Founder of JJA Speakers Agency, Jeff Jacobson talks about the rise in popularity of public speaking events like TED, and how talks always leave you with more than you thought you came for. Giving insight into what makes a good public speaker and a good political leader, he reflects on the presidential race and how a reactionist media has influenced each candidates' message in 2016.
Tracy: Let's start with your opinion on this new age of public speaking - with the popularity of TED Talks, Sam Sullivan's Public Salon, Rain City Chronicles, Man Talks, and countless others globally, it seems to be a growing trend.
Jeff: Yes, there's no question that primarily as an offshoot of TED, over the last several years these public salons or public talks have become sexy, or cool again. In Vancouver, particularly now that we host big TED--real TED--here, the city has become a bit of an epicenter for the world of lectures. But really, in many ways, these are one of the oldest vocations in the history of the world. For as long as there's been recorded history, there have been people standing up and giving speeches. It started out as the king in question or a figurehead giving said speech, but luckily for all of us that has evolved and changed, which is clearly a great thing.
The idea of a person in front of a room giving a talk has never been unpopular. But today the world of social media and online accessibility of watching these talks has commoditized them. And that's certainly not a bad thing, it made vocal information sharing very prevalent, which is great for many of us like myself who are fans of listening to talks. As a speakers' agent the online era is great because I don't have to ask people to mail me a DVD of them giving a speech to see what they're like on stage anymore.
Why do you think these talks are so influential? They can influence everything from changes in public policy, to making us understand other cultures on a much deeper level.
Yes absolutely. Talks have democratized talent in many ways within the public speaking fold. The most powerful man in the world, Barack Obama, became president because of 2 speeches. One, most famously, the speech he gave in 2004 in Boston at a convention when he was running for the Senate. It was a speech that gave him the level of celebrity that led to him becoming the Democratic nominee in 2008, but it was really his speech in 2002, when he was entirely unknown coming out against the Iraq War at a rally in Chicago, which is why I believe he beat Hillary Clinton in 2008. So Barack Obama is president almost certainly because of 2 speeches that he gave, and that in itself is a fascinating thing to me, given that I'm in the world of speeches.
He really brought anti-war campaigning into the limelight for the first election the US saw in years. We're getting into ideas that we wouldn't normally hear a certain perspective on if you were just reading the newspaper.
Right, one of the most famous TED Talks from 2 years ago was Bryan Stevenson. The Innocence Project would not have received nearly the amount of visibility that it has right now had it not been for Bryan's TED Talk. That's a fact. And what a great thing, that a cause like that is finally receiving so much attention. It's not that people didn't care about exonerating innocent people before, it's just that they didn't know an organization like this existed, but because now they can watch Bryan Stevenson's TED Talk while they're sitting at their desk when they're bored at work, they can now learn about it.
I would also say that in addition to the fact that the audience gets to hear a new perspective, the other cool thing about public speaking is what it does for the speaker as well. I don't know a single person that doesn't feel better after getting something off their chest for any reason, whether you're resolving a conflict with a colleague, settling a long standing issue with a member of your family, or confessing feelings that you've been bottling up for a long time, I've just never met a person that doesn't feel better after speaking out. That, in itself, is what these public dialogues do for the people who are on the stage because a person that has been spending time, thinking about, pontificating, or researching a particular topic, and then they finally get a chance to share what's been stewing in their head, it's validating to let other people in on what you spend so much time thinking about. But back to the audience or viewers, there will always be a person who says, "Wow, I've been thinking about that issue too, and I've never heard it articulated in that way," and it can change both of their lives. That's human connection, that's what life is about.
I couldn't agree more. Story telling is a huge piece of the history of our evolution, and part of what holds us together and keeps us happy.
Yes, and I think that the reason I love what I do more than anything else, and the reason that businesses like mine exist, as well as the reason that TED and the others you mentioned have all been so remarkably successful, is that, despite this tech world that we're all inhabiting, we still all thrive best when we care about human connection. Without human connection, what are we? I'd say we'd be nothing.
David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, (even though I don't agree with him on a lot of stuff) wrote a book last year called The Social Animal. It actually outlined the research on what makes us happy. In it, he looked at the thresholds that exist that make a person happy in the long term. In terms of money, once you get to the point where you're making $75,000 annually, you can't actually get any happier by making more. Of course you need the initial amount to keep your basic needs met, but after those are met, buying things does not equate to happiness. So the point is that material items, after you've hit a certain thresholds where you can be comfortable in life, all the other bonus happiness comes from how you connect with people and the more long-term the relationships have are. Those are what we all cherish the most, but sometimes they get sidelined by our pursuit of things.
