How Keynoting for Keynote Speakers Almost Killed Me

“You think you’re a ‘Speaker’?  You think you’re a ‘Keynoter’?  I’m sorry to break it to you, but you have no content, no message, and no one considers you a Speaker from what I just heard you do up there.  You are an ‘Entertainer’, you are ‘After Dinner Entertainment’, that’s it!  Don’t try and be anything else, because you have nothing we want to hear but your entertainment, singing, and funny stuff. Now, if you want to become a Speaker someday, if you really want to invest in yourself and become a true Keynoter, well then here’s my card, I am a Speaker Coach, call me when you’re ready to make this happen.” 

This was the comment on the furthest, most hurtful side of the spectrum, in the hallway surrounded by my speaking peers following my Saturday Evening Keynote Presentation at the NSA National Speakers Association Influence Conference in Phoenix, AZ, July 23, 2016.

The speaker coach’s business card sits here on my desk, right next to the CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame statue I received 2 days later.

I can only imagine what this speaker coach thought watching me accept that award on Monday night, since it was a big secret, and as I was scolded for my efforts having just given my “Promise” Keynote for the first time that Saturday evening in front of thousands of Keynote Speakers, I could do and say nothing other than, “Thank You for your feedback” and walk away.

As a Professional Speaker I have found that the most important things I say are often the words that don’t escape my mouth.

Upon ending my Keynote, having never said it into a microphone, and receiving a kind standing ovation, I was relieved it came out as well as it did.  5 hours of rehearsals per day over 3 months with cameras, recorders, hired coaches going on 6 months, re-writes, new web sites, videos, blogging, everything I did to prepare for this 30-minute maiden voyage moment, and here I was being ravaged by Speakers-turned-Vultures in the hallways of a place that should have been a safe haven.

I’ll be truly honest and candid and vulnerable with you: Keynoting for Keynote Speakers almost killed me.

The “almost killed me” part was not just in the preparation: The stress alone aged me 5 years, losing 30 lbs to look and feel better (and fit in my suit), to re-branding, investing every hour, losing sleep, doing away with business relationships that couldn’t catch the vision….I was on a mission to succeed and re-define myself to the world of Speaking, but also to then experience the negativity, critiquing, and disdain of so many who wished they were on that stage instead, and so they let me have it at my most vulnerable moment, which was the second I was done giving the speech.

To give a NEW Speech for the first time in front of Professional Speakers, is, as my friend and fellow Speaker Ross Bernstein, CSP, says, “Not only insane and takes cajones of steel, but it’s the equivalent of preparing a 5-course meal for a bunch of snobby food critics!”  Such a great quote.  Hahahaha!

It wasn’t all terrible feedback however.  Following the standing ovation I came off stage, and backstage were heroes of mine waiting with open arms:

  • Mark Scharenbroich, CSP, CPAE, and his lovely wife, Sue, as they hugged me and said, “PERFECT.” 
  • Lou Heckler, CSP, CPAE, Cavett Award Winner, with tearstained cheeks, embraced me and said, “I am so proud of what you just did up there.  It was unbelievable!”
  • Scott Halford, CSP, CPAE, and Stephen Shapiro, CSP, CPAE, the Co-Conference Chairs, smiling, laughing, singing my praises, telling me I killed it, such a great way to launch the conference.

That was special.  That was the best side of the spectrum of comments that began the night.

It was when I foolishly walked out the side door, unarmed, body armor discarded, into the J.W. Marriott Convention Center hallway, apparently with a KICK ME sign on my back and a TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK unFILTERED sign on my forehead, that the spectrum skewed from happiness and joy to my own personal nightmare:

A group of women, sitting on a couch.  I passed by, “Hi ladies!  Having a good night?” 

“Was that you up there?” they asked.  

“Yes, that was me!” I said, expecting great praise.  

“Oh, well, the lady before you was excellent.  You….you held your own.  It was ok”, they said.  

—— (My thoughts) Oh my, wow, I was ok?  Weird for them to say that.

Passing a man, I smile and say, “How are ya?” 

He casually says, “That was you up there.  Hmmm.  It wasn’t so bad.”  

—— Um?  What the heck?  Seriously?

Stranger walks up with that look in his eye, “Hey you!  YOU!  Great work pardner!  Really well done.  What’s your name again?” 

“Jason Hewlett, good to meet you, what’s your name?” I ask.  

“Jason?  Jason.  Great name!” and he leaves.  

——- Where am I?   Oh good, there’s my Dad.

“Hi Dad, thank you for making the drive down, I didn’t know you’d be able to make it!” I say excitedly to hear his thoughts.  

“Son!  This is Joel Weldon!  Do you remember those ‘Success Comes in Cans, Not in Cannots’ I used to have on my desk when you were little?  This is him!  In the flesh!  The Legend!  Joel, this is my son!” my Dad wails.  

Joel Weldon energetically grabs me by the hand, yanks me in, tan and white teeth everywhere, looks me in the eyes and says, “You’ve joined the ranks of the GREATS tonight.  I congratulate you on a most stellar, beautiful speech and presentation.”  

“Oh, wow Mr. Weldon, what an honor to meet you again, we met many years ago, I’m glad you were here and you saw me.  My Dad and I are huge fans.” I say.  

He hugs me.  My Dad hugs us both.  Kind of this awkward multiple generation, sweaty man hug thing, but it was special.  One of the special moments.  

My Bonus Mom, Janet, smiles and pulls me in for a hug, “You did unreal.  Your spirit was enormous and touching to all of us.”  

“Oh, thank you Janet, you are so sweet to come all this way.  Thank you for making the trip down, it means so much to me,” I said. 

