, it was, it was okay. It was like one of those free ones. And they, I couldn't, it was like, I had to mix like a gigantic

Joel Zeff:

Groupon. You had a Groupon?

Brian Lord:

No, it was something like that. This was a precursor to Groupon. That's how old I am. I'm sneaky. This was like Groupon and Facebook weren't things at the time. But you know, like the whole thing of taking risks, like I'm kind of crazy like that. I kind of like doing weird stuff, but other people are a little, a little risk-averse. Like they would say, you know, the whole thing, like you were saying that the first rule of improv is yes, and, or yes, or whatever it is. And for most people, it's "no," you know, or a lot of people, it is. How do you get over that fear?

Joel Zeff:

I think you have to- not being afraid to make a mistake. That's what really improv teaches us. You're going to make mistakes. I've, I've, we've both made mistakes already on this podcast. Do you want me to list them out? We've we, we make mistakes. We want to learn from a mistake. We want to minimize them. But the secret there, people always ask, you know, after an improv show, you know, "How do you do it? You know, there's no script, there's no rehearsal, there's no plan. How do you do it?" Well, you know, I, I always said it really focused on two things. One I'm not afraid to make a mistake. Two, I'm confident in my abilities and my skills that if I do make a mistake, that I can, I can find a way to find success and build on that. Right. And, and it's that confidence and that not being afraid to make mistake, you know, people. And I think a lot of, you know, we talk about these virtual events. I think a lot of, a lot of people are afraid of these virtual events. You know, they're not used to talking to a camera and not having any response back. They're not you know, they don't feel confident. They're afraid that they're gonna say something wrong. They're gonna misspeak. They're gonna mispronounce a word. And they are, right? If you're afraid of that, it freezes us. You know it freezes, we don't, we can't move forward. We can't grow. And it's hard, but you take, take just a little step at a time. You don't have to just create this huge thing today. Just take a little step at a time, do something small that put, gets you out of your comfort zone today. If you do a little something today and then tomorrow, and then the next day, and you'll be surprised how you build your skills, you will be surprised how you create that confidence. And when you create that confidence and you're not afraid of making mistakes, anything can happen.

Brian Lord:

So what's the tao of ta-da. You mentioned ta-da earlier. Tell, tell us about that.

Joel Zeff:

So the ta-da is about you know, you think about your kids, mine are older now, but you think about your kids. Everything was a celebration, right? When, when kids are like three and four, everything in their life, is a ta-da. They eat a cheese sandwich? "Ta-da!" They do a little drawing? I mean, we celebrate everything, right? I mean, literally, everything they do is the most amazing thing they've ever done and we're celebrating it. We're excited about it. You know, they sit down, they stand up. "Wow!"

Brian Lord:

I've got three-year-olds. They're going through potty training right now. So we're doing a lot of weird cheering.

Joel Zeff:

A lot of celebrating. And, you know, as we get older and you see that energy when you celebrate with them, right, when you, when you, when you cheer for a three-year-old, they get a big smile and their eyes, and they want to do whatever you celebrated. They want to do it again. And, and when, as we get older, we start, we, we, we celebrate less, right? We do birthdays and anniversaries, and, you know, somebody wins an annual award. But what about all that time in between? We, we don't celebrate those, those successes each and every day, we need that ta-da energy every day, right? That fuel- especially working at home when we only get to talk to our pet and our spouse, and maybe the UPS man, I mean, you gotta celebrate everybody. And that ta-da is an energy, and it's a spirit and we need that fuel. We need that energy. And so I think that we need to give ourselves that ta-da and that applause every day, you know, I always say when I was doing live events- Remember that? That was fun. Remember the chicken?

Brian Lord:

Chicken with rice pilaf.

Joel Zeff:

Oh, Brian, I would kill for rice pilaf. Maybe a vegetable medley. And then you would sit at the table. There'd be like cheesecake. And then like a brownie, you know?

Brian Lord:

And you pick what you want before the other people sat down.

Joel Zeff:

"What Dessert... I want to be here. There's German chocolate? Ew, you can have the cheesecake. I'm going to sit in the German chocolate." Kill. I would kill, kill for that, for that. I don't even remember what I was talking about... But when I was doing live events. You know, that applause, I'm very lucky that- speakers are very lucky. We have a job where we get a round of applause. That's pretty awesome. Right? When you have a job, that part of your job is you get around applause. That's pretty awesome. And most people don't have a job where they get around applause. And now I have a job where I don't get around applause because virtual, nobody, you don't see anybody on these virtual events.

Brian Lord:

You should do as the NFL does and pipe in noise, or the NBA, you could just hit like a little button. And then there's like the turn, that thing behind you into a screen. And you have applause and people like, "Oh yeah."

Joel Zeff:

Brian, I may, I'm going to look into that. I don't know what the technology, but yeah.