Are you good at public speaking yourself, or do you prefer to be in the audience or behind the curtain backstage?
[laughter] I mean, I'm capable of it - I think. I've been asked to host a couple of weddings, but the truth is, I get a lot of joy in being the person behind the person. Every time one of my speakers is on stage, even though I'm not there a lot of the time, it feels like I'm there because hopefully I've done my job in helping them prepare and I know exactly what kind of an audience they're expecting to be in front of. So even though I'm not physically on stage ever, it still feels like I'm on stage almost every day because I take so much pride in the work that I do. I also believe you can't have it both ways, you just can't. I work in the background, on the business side of things, and it would be hard to do that if I was on the performing and talent side of things. Something that I always say to the speakers that I work with is ultimately, "You, just focus on making sure you're good on that stage, and I'll deal with everything else."
As in, the speaking tours and all that comes with going on them?
Yes exactly. My job exists so that they don't have to worry about any of the other kind of inertia, "Don't stress about whether you want chicken or fish, if you're in an aisle seat or a window seat, or your hotel's non-smoking or smoking - that's my job as your agent". As long as they do a good job, we make sure that everything else is taken care of.
Clearly you love public seminars and talks, but what made you want to become an agent?
Well, it's funny. As a kid, one of my favorite movies was Jerry McGuire. I always liked the idea of behind the man behind the man. Of course not as lost as the Tom Cruise character, but the part where he thrived on helping others achieve their goals and being a motivator behind the scenes, or on the sideline. That's where my satisfaction comes from in doing this job - I feel a certain pride when I see them on the stage.
Do you ever get nervous for the speakers at all? I feel as though along with pride, also comes the part right before - the nerves.
Yes, I'm a neurotic person, actually I'm a neurotic Jew, and I get nervous about a lot of stuff. I think it's very healthy for public speakers, performers, athletes, people who are in the business of getting up there and putting on a show--for all of them to get nervous. You should be nervous because it means that you care. You should never be that complacent about what you have to get up there and do. I think that nerves are really healthy - they encourage you to rise to the occasion.
What do you think of the popularity of Toastmasters?
It's a good initiative. I think it's a great place for people to learn some of the basic presentation skills that can help people become good speakers. Ultimately though, what makes a speaker great is intangible; it's a combination of charisma, content, and just that X-factor. I've met brilliant people whose ideas are so profoundly interesting, but they're terrible on stage, and I've met people who are so great at being on stage but have nothing to say. I always equate it to that third bowl of porridge in Goldilocks and Three Bears: you need to be just right. So toastmasters is good, and in fact, I tell people frequently to check out Toastmasters if they're into their early days of giving talks. It's more than just being a professional, Toastmasters is a good place to hone your skills speaking at any capacity. It's awesome if you want to get better as a communicator, or if you're a great speaking in a small room, but then suddenly you have to stand in front of hundreds of people. For example, right now, I'm sitting with you, and so I have to make good eye contact, make sure I'm pronouncing my words properly, and remember not to go on too many tangents. Personally I've never done Toastmasters, but those are all skills that I know they teach and that can be hugely beneficial for everybody to think about and remember.
I was reading something you wrote about reading the paper in a different way now that you're in this field. Want to retell that to me?
Totally. I mean, candidly, I do read the paper in a different fashion now absolutely. It's a bit more cynical in a way, because I have to view the news often in a commoditized manner, in a sense that if there's a big, personal story or a person who's accomplished something great or a politician who's leaving office, I have to think about them in the context of the speaking circuit. For example, when there's a change in government in Canada--which there was--that's a huge monumental thing for the country, but I think of it as, "Well, there are going to be a lot of interesting characters who are now going to be out of a job, and maybe they're going to want to get into more public speaking." Also looking at the global speaking circuit, especially in a celebrity obsessed place like the United States, I can honestly predict to you what kind of stories are going to lead the people who are on the speaking circuit. For example, since I know that you're interested in criminal justice reform, so this is timely: did you watch Making a Murderer on Netflix?
[Laughter] Yes for sure. I actually emailed the DA Dean Strang right after.
