0:00:00 Michael Port: Welcome to Steal the Show with Michael Port. This is Michael. Today’s guest is Erik Wahl, and he’s an internationally recognized graffiti artist, number one best-selling author, and an entrepreneur. Pulling from his history as both a businessman and an artist, he has grown to become one of the most sought after corporate speakers working today. His list of clients includes AT&T, Disney, London School of Business, Microsoft, FedEx, ExxonMobil, Ernst & Young, and XPRIZE. Erik has even been featured as a TED presenter. His best-selling business book, Unthink, was hailed by Forbes Magazine as the blueprint to actionable creativity and by Fast Company magazine as provocative with a purpose. Hey Erik.
0:00:53 Erik Wahl: Greetings Michael. Thanks for the opportunity.
0:00:55 Michael Port: You are very welcome. One of the reasons that I really wanted you on the show is because you are a true artist. Not just in the literal sense that people might associate because you’re a visual artist, but because you have mastered the art of performance. And of course, as my listeners know, my work is about performance, first and foremost, not just on the stage, but in all aspects of life. Your speeches really are performances. When people watch you speak, and they should do so online, you can go to Erik’s website, you can go to YouTube and just do a quick search on Erik Wahl and you’ll find lots of stuff on him. But when they see you speak, they see a performance and you just happened to be creating art at the same time in them. To you, Erik, what does the art of performance mean to you?
0:01:54 Erik Wahl: Well, first of all, you’re very kind in calling me a master of performance. I feel like I’m in pursuit of mastery or I’m mastering performance. It’s evolving on me so quickly, and I love that it’s changing. The dynamics of audiences are changing, and therefore my speaking style is changing. So, to think that I’ve mastered it is… I can kind of view, but inaccurate for me. What I’m… By background, I won’t go back too far but I’m a graffiti artist, and so I’m a visual artist. And a lot of my work and thinking is based in creativity, in disruption and storytelling, and getting audiences’ attention through a visual medium.
0:02:42 Erik Wahl: And I’ve transferred that over onto stage and into keynote presentations, where I’m booked as a keynote speaker, but I’m coming in to present a show. I’m wanting to blow the audience away, I wanna catch them off guard, I wanna give them an aha experience that they weren’t expecting. And so through that… That’s why it turns into a show, that’s why I create paintings in three minutes choreographed to music. It’s why I do audience interaction, it’s why I use really complex business language and speak within small context of the keynote. So, it’s not just, “Oh, yeah. Wow, he was a cool painter.” or, “That was a cool show.” But I’m mixing it up and changing paces and rhythms within the show, that keeps the audience off guard.
0:03:37 Michael Port: That’s right. I think one of the things I wanna get at, is because I think it’d be easy for people to say, “Well, again, he can do things on stage that I can’t. I’m just a speaker. He can paint. I mean, he can paint Michael Jordan or Bono in three minutes, and make it this extraordinary experience that people have never seen before. I couldn’t do something like that.” I think that’s what some folks may say. But in magic, there’s a phrase that most people are familiar with, “abracadabra”. And it actually means create as you speak. So, right now, you and I are having a conversation, and we’re creating a kind of art, which is true about most conversations about ideas. So one of the things that you speak on, is creating something out of nothing. So, how do you create something out of nothing? How do you start the creative process? And what do you do when you have a blank canvas, or a blank piece of paper?
0:04:44 Erik Wahl: Nice. That’s a big question. I wanna break it down first. Abracadabra means… Say it again. What’s the definition of it?
0:04:54 Michael Port: Yeah, create as you speak.
0:04:57 Erik Wahl: That is so cool, and I had no idea that that’s what that word meant up until now. That’s like a “boom”. That’s a light bulb moment for me, because that’s what’s changed about my speaking. I’ve been in speaking for 14 years now. And what started off to be very much a routine and rehearsed, and I had a myriad of stories that I would go to, is it’s become more of a flow, and it’s become more authentic as I’ve been able to relax into what I’m doing, into where I’m going, and into who the audience is. So, a lot of it is surrendering my ego, surrendering the outcome, surrendering expectations, and creating as I’m performing. If I see the audience leaning forward and taking notes, maybe I’ll give some more business points. If I see them enjoying the painting, or the interaction, or the humor, I will tend to go that direction. So that’s really what I’m doing is, reacting to the heartbeat of the crowd while I’m… Let’s call it performing. While I’m speaking.