Brian Lord:

I don't have an applause button, like sitting over behind you, like on that stack of books right there. And then just like everybody feels it.

Joel Zeff:

Yeah. I'm going to look into that. That's, that's a pretty great idea. Improv that. But everybody needs around applause just because, you know, I have a job where I get around with applause. Everybody deserves that round of applause, you know, and as we're working, some of us- most of us, are working virtually. Some people are going in the office and, you know, there's, you know, twenty percent there, there's not a lot of interaction or a lot of people, but you need that energy and that round applause. And, and it just feels good when you just kinda, you know, you just start the day and whether you're doing it to your pet or the UPS guy or the Door Dash guy, you're like, "WOW" [clapping] it makes me feel good. It makes you feel good because it's that energy. And that, that fuel that helps us make these choices that, that we've been talking about. And so much of that, so many of those choices depend on that positive support, that positive energy, that fuel. And that's really what that spirit of ta-da is all about.

Brian Lord:

So, Joel, tell me about your harmonica moment.

Joel Zeff:

I never played the harmonica or talked about the harmonica at my live events, but on these virtual events, all of a sudden I started talking about the harmonica and I did tell you about when I lost my job at the Dallas Times Herald, when they the paper, they called me on a Sunday and they said, the paper is closing, come clean out your desk. Wow. Yeah. And so I just moved to Dallas six months. I have no furniture. Right. You know, I've got nothing, I'm in a one bedroom apartment. I'm single, you know, I've got credit card debt, I've got nothing. And so they call me up and say, "Come clean out your desk." And my harmonica was sitting there and I grabbed this harmonica. So this is 1990, right? No, 1991. This is 1991, 1991. So I grabbed this harmonica, which I purchased at college. I went to some lecture or some of that. And I guess it was a harmonica [Inaudible]. I don't remember. I guess somebody played the harmonica. I don't know, but they were selling harmonicas and I bought one and I have no musical ability whatsoever. Brian, I have none. I'm completely tone-deaf. I have nothing. But harmonica is an instrument where you can have no musical ability to play the harmonica. And someone goes, Oh, you play the harmonica. They feel like you can fake the harmonica. You can fake it. You can fake the harmonica. And I got really good at one Blues note. [Playing harmonica] Hang on. Let me see. No, just that. When they called and said, come clean out your desk. And it really weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I always say that's one of the best days of my life. The day I got married, the birth of my two kids and the day they called to tell me that, "Come clean out your desk. You don't have a job." Which is weird to say, the day you lost your job is one of your best days. But it really is because I made a choice and I grabbed this harmonica. And I went down to the, to the newspaper and on the back loading dock, all the media had assembled and you know, the TV stations, the radio stations, the other newspapers. And I kind of look at it and I didn't plan any of this. I had no, there was no, there was no thought to any of this I'm 22 or 23, however, I'm 23. I'm 23. I- there's nothing that went in here and out there there's nothing. And so I grabbed my harmonica and I take a look at all the assembled media and I went "I got no job, no money, I got nothing right now. And thirty years later I'm going to be on the Beyond Speaking podcast with Brian Lord!" [Harmonica playing] You can see, I mean, you can hear the camera's going [Making sounds]. Right. I mean, it was, it was crazy. And so I was doing that and a couple of things happened. One is this was before, you know, this was before it was 1991. This was before social media is before things went viral. I went viral in 1991. I was getting calls from all over the country from my friends that saw me on whatever news station. The story was picked up. Both, two stations in Dallas, like led off their news cast with me playing the harmonica, keep in mind. I'm 23. I just started six months ago. Right. I'm nobody. People are sad. You know, people are upset. And I think it became a story because they weren't expecting someone to be happy when they lost their job. They weren't expecting someone to, "I lost my job. I got no money." [Harmonica] You know, they weren't expecting that. Right. And so and there was a, in the Fort Worth Star Telegram- the city next to Dallas, huge picture of me playing the harmonica. And it was really, I think it, it went, whatever viral was at that time was because I made this choice that I was going to you, weren't going to choose how I was going to feel. I'm going to choose. And we talk about this, you know, it was my harmonica. I thought it was my harmonica moment of saying, "I'm going to choose what, how I'm going to react to this disruption, what my next steps are. I'm going to be positive. I'm going to be energized. I'm going to have a great attitude about it. I'm going to, I'm going to, you know, this is going to be about opportunity." And it was because it was really, like I said, it was my harmonica moment. And, you know, after that, I started doing improv and started doing stand up, you know, kind of really focused on what I love to do. And, and it just put me on a path that brought me here, Brian. I mean, this, that harmonica moment brought me to this moment, speaking with you, because if I didn't have that harmonica moment, I don't know. Where's that path going to be? I'd still, maybe I'd still be a newspaper reporter. I don't know. And so many people are going through change and disruption right now, and they've gotta look at their harmonica moment.

Joel Zeff

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