Cool! So I just got an email an hour ago and the ladies who directed the series just signed on to the CAA, which is the biggest public speaking agency in Hollywood right now. So all of a sudden, these two filmmakers are now charging a lot of money to give public talks. And not only them, but the defence attorneys one of which you obviously know, who were just these small town lawyers in suburban Wisconsin, over night became these viral sensations - people just fell for those guys. And of course they were really charming on the show and obviously seemed to know what they were talking about. But now they're doing a massive speaking tour, which is coming to Vancouver, actually, on the 29th of July. So it's become huge. But these people didn't start out on their project to become rich, but they could become rich because of it, through speaking and other things.
Which is something I had no idea about aside from knowing Hillary Clinton gets paid from Wall Street Bankers of course! I had no idea that people got paid to give public lectures.
The Hillary Clinton thing is so funny to me because I'm a dual citizen, so I actually vote in the States and Canada. Which is cool - I mean I voted for Barack Obama twice and what I will say is the Hillary Clinton Wall Street talks, like her talks to Goldman Sachs--that story is getting so much press, but knowing what I know about the world that exists, she's giving her normal talk that she gives to everyone. But the optics are awful, she shouldn't have taken money from Goldman Sachs, given the context of that primary. I actually saw her speak when she was in Vancouver, and it was very content-free, very safe, just funny stories about her time in office. But it gets caught up in this hysteria, even though in the period between 2013 and 2015, she probably gave around 100 talks.
What people are concerned about is that when you don't know people get paid to give public talks, and you hear she was paid by Goldman Sachs, the concern is bribery. When you receive funds from anyone, you tend to be more sensitive to their needs afterwards.
Maybe, yeah, potentially. But I'm less concerned by someone receiving money for giving a talk versus receiving campaign donations, which to me is two different things. In theory, in the same way that the Rolling Stones charge for a concert, there are other people in the picture. When you want to go the concert, you pay $300 a seat because whoever is promoting the show has got to pay Paul McCartney $1 million, so you have to do the math: if you're going to pay Paul McCartney a million, you have to divide up how many seats there are. So if you're going to bring in a person like Hillary Clinton and sell tickets to see her, she's obviously worth something. So in the case of Goldman Sachs, I almost want to say, good on her for charging that. In the speaking world you're only worth what somebody will pay to have you.
I see your point. I know a Physician who is retired now, and he speaks a lot on mental health issues. I've heard people scoff, "Do you know how much he charges?" when to me, I know that he still has to make a living - he's not a practising doctor anymore.
Of course, that's how he makes his living. He makes his living through speaking. If he gets reached out to by a big association or a bank to give a talk on mental health, it wouldn't be silly not to charge. And I'd bet if he cares a lot about it, there are times he doesn't charge - say if he's giving a talk about mental health at a community centre.
That fits into another great example, the Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk. He recently did a Canadian tour with CJPME and I was chatting with him before his talk in Vancouver. He casually mentioned that he was flown from Beirut to Toronto to give a speech to a huge group of bankers and military execs. In his typical comical fashion he joked about how A) he told them they were the problem! and B) he was going to give us the exact same speech - which he did. But they paid him, so the peace tour was just because he was in Canada, so he did it for free.
Awesome - a million percent. The same with the case of Mohamed Fahmy, when he came out of jail, I helped him with his first 3 months settling back into his life here. So there were a ton of talks that he did, of course because he wanted to, but also because he needs to. Then we got offers from police conferences that wanted to pay him; he's a guy with enormous legal fees, and he's just starting to get his life back in Canada. So why wouldn't you want a guy like that to get paid for telling his story, right? So it's a fine line, and it's something that I deal with every single day. You could find a way to justify not charging for any talks for some reason or another - maybe because what you have to say is incredibly important, but we do have to draw a line somewhere. All of our time is worth something, so you have to recognize that as an agent.
There's a great quote that I read a couple years ago, it was from Tom Hanks. He was talking about acting and he said, "I love acting, I love what I do, and I know I get paid a ridiculously absurd amount of money to do it, but here's why I'm getting paid. I'm getting paid to be away from my family for weeks at a time, sit in a trailer for 7 hours a day, and to only act for 2 hours a day. The acting part, I would do for free. So really it's all the other bullshit that is where anyone would say, "You're going to have to pay me a lot of money to do this because I'm not going to see my wife for a long time." It's like saying to somebody, "Will you please fly to Halifax and give a speech because we really want you to?" Well, that's 3 days of your life, you better get paid for all those hours.
On doing what you do, it's similar to myself in that I get to hear so many different perspectives and listen to so many stories about what gives people a great passion for life. Is that another part of why you enjoy your job? There's so much variety.