0:06:11 Erik Wahl: And that for me, is the biggest differentiator, in what I’m doing. I think, at first you look at my art or you see that I paint Jordan, or Bono, or Springsteen, or Lennon in three minutes you’re, “Well, yeah. He’s got that hook.” That’s not my art. That’s one channel that I get an audience’s attention or make them aware that I’ve just taken the stage. But the art is in the authentic connection with the audience and them feeling like this is a shared experience or a journey and not a lecture. Not that I am the holder of wisdom or knowledge in the field of creativity, or overcoming obstacles, or adapting to change, but rather we’re kind of locking arms together, in a shared experience or journey. So, I really am creating as I go. And I do have a very good idea where I’m going or where I want to end, that’s my compass, but I don’t use a map by which to get to that end point. Because I need to be dynamic, I need to be fluid, I need to be able to zig if the audience, or the the environment of the room changes a little bit. So, abracadabra, [chuckle] that’s a cool statement. I didn’t know that’s what it meant, but, yeah, that would be very much what I’m doing.
0:07:28 Michael Port: So let’s talk about the differences between abracadabra, and winging it. Because I’ve seen your speeches now via video and it’s very clear to me that you’re not winging it. You’re just not making it up, as having never done any of it before. There maybe certain sections that are very spontaneous and they maybe the first time that you have introduced a concept in a slightly different way and maybe you keep that and do it again, or maybe you throw it away. Or some kind of audience interaction experience occurs, that is unique to that moment. But it’s very clear to me going up there that you know what you’re doing. So, the reason I mention this is because sometimes people worry about rehearsing, they worry that if they are prepared then they’re gonna seem stiff or inauthentic.
0:08:26 Michael Port: And one of the things that we really focus on is what you just mentioned, which is, if you have enough time with the material, if you have enough hours on the stage, that material becomes so ingrained, it becomes part of who you are, that it gives you a certain amount of freedom, so that you can create as you speak. Just like when an actor goes on stage, they’ve been working on that material for months and months before you see it. And their job is to present it as if it’s the first time that those words have ever been spoken. They may have done it at a matinee earlier in the day, but that evening’s performance is a first. And…
0:09:13 Erik Wahl: It is. If you…
0:09:13 Michael Port: Which is so different than winging it. So, I want you to address the difference between those two things to you, so that our audience doesn’t go, “Oh good, there’s an excuse for me not to prepare… “
0:09:27 Erik Wahl: You’re right. Right.
0:09:27 Michael Port: “Erik just say he can make it up as he goes, so I’m gonna do the same thing.”
0:09:32 Erik Wahl: It’s so cool to me that you know this stuff. And for me, I use what’s called, the Stanislavski approach to speaking. And I think… Do you have an acting background?
0:09:44 Michael Port: Well actually, I have a Master’s in acting from NYU and then I worked professionally for years in TV, and voiceovers, and theatre. Yeah.
0:09:52 Erik Wahl: The way that you’re talking, the fact that you know this stuff and that you’re able to share this with other speakers, I think, is some of the most valuable information they could have. I didn’t have any of that coaching, I have kind of shaped this as I’ve gone, but a lot of it’s been through the Stanislavski technique in acting, where it is being fully present in the moment and listening. So, yeah, I know my lines, I know what I’m going to say, or what it’s going to be, but I’m responding to what’s being given to me. So, I’m not delivering a line, I’m relating an idea. And I might change my inflection, I might change the tone, I might change the intentionality, but where I’m going is always the same. But it’s listening the entire time that I’m speaking and responding.
0:10:41 Erik Wahl: And I very much know my material and I am militaristic in my discipline, in my prep, in my meditation, in how I go about understanding my audience, understanding the competitive landscape, understanding what they want out of my presentation. Is it an opening kick off, is it a closing send out, do they want more entertainment and aha, or do they want more takeaways and actionable content. I know all of these things in advance, but that’s all kind of big 30,000 foot picture, once I get on stage. Once I take the stage, that all becomes secondary, and I become fully present and immersed in who they are and who I am right then. And those elements are so critical and that’s really the difference for me between being an amateur and a pro. And yes, there are illusions of, “Yes, this seems like it’s the very first time that he’s done this.” That’s part of being a pro is that illusion of spontaneity.
0:11:46 Erik Wahl: And I love it when I watch talented comedians. Steve Martin, or Martin Short, were two that just blew me away recently with their emotional intelligence, and their self-awareness. Yeah, they had their jokes but they were listening to each other and to the audience the entire time they were performing, and it was one of the most alarmingly, delightfully, surprising, live comedic experience I’ve ever had, ’cause I thought I knew each of them. I thought I knew Steve Martin and his wild and crazy guy, and Martin Short… I thought I knew their shticks, and they blew me away with how fully present they are at what, 70 and 65 years old? And how original, and authentic all of their material was. It was incredible and it was a good homework lesson for me to keep raising the bar, keep looking for ways to keep every line, every opportunity authentic and fully present, as opposed to rehearsed and driven.