——- Well, that was nice.  Good.  Bucket filling back up.  Family enjoyed it.

Guy walking by, “Jason!  You had me with that message until the part about your Family.  Man, I just couldn’t relate – the wife ran off years ago while I was out on the road making a living for us.  Yeah, you need to take that whole Family piece out, alienates the entire crowd, really need to consider that.  Otherwise, pretty good up there!”  

“Uhhhh….thanks?” I conjure.  

——– Who are these people?  My gosh.

Back and forth it went, like a boxer being beaten and occasionally receiving a breather when the bell would save him from a knock-out.  The sucker punches mostly were landed by utter strangers, speakers I had never met or heard of, and may never hear of again.  The moments where I could catch my breath and keep upright came from CSP’s, Certified Speaking Professionals, who gave me the props I needed, but also encouraging and insightful ideas for making it better.  Yes, that was welcome!  Tell me how I can make it better, don’t just tear me down.

Most fulfilling were the CPAE Speaker Hall of Famers embracing me, whispering in my ear, “We know you are receiving a special award in a few days, you showed why you deserve this tonight, welcome to the club.”  And then an encouraging wink and a smile.

It took from 7 PM until midnight to get to the lobby of the hotel.  I had laughed, been embraced, been talked down to, scolded, loved, groped, received many business cards, gave out all my business cards, had sore feet and misplaced my tie.  I had comments ranging from, “That was one of the Top 5 speeches I’ve ever heard at NSA”, to a guy poking my chest with a scary look in his eye and bad breath whispering, “You got nothin’ kid.  Don’t mention God, your religion, your family in a speech.  You got nothin’.”

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By the time I arrived at the lobby I looked like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, when he was losing.

And that is where I saw two friends – Laurie Guest, CSP, and Kim Kotecki of Escape Adulthood.  They asked me if I was ok.  I stumbled over and related what had just happened.  They were shocked, stunned, and sorry to hear it.   These were the people I wanted feedback from, as I view these as my mastermind friends, people I trust, know will tell me the truth.  I asked if the negative was true, if there was any way to salvage the message and speech from what they know of my abilities.  I knew Laurie would give me what I needed to make the speech great, since I view her as a genius and she knows the direction I want this speech to take, she took my cue and told it to me straight:

“You did great.  You did a Jason Hewlett performance.  I had already seen some of the routines so those were just what they were, old news to me, but everyone else loved them, like I loved them the first time.  But the bulk of it was new, I didn’t know you even had all of that material.  I would give you a solid grade, and I have a few suggestions to make it better, since I know pretty much all you can do, if you want to talk about it…”

Now THIS is what I wanted to receive.  Advice from those I trusted.  Not just, “Hey, it was great.”  Rather, “Good job, let’s talk about how it could improve since I know all you have in the arsenal”.  

Laurie and Kim sat there, and filled me right back up.  I wasn’t searching for validation, I was looking for resuscitation.  And then my peers slowly trickled in, forming a circle around me of support, love, friendship, masterminding.  Patrick Maurer, CSP, and Patrick AllmondThom Singer, CSP, and Manley Feinberg, CSP, Mike Dilbeck, CSP, telling me I had just blessed his life in such a way that it was one of the most needed presentations of his life.  Wow.

Others came and went, but these were people that could tell I was mortified by the response received over 5 horrific, sobering hours, and were there to give me the ideas I was hoping for to improve it the next time.  Imagine for one moment having people that have seen you at your best, in other settings, telling you how you can use that material in the future to make the new material better.

It was one of my favorite experiences of my life.

By 2 AM we parted and I felt able to walk and breathe again.  Not fully recovered, but comforted like the disappointed kid who just lost at the county fair to the boy with the bigger pig.

I made my way to my room, was stopped again and again by late-night stragglers, ready to tell me what they thought and beat me up a little more.

So instead of going to my room I returned to the convention center and wandered the halls.  Back and forth.  My mind playing tricks on me.  Pondering one thing: Do I accept the CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame award I am receiving in 48 hours?  Or does that ruin the Hall of Fame if I do?

I paced until 5 AM.

Returned to my room to a wife asking if I was ok as she took off my shoes and rubbed my feet (yes folks, she is the greatest person of all-time).  I told her what happened.  I read through the Facebook and Twitter comments, which were so kind and favorable.  Once I read what my brother Josh wrote I broke down and sobbed, it so touched my heart.  My wife cried with me.  She asked why they don’t have handlers, or bodyguards, for Keynoters just coming off stage.  She said those that belittled and hurt me were wrong, that she was floored by how well it went compared to what she had seen me speak about before (truth: my transition to speaking has been brutal for lots of people to watch through the years).   I told her I was thinking of not ruining the Hall of Fame by informing them I wasn’t going to accept it, to which she said I am deserving of it and anyone with a brain would recognize I was ready to receive it.

I put my shoes back on, never going to sleep, and went to my second day of Youth Camp where I was Vice-Chair this year.  Sugar free RedBull kept me alive during the convention.   I proceeded to not sleep more than 6 hours for the entire duration of my 4-night stay, due to scheduling, social interactions, and stress.

On Monday night, July 25, 2016, I reluctantly, un-assuredly, humbly and gratefully accepted the CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame award (BLOG Post on that HERE).  No speech prepared, just speaking and crying from the heart, to be honored by the NSA and association I appreciate, and always will, so much.

So many congratulations from people I love followed, and then hearing from others I am too young, too inexperienced, it’s too early to receive such an honor…

More critics, more self-doubt, more speakers speaking words that don’t uplift.

Oh well.

And now the award sits on my desk, next to that speaker coach’s card.

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