As a national workplace expert, speaker, author and humorist, Joel Zeff captivates audiences with a unique blend of hilarious improvisational comedy and essential ideas on work and life. Zeff creates energy; his spontaneous humour and vital messages have thrilled audiences for almost 25 years. He has shared his experience and insight on collaboration, leadership, change, communication, innovation, fun and passion at more than 2,500 events. His book, ‘Make the Right Choice: Creating a Positive, Innovative and Productive Work Life‘, is consistently listed as one of the top work/life balance books on Amazon. He has appeared on CNBC and featured in the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and The Kansas City Star, amongst others.
Joel Zeff had an affectionate childhood, growing up with his parents and grandparents, who were entrepreneurs by profession. They taught him the value of working hard and playing smart at a young age that led Zeff on his entrepreneurial journey when he was just in the 5th grade. He says, “I started a paper route to earn extra money. I would collect a monthly subscription, maybe $.85 or $1.05 at the end of the month. However, the fee was optional, you would receive the newspaper regardless.” He continued, “Well, not on my route, if you didn’t pay, you didn’t receive the paper. If someone complained, I gave them a newspaper, and I also showed up at their door to collect.” This experience taught him valuable lessons in customer service, capitalism, economics, goals, and time management. After his successful stint, he decided to go to college.
Zeff always had an affinity for writing and storytelling that ultimately led him on his pursuit of journalism. He graduated from the University of Kansas and the William Allen White School of Journalism and secured his first job at Saginaw News in Saginaw, Michigan. Soon he was recruited by The Dallas Times Herald in 1991. He moved to Dallas, and just six months later, unfortunately, the other paper in town bought out the Herald and shut it down.
However, Zeff adds in a jovial tone, “I always say the day I lost my job at the newspaper was one of the best days of my life. That day started me on the path I am on today.” He continued, “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, 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 an 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'”
With his exquisite performance, he ended up on two local television newscasts; his photo in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the story of him playing the harmonica was also picked up by the national press.
That magic harmonica (which Zeff still has today) taught him to embrace change and disruption in his life with a positive attitude. For a while, he wrote as a freelancer and then got a job as an Account Executive at Edelman Public Relations and then moved on to J. Walter Thompson. In 1994, Zeff started his own business, working as a writer, media relations consultant, and creative communications consultant.
In the mid-nineties, he stumbled upon his life purpose; while he worked for an advertising agency, he also performed with an improvisational comedy troupe on the weekends. He said, “One of my clients, Texas Instruments, asked me to speak and perform at an executive retreat. With no hesitation, I agreed. I asked another performer to join me; we didn’t have a plan. There was no message. We just played improvisation games with the audience members and had fun. The attendees loved the interactive and engaging performance. The light bulb flashed, and I knew I could offer the same experience to other clients.”
However, this wasn’t the route he had previously pictured for himself. He says, “I didn’t think speaking was going to be my business. But I realized that the audience was thirsty for something fresh. They wanted to laugh, they wanted a unique perspective. Back when I started, many of my clients didn’t even know about improvisation. Today it’s a famous concept.”
Soon his business took off and transitioned to a full-time keynote speaker; Zeff explains, “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. I come in and make them laugh and let them embrace the silliness.”
During his talks, there is one term Zeff frequently uses, ‘Ta Da,’ when asked what it symbolizes; he says, “When children are young, everything in their life is a TA DA. We celebrate when they eat a cheese sandwich or just go to the bathroom for the first time by themselves. Everything is a celebration, however, as we get older, we stop celebrating and expectations take over. TA DA moments become once a year. We need to celebrate every day successes. We each have multiple moments each day that deserve a TA DA.”
Zeff further explains that most jobs don’t have the ‘Ta Da’ aspect; you hardly walk into IT, accounting, HR or marketing and see people giving themselves a round of applause. But this positive support energizes and fuels our passion. He adds, “If someone is not going to give you a round of applause, then you give it to yourself. I don’t care if people look at you strange. Look right back, and give yourself a round of applause.”
Explaining the concept further, he adds that he loves bringing volunteers on stage during his keynotes to play an improvisation game. The participants might be tentative or have doubts initially, but he says, “As soon as they hear that round of applause or laughter, all of that goes away. You can see their confidence boost and they do more on stage. That positive support leads to production, confidence, risk taking and success. Isn’t that we want from our teams?”
In his book, ‘Make the Right Choice: Creating a Positive, Innovative, and Productive Work Life,’ Zeff focused on the message that he shared in his keynotes and added his insights of watching hundreds of audience volunteers play improvisation games and the choices they made. He depicts how to make the right choice with a new positive perspective in life.
In conclusion, he says, “Each day, as you go home from work, think about each person you connected with that day. Did you give people the positive support and appreciation they deserve? If not, tomorrow send out a thank you. Tell them they are appreciated. Just reach out and say, ‘thank you,’ there is no expiration date on a thank you. Now, match that positive support with opportunity. What does your team need to be rewarded and fulfilled? You are going to be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.”