0:12:50 Erik Wahl: So, going back to my routine, I have very strict routines that I do days before, hours before, minutes before, all leading up to that moment where I release and it goes into improv, that’s when I cross the threshold of the stage, the curtains open and boom. Then, I go into that mode, but I know my material. And when I talk about amateur and pro, the idea of winging it, the idea of just hoping for the best, or just thinking that you’re gonna be authentic and just say what comes to you, that’s an illusion. And it’s an awesome illusion when you pull it off, and it’s very, very obvious when you don’t. And one of the things that I see oftentimes, particularly when… And this is a personal preference of my own, is I will never deliver any part of my presentation in advance, during mic checks, during… If there’s any sort of opportunity where they want some part of it, I don’t take or go into show mode until the moment that I take the stage. So, no one would have heard any part of my keynote, or this character that I enter when I take the stage.
0:14:04 Erik Wahl: And that’s where I see a lot of, let’s say, executives. They rehearse… We kinda had our time slots where we’re gonna do sound checks. I see executives come in and deliver maybe a three to five minutes of their presentation or they’re reading the Teleprompter, and it’s so stiff, and that’s kind of the routine that they’re ingraining into themselves is stiffness, ’cause they’re kind of performing for maybe their handler or for AV people in the back of the room. And it’s awkward, it’s not real. It’s not a full room where you’ve got distractions and energy. And it’s almost a detrimental routine, or rehearsal that I learned very young, man, that’s make me really uncomfortable to do that. I’m not gonna do it. I can talk randomly or check mic levels, give them highs and lows, and we can check that without entering character or doing a part of what I’m gonna do from the stage. But I don’t want to do any of that until I actually take the stage.
0:15:06 Erik Wahl: But I hope that comes across as just me because that’s what I’ve learned from myself, is it’s important for me to wait until game time, show time, to flip it on and become fully present in that moment, and not give away any of those reveals up until that final moment. And that’s exciting for me, I love that kind of almost competitive state. I come from a little bit of an athletic background of ramping up for a tournament, a match, a game. That’s kind of how I view speaking, is from the night before to the morning when I wake up, to the routines that I do all ramping towards this moment of show time, curtains on, boom you’re on. And I love that, I absolutely love it. And I love the grind of the routine of wanting to go to bed early the night before, wanting to eat and drink healthy, wanting to get a full night’s sleep, and wanting to get up early and have time for meditations, review my material, go for a walk. All of those routines I embrace and I love them, they’re not rigorous, or arduous or, “I’ve gotta do this.” They’re things that I love because I love performing so much, and connecting, and sharing so much. So, I think that’s all… It makes what I do very easy and very lovable, because I cherish every part of the process so much.
0:16:40 Michael Port: Let’s unpack some of this, ’cause you just dropped a whole bunch of gold nuggets on us. Let’s unpack this character that you enter. Because this is something that I write about, and we teach, and rarely have I heard another speaker before we introduce them to it, think about their work in that way. You also mention illusion and you talked about authenticity. And what’s so interesting, often, is that as performers we’re creating an illusion and our job is to create an illusion that is absolutely authentic. And the thing that people sometimes think and it makes them uncomfortable, is that they think that creating an illusion is somehow false. That’s performance is somehow fake. And I think that good performance is not about fake behavior, good performance is authentic behavior in a manufactured environment. And when you’re up on stage and there’s 10,000 people in an arena, that’s pretty manufactured, that’s not any every day type situation.
0:17:58 Michael Port: And you also talked about that you go out and once you’re in this character, you go out there and improv. And you need to be so well-prepared in order to produce the kind of spontaneity that is authentic because if you’re marginally prepared, what happens often is you seem less authentic because you’re trying to recall what you had planned on doing. Which is very different than being so well-prepared that you can forget everything you know right before you walk onto stage. And then, when you walk onto stage as the character that is Erik in that particular situation who has a job to do for those people in the room to deliver on a promise, well then, then you can create as you speak.
0:19:02 Erik Wahl: This is fun for me. I don’t have these types of conversations. And part of me is like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Michael. Careful, you’re givin’ away the keys to the castle here.”
0:19:12 Erik Wahl: “If you do, these speakers… “
0:19:13 Michael Port: That’s my job. I want everybody… But here’s the thing, people will hear this and sometimes they embrace it and sometimes they don’t, but even if they embrace it, it still takes a pursuit of mastery, as you said at the beginning, to get there.
0:19:31 Erik Wahl: Yes. And that’s why I can say that with a little bit of jocularity, is because I realize that it isn’t a magic key, it’s not just a secret sauce that you pour on. This is an awareness and it’s an ongoing for me. And even if I thought I knew what this was two years ago, it’s continuing to morph and to adjust. And now, people have Facebook Live, and they have Periscope, and they have SnapChat, and everything that I’m doing, I’m also playing to a digital footprint. And I’m taking that into consideration now as well, which I think is super cool and we just didn’t have this five years ago, 10 years ago. And so, there’s a variability to every time I take the stage that’s fascinating to me and that I think there’s great opportunity in brand-building, going forward.