Yes absolutely. It really is an honor in many ways, to dive into different worlds for a given period of time. I get to talk to a chef and help them prepare on how to share some of those same excited words to a large audience. But the next day, I get to go and talk to someone who's giving a speech to an Ad Agency or a commerce group, so I get to fly in from 20,000 feet above and visit all these different people who are so fascinating in so many diverse worlds.
On another note, in compiling all the experience that I have, and working with so many different kinds of folks, the audiences are actually often quite the same because people are, again, looking for that human connection or to being provoked, challenged, entertained, inspired. When you go to a wedding, very early on in the questions, people ask, "How was it? How were the speeches?" People want to know about what these experiences are like, and the great thing about events like TEDx, or events like Sam Sullivan's Public Salon, is that you can go for one reason or another, or maybe because you're a food expert, a media fan, or whatever it is, but then you learn about an architect who's interested green building or otherwise. You can go with one expectation about how an event's going to be and then learn so much about another person in a another space - and that is a totally fascinating and surprising result. Ultimately, talks are something that have been around for so many years, and people have never gotten tired of hearing others' stories. The idea of learning from a new perspective, and being inspired by it? Well, that's why I remain as excited to be a part of this world of ideas as I am now, but also why I remain as optimistic as I am about the future of this world. The notion of the public rally, public events, the person behind a microphone helping others hear new ideas, is not going anywhere, for better or worse.
Let's talk about politics. I fear that Donald Trump says the things that he does, not because he truly believes them, but because he comes from a world of celebrity entertainment and ratings, where just as long as people react, it doesn't matter what is said. He doesn't understand the repercussions of his quest for "ratings" in the context of being a presidential candidate, or a leader of a G8 country.
Yes, in the context of the power of live talks, when Barack Obama was inaugurated, a million people came out to watch his speech. They could have just watched it on television and not have had to go though metal detectors, but they came for that experience. That really says something about how important it is to actually be there witnessing something. The same goes for Trump, like we saw in Chicago. But I think people are just dumbfounded by his rise more than anything, because he's a terrible public speaker, but he says the dumb shit he does for the exact reason you described - because he's used to the shock value that matters in reality television, which is terrifying. I think that people are quick to talk about how angry American voters are, but I think it's worth discussing how gullible American voters are because this guy is committing a total fraud. He's a total fraud on the American public. I do remain hopeful still though because I don't see the same massive group of Americans who voted for Barack Obama (twice!) voting for Trump. I don't believe that same group of 200 million or so voters will be outweighed by a group who is going to vote for this reality star freak show.
People talk a lot about Bernie Sanders and how, if not for the corporate media, he would have been the candidate that would beat Trump by a large margin. But since he was barely given any coverage, the older crowd (who tend to watch TV more often than independent media), were not able to get inspired by him.
Totally. Bernie Sanders is unheard of in American history - he has so many people who really believe in what he's saying, and really trust him. Politicians are never trusted in this capacity. This to me shows also that he's a fantastic speaker, but more importantly, that he's an honest public speaker. He's a person who has walked the walk for so many years. The reason that Bernie's not getting coverage is because, in addition to being this grassroots campaigner, he doesn't represent the class that control the media. But for a sarcastic, 74-year-old guy from Brooklyn, he has remarkable message discipline. He says the same thing at every rally, and he means it. Trump, every single day comes up with some outlandish bullshit to say, whether it's, "I'm going to ban Muslims," or "My daughter has a great body." Things you wouldn't believe could come from a presidential candidate, but the truth is, he's giving the media something new to write about. Bernie, for better or worse, has a message. Bernie brings it back to his core message every single time he gets asked something, which is important and serves the American public, but unfortunately media is more and more so a business, and it's driven by ratings and eyeballs.
Another piece to Trump's success is that the media keeps pounding out this message that Trump is a 'straight-shooter', or that "He says whatever he wants to say." People crave authenticity, and Americans think that Donald Trump is being authentic, but he's really just lying to them. Bernie's authentic, and one of the reasons Hillary is not connecting as much is because there's a perception that she's robotic, wooden, or that she's not very transparent. I don't think she possess the same political gifts as Obama did, or the same oratorical skills he did. Again he really did win because he was a great speaker. He could make anything sound hopeful and he said everything with certainty. I don't know if we'll see the same thing for a long time.
Well we've run right out of time. Thank you very much for your insight into the world of public speaking Jeff - keep up the great work.
Thanks Tracy, it was a pleasure.
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