0:20:22 Erik Wahl: But going back to the illusion, going back to the character, just even using these words make me smile ’cause I can see how people who maybe are from or familiar with speaking, or I wouldn’t say this to a client that I’m… “Hey, I’m gonna take the stage and I’m gonna enter a character, right before I talk to your executives at Microsoft.” That would be the wrong kind of metaphor, or adjective to give them ’cause they would have some preconceived ideas on, “Character, what?”
0:20:52 Michael Port: That’s right.
0:20:52 Erik Wahl: “You’re gonna enter a script? It’s acting? You’re gonna deliver a show?” “No, no, this is kind of the metaphors that I use to put myself in the zone.” But all the things that you’ve talked about, authenticity, interactivity, engagement, preparedness, discipline, all of those things are part of entering that character. And the character is the release. It’s the release of my ego. It’s the release of me needing to look good, or for them to think that I’m smart, for them to think my art is cool, for them to think I’m funny. That’s no longer relevant to me anymore.
0:21:31 Erik Wahl: Once I’ve entered character I’ve surrendered my ego and now it’s about a share. It’s about how much can I give to this audience without needing anything in return. And once I enter that space is when things for me become authentic, and where I’m not needing something from them to make the keynote activate, or to have it elevate to another level. It’s about how we work on it together.
0:22:01 Michael Port: Dude, you just…
0:22:02 Erik Wahl: Like I said, this is fun for me to talk about with you because I don’t talk about this with anyone else. These are things that I’ve kind of internalized, and I don’t share dialogue with other speakers. I spend a lot more time with rock stars or actors, that’s where I do my homework, is I don’t go see other keynote presentations, I go to live music whenever I’m on the road. And I probably go to 100 concerts a year wherever I’m at. And it doesn’t matter if it’s alternative, hip-hop, rock, orchestra, opera, theater. I’m immersing myself in the live performance experience everywhere I go all around the world, because I wanna see what artists are doing to fascinate audiences, to get audience’s attention, to have them lean in, to want to turn this into almost a spiritual, a transcendent experience.
0:23:00 Erik Wahl: And they’re doing it through music, which is uber cool, and it’s not like, “Oh, that was an accurate song.” “Oh, that song hit all the perfect pitches or notes.” They might mess up, they might have distractions. It might be imperfect, but in that imperfection is beauty and there’s a connectedness between the performer and the audience. And I’m getting to see that with what the hottest artists are doing now. Ones that blow me away are people like Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber, and Justin Timberlake, and artists that I’m too old to even know who they are. [chuckle] But because I’m going and spending time with them and seeing what they’re doing to capture the millennials’ attention, what the most cutting edge artists are doing to engage an audience and make the audience want to all pick up their smartphones and record this or capture this moment, that fascinates me as a performer. And I wanna bring that element over into the keynote format, where I’m creating those “aha” moments.
0:24:01 Erik Wahl: I’ve got a show producer that travels with me to every show. He handles all of the audiovisual so, I don’t worry about any of that. I don’t have to worry about mic levels. I don’t worry about staging, or lights, or any of those elements because he’s handling it all, and he’s phenomenal and he knows me backwards and forward. And he anticipates me before I do it so, if I’m gonna hop off stage, he’s already adjusted with the sound guys and adjusted for speakers. Or if I’m gonna pick up another mic and interact with an audience member, he’s already made those adjustments. So, there’s never any dead air, there’s never any squeaks or awkward moments. Plus, we’ve got lighting cues, we’ve got video cues, we’ve got production cues because we’ve worked with Cirque de Soleil, and their production team, largely because the aesthetic that the audience is experiencing, what they’re seeing with their eyes, we’re wanting to change that dynamic. Instead of being a mic and a light, a speaker and a long-range IMAG camera.
0:25:05 Erik Wahl: We’re wanting to change all that up. We have so many amazing AV capabilities now, it’s we’re just using the AV differently, so I’ve got a camera up on stage with me that operates 360 degrees around me while I’m speaking. My show producer, he’s the one who changes, “Okay, let’s go camera one, camera four, camera three, back to camera one. Any graphics, stay on graphics, we’re gonna go back to camera two.” So, he’s calling the show the whole time that creates this amazing experience for the audience that they’re not distracted or disrupted by any of these cameras moving around me 360 but they’re being… It’s moving from… If you remember watching the college football game in the ’80s, they’d kind of have one camera at the 50-yard line that follows the team up and down the field, backwards and forwards.
0:25:54 Erik Wahl: Now, you watch the Super Bowl and they’ve got a camera behind the quarterback and behind the linebacker. And it moves and it runs with the guy breaking down field or behind in the huddle. And so, that’s what we’ve done with audiovisual from the keynote stage, is we’ve created that feel of lipstick cameras inside my paintbrushes, drone cameras floating around on quadcopters, and multiple cameras with multiple angles, but we’ve also rehearsed all this in advance. So, my show producer has worked with the AV team for one to two weeks in advance. Walking through all of these cues, and prepping them, and getting them ready. So that again, when it’s show time, when it’s game on, everyone is ready and in their place to create an epic audience experience with music, sound, light, video production, and I’m able to be fully released to just concentrate on the material, concentrate on the audience, and being fully present. And so, there’s a lot going on but again, when we talk about illusions, all of those are manufactured in advance to create wow moments again and again for the audience throughout the 55 minutes that I’m performing.
0:27:05 Michael Port: Love… I almost cursed. I don’t do curses on my show…
0:27:09 Michael Port: But almost since, is I love it so much ’cause you keep referencing your work as a show. And I think the way that we see, the way that we think about the work is gonna influence the choices we make. And as artists we… I mean as people, we tell the world something about ourselves every time we make a choice and the artist’s job is to make strong choices, to make them early and often, and make them as big as they possibly can, so that you create an effect on the world around you. And the choices you make are so strong, they have such opinion, but you’re not making choices to assert your opinion on others, you’re making choices such that the audience has the best experience they possibly can.
0:28:05 Michael Port: The choices you’re making with respect to the technological elements. If you come up with an idea and you say, “You know, I’m gonna try this thing with this camera.” And you test it and you find, “You know what? A take that distracts them from the big idea right here, it’s really cool, people will probably talk about it but it distracts them. I’m gonna cut it. I’m not gonna do it.” But you’re gonna keep making those choices until you find the wow moments that also are in service of the audience and the big idea that you’re presenting and the promises that you’re making to them.
0:28:41 Michael Port: Now what you’re doing is cross-appropriating. This is something that I think speakers could learn a lot from because, you said you go out and you see sports, and you listen to concerts, and you hangout with musicians and lots of people that are outside of the speakers disclosive space, the space just around them. Because you get ideas from the spaces and then… Those other spaces, then you bring them in to speaking and you create a whole new world as a result. But if we as performers, if say, for speakers specifically, if we just watch speakers. If we only see speakers, then all of our ideas are encapsulated in this one space, but you create new worlds when you bring in ideas from other spaces, put them in this different space, where heretofore it might not have been. So, this is very entrepreneurial as well, the way that you’re thinking about it. Entrepreneurship and creativity are so linked. I mean, this is what you talk about is creativity is what you’re teaching up there. It’s beautiful, I’m just… I’m fired up. I got excited.
0:29:57 Erik Wahl: Well, it is cool. And in entrepreneurship and creativity… The root of entrepreneurship or the root word is, bearer of risk. And actually what creativity is, that’s what authenticity is. Is you’re bearing some risk, you’re venturing outside of a comfort zone or safe haven to create something new. To test something magical. And they don’t always work, you’re exactly right. And that’s why I’ve got multiple hands on deck observing everything. And that’s why my show producer is not a technician, he’s also an artist.
0:30:31 Erik Wahl: The timing that he switches from graphics, back to IMAG, over to music, the timing down to a millisecond, changes the experience for the audience. And so, he also is working with me in the timing, both of the cadence with which I’m speaking or performing into the timing of a joke. The pause, how long the audience laughs, or doesn’t laugh, then switching and going on. There’s a lot of elements that he’s taking on where he’s not a technician, or a scientist, or a perfectionist. He’s an extension of myself in the booth. And he is moving and flowing along with me and along with the audience. And it’s a beautiful art and he’s been with me now for two years. And we’re a team in how we create and what we’re creating for the audience. And he’s a huge part of creating these aha moments and testing.
0:31:30 Erik Wahl: And we’ve go so many things in the hopper that we are still waiting to release, that we’re waiting for the right environment. Some things… We’re way ahead of our time on the technology and the wireless capabilities of cameras and the interactivity, and the laser lights, it’s not… We can’t do that three or four times a week in four different cities across the country. We don’t have that kind of tech capabilities yet, so we have to simplify. And if there is something that comes across as a distraction, boom, both he and I know it. We debrief afterwards and we talk about it. We don’t let it disrupt the actual show that we’re experiencing then, we continue on. But at the end, we debrief and talk about it. “Hey that one point, it wasn’t as effective as it’s been in the past. Let’s change the arrangement of either video, audio, humor, interaction.” We will talk about or debrief the experience, so that we are capitalizing, and using every performance also as another learning experience to get better. And that’s exciting for me that I have someone like that, who loves what I’m doing as much as I love it.
0:32:43 Michael Port: Yeah. That’s just a great segue, ’cause one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, is how you work with the meeting planners because, as you said, there are so many different elements in your show that are very, very unusual. You have now this partner who comes with you and is obviously an extraordinary asset. But you’ve been speaking for a long time and you’ve only had him for a couple of years. One of things that I found when I started doing keynotes that were different that had additional technical elements. Sometimes at first, the meeting planners were a little bit nervous, like, “Well, that’s a little different than what we’re used to.” And I’m like, “Yeah that’s the point. That’s good. That’s not a bad thing.”
0:33:30 Michael Port: So event managers, when they’re used to the same type of presenter over and over again… When you first started doing things that were out of the box, how did you manage… For example, I’ll give you an example. One time… And this is the most basic, this was years and years ago. I was booked for a gig and then… And they… We had the contract, they’d seen all my materials, everything was very clear. But of course, the gig was booked nine months before I actually showed up. Two weeks before the event, the meeting planner sent an email, said, “Oh we need your slides. Your slides are supposed to be in.” I said, “Oh, I don’t do slides. I do a lot of audiovisual but I don’t do slides in the traditional way that folks do slides.” She says, “What do you mean you don’t do slides?” I said, “Well, I don’t do slides.” She says, “But all good presenters do slides.” I said, “Where’d you read that?”
0:34:26 Michael Port: So, I had to have a conversation with her and four other people on the team about the fact that I wasn’t using slides to convince them that that was okay and they didn’t have to worry. And I did at one point say to them, “Listen, whose the professional?” He said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Whose the professional?” I said, “Listen, I’m not Bono, but if Bono was doing a concert for you, would you ask him to send you a set list or would you say, “Listen, you absolutely have to do this song in this way.” No, you’d let Bono do whatever Bono does because he’s the professional.” So, did managers sometimes have a hesitation when you mentioned that you were gonna do live painting? That’s something most of them probably have never experienced before.
0:35:17 Erik Wahl: It is. And that, it’s a very good point because we have addressed all this from the very beginning. And we realized that this is not their language and my language is not the language of the audience yet until we know them. But we go into the call… Everything about the prepping, fortunately… Well, I’m going back here 10 years ’cause I’ve been doing this now a long time, but all of the interaction that we have with the meeting planner is very, very specific, orchestrated, and rehearsed. ‘Cause we know that we’re gonna have some of this pushback when we have different elements. So, I too don’t give any slides, ever, and they request it all the time but we have our bit that we give them why we don’t provide slides and why that’s a competitive advantage, and why they’re about to experience something that is not only different than they’ve ever had with keynote speakers, but better than they’ve had with any keynote speakers.
0:36:12 Erik Wahl: And we’ve got the language down with meeting planners, we’ve got it down with AV technicians, we’ve got it down for CEOs and presidents, who also get nervous when a graffiti artist is gonna come talk to their top leaders or top customers. We have all this down and now because we realized everything that I do is unfamiliar. But because of that unfamiliarity, that’s why this is very, very special…
0:36:35 Michael Port: Can you…
0:36:36 Erik Wahl: That’s why they… Oh, go ahead.
0:36:36 Michael Port: Yeah. No, I was just gonna say, now because you’re very, very well-known and you have so much video on your material, it’s much easier for meeting planners and CEOs to say yes to you. But can you think back 10 years ago when you didn’t have a lot of video on yourself… I don’t remember, however many years it was. And you weren’t as well-known for this kind of work, what were some of the mistakes that you made when trying to talk about the things you wanted to do on stage that were different than they may seen before?
0:37:12 Erik Wahl: Using language that they weren’t familiar with. And when I first was asked for an outline of my presentation or my slides, yeah, I probably fumbled that, and I probably did make some meeting planners nervous, but I learned also very, very quickly, that’s not gonna happen. One of the questions that I get asked very, very routinely is, “Hey, what are you gonna paint? What music are you gonna play?” I very specifically talk about that I’m not gonna reveal that. “I’m not gonna know who I’m gonna paint. I’m gonna have some ideas, but I’m not gonna know who I’m gonna paint until I actually take the stage. Because you might think that you want me to open with the Beatles or with Lennon, but the sound system can’t handle it, can’t… This is gonna be more of a Springsteen.” There’s so many elements that play into this that the meeting planner, the president, even the AV team has no idea that I am the professional. I do know exactly what it’s gonna be and I position myself as an expert, as a professional, as I know exactly what I’m gonna be doing and you have to trust me. But there is… Going back, that’s where we’re at now. Going back as we were learning this, I had to take my lumps like everyone else, and I had to learn to use their language, and that’s why my AV writer is very, very specific and very, very simple.
0:38:37 Erik Wahl: That’s why… And this is cool about you and I, is Amy is… Your wife Amy is a partner with you and your biggest fan and supporter, and my wife Tasha, is, she’s the CEO of our company. She handles all of the relationships, all of the marketing, everything with the meeting planner. I don’t usually talk to the meeting planner until maybe a week before. I’ve been given a lot of customization material. I’ve probably talked with executives; I’ve talked with their competitors. I know all about them but I’ve not yet built a relationship with the meeting planner, but my wife, Tasha, has been nurturing this relationship for months, and months, and months. And not only does she know everything about the meeting, she knows about the meeting planner’s kids, she knows about where their spouse works, she knows about… So, she’s built a relationship with them that transcends, “Hey, is he using a DVI cable, or a 15 pin VGA?” All of those things have already been hammered out either on the production side. She’s handling the relationship and she’s really the expert. Now, I don’t do any of this anymore. She handles all of it and it’s nice to be able to hand off to her.
0:39:51 Erik Wahl: Again, we’re getting away from how did we do this or how did I start with this 10 years ago. I’m talking about where we’ve ended up because of what we’ve learned through this, is I wanna become that master of simply being the performer and looking forward. And so, I’ve back filled everything, all the contracts, relationships, AV, production. I’ve got a team of people who specialize in each one of those who handle those flawlessly, and who understand the language that AV tech to AV tech, that they can speak their language and that no one gets freaked out. Marketing to marketing, relationship to relationship, and it’s all leading up towards, again, this show. But what I’ve learned from my early days is that’s a lot for me to take on. If I’m handling and trying to book myself for engagement, dialing for dollars, and I’m also trying to build a relationship with a meeting planner, and understand it, and then also with an AV technician and trying to make sure they’ve got 16X9, or HD instead of 4X3 aspect ratios, and sound levels, and sub-woofers. The more that I’m focusing on those elements, the less I’m able to be fully present in the show.
0:41:04 Erik Wahl: And so, those were just things that I’ve learned along the way that, if this is gonna be as good as I want it to be, as good as I think it can be in the future, I need to get a team around me of people who understand and specialize, so that I can free myself up. ‘Cause that’s a lot for one person to have all of those angles down to perfection. I know of them ’cause I’ve done them all, so I’m able to train, and coach, and work alongside, but I don’t have to worry about the day-to-day anymore…
0:41:34 Michael Port: Sure.
0:41:35 Erik Wahl: Because I trust these people around me so much.
0:41:35 Michael Port: Yeah, very cool. By the way, I discovered… Tell me if my research is correct, that your wife recently had her first show?
0:41:47 Michael Port: She did?
0:41:48 Erik Wahl: She did. And this is so awesome. So, she is, just in the last two years, become an artist herself. Now, she’s… All of us has always been an artist but she’s realized that becoming an artist is doing the work. Becoming an artist is taking the risk, becoming an artist is making that first step in that leap of faith, and messing up, and getting disappointed or not coming out like you thought, and still taking the next step forward. And so, she’s released her own just charitable campaign, but also created art and engaged others in creating art along the way that has been so beautiful to watch. Because when she and I got married, she was just a beautiful woman who wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. And then, we morphed and evolved, and then she became a CEO and she is a relationship genius. And working with clients and understanding the economy, and competitors. And she is one of the sharpest business woman I’ve ever met.
0:43:00 Erik Wahl: It became very different than the woman that I married. She majored in theater, and then she became a CEO of our company and manages everything. All of our film, all of our production, all of our publishers, all the relationships with the clients. And now, she’s launched a career as an artist. She also just graduated from school of action and contemplation. So she went to, basically, a school about meditation and spirituality. And as she’s got this degree, she’s taught me along the way. And I’ve learned so much, so, so much from her because she’s had to translate to me, so that I understand it. And that’s grown me in amazing ways. She’s grown as an artist, she’s grown as a philosopher, she’s grown as a woman in just amazing ways. And it’s been a fun ride for both of us to watch both of us evolve as individuals, as well as entity.
0:44:02 Michael Port: It’s beautiful. From what I understand, you came later to art as well. One of the things I discovered was that, when you were a kid, you were told that art was not your strength, and you actually had an eight-year career as a partner in a corporate firm before you went out and started focusing more on your art. Do I have those details correct?
0:44:30 Erik Wahl: You do. Again, that’s part of my story. That’s what makes the show unique, special. Is because I’m not some prodigy. I’m not some Mozart, that came out at birth creating. I was raised as a suit. My story is not unlike anyone else’s. I felt as a child… A 4th grade teacher said something about my… Critiqued my artwork, and she was a well-meaning teacher. She wanted the best for me, but it came out the equivalent of, “You need to stay within the lines.” or, “The tree needs to be green.” And I heard it as my art isn’t good and I withdrew, and I pulled back. As I say this, everyone is, kind of reflecting back to a moment, “Oh yeah, I remember a person of authority or a friend.” Someone, kind of, critiquing their creation, their art, their craft, their ego. And as that happens as kids and it usually happens around the age of five, six, seven, which is when most people stop saying they’re an artist or, “I can’t draw.” or, “I can’t draw a stick figure.” or, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.”
0:45:42 Erik Wahl: It’s because of those early childhood experiences that when we have created something, which is an extension of ourself, it got critiqued in a way that we weren’t prepared for. And when it got critiqued, we shut down and we start insulating ourselves from failure, from risk, from exposure. And so, for me in my story, is I went for 30 years. I got the best grades possible in school, so that I could get into the best college, that I can get the best job, and work my ass off, and make lots of money, so that I could become wealthy and retire early. And I was gonna call that a successful life. And that all was great and worked marvelously, until the.com bomb crushed me, and it wiped me out. And I wasn’t prepared for that. I wasn’t prepared to start over at age 30.
0:46:33 Erik Wahl: And really, what happened was I had an early mid-life crisis and I was pissed. And how could I have been so meticulous, and conservative, and hard-nosed, and first in last out kind of mentality for 30 years of my life, and be left at age 30 with nothing to show for it? And when I say nothing, it’s because I define myself by my net worth. By how much I had in the bank, how much 401k, my kids’ college. Everything was about security for me. And so, I defined myself with the wrong success indicators, which really centered around money, and that’s kind of a basic statement. But it’s really true, unfortunately. And when that was all taken from me… This was not a triumphant move. Like, “Now, I’m an artist.” This was a very, very painful dark time of my life, where I really didn’t know who I was, or what I was gonna do.
0:47:31 Erik Wahl: And I found some solace early on, some therapy in just hanging out with some artists. Because artist was kind of the opposite of business to me, at that time. And I knew I didn’t want anything to do with this American dream, anything to do with the rat race, anything to do with trying to build a business again. And so, I went and hung out with artists, because artists were more whimsical and philosophical. And I really enjoyed that conversation that I had with them. And then all of a sudden I became just intoxicated with art as a whole and then I started creating myself. And then, I started going back and studying the masters, and then I started studying music, and then I started studying poetry, and then I started studying photography.
0:48:15 Erik Wahl: So all of those are just kind of… As the gates to creativity opened at age 30 because I had lost everything. That’s when everything changed for me and that’s really where this presentation, my keynote, was born from. Was from that story of who I was, and who I am, and who they are, and who they can be. And it’s really an exciting story because it’s not like, “Oh that was a cool performance.” Once I take the stage, I’m just holding up a mirror and I’m reflecting back to them all of this potential that maybe they had bottled up from maybe an early childhood experience, maybe from a boss, maybe from a spouse, maybe from what they would view as circumstantial, or environmental things around them. All of those are limiting belief systems and that we’re capable of so much more than we’ve been preconditioned for.
0:49:08 Erik Wahl: And it’s exciting for me and it’s exciting for them as those blinders fall off and all of a sudden there’s this reveal of, “Yeah. Yeah, I have really limited myself. Yeah, I’ve listened to or been affected by early teachers, or parents, or friends who’ve said I can or can’t do something.” And children migrate towards that, which they’re affirmed for. When they’re affirmed for getting 20 out of 20 on their spelling test, they’re like, “Oh, good.” And so, they go that direction. So, that’s why we have so many academically proficient kids, and so many creatively deficient kids, is not because we are poor at creativity but largely because we focus so much on logical, predictable, analytical thinking and we reward that. And so, that’s what we’ve created is… [chuckle] If I were to go on about this, a lot of robotic, or drone-thinkers that all think and act the same way, as opposed to responsive thinkers or philosophical thinkers. And if I could encourage one thing for our school system, it would be to let go of this industrial factory model for education and embrace emotional intelligence. Embrace self-awareness because that self-awareness is the only thing that’s gonna be relevant as our world is changing so fast. And social, mobile technologies, and artificial intelligence, and automation, and virtual reality is gonna change the world so rapidly.
0:50:39 Erik Wahl: Even in the next one, three, five years, is that the things that they’re learning in school are gonna be almost obsolete, or irrelevant. They need to be adaptable. They need to be emotionally intelligent and aware by which to be able to adjust. Those are the things I didn’t have growing up. I was very, very academically proficient but I lacked a lot of awareness and present-ness, and mindfulness, and emotional intelligence. And so, that’s really for me what art is. Art is not about producing a product, art is about producing thinking. And once I produced thinking in myself and the audience everything changes.
0:51:21 Michael Port: That’s beautiful. Are you familiar with David Mamet?
0:51:25 Erik Wahl: I am. Yeah, the playwright.
0:51:26 Michael Port: Yeah, so David, he’s a Pulitzer prize winning playwright for the those who haven’t heard his name. He wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, which was made into a film. Speed-the-Plow, is another one of his well-known works. Oleanna, and then he wrote The Verdict, which many people don’t know. That great film with Paul Newman from many, many years ago. And he has written a number of non-fiction works as well. And he wrote a book years ago, called True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. And I read it as soon as I got out of grad school, just happened to come out at that time. And when I got out of grad school, I was 26 years old. So, I went of course to grammar school, high school, undergrad and then to graduate school. And one of the first things he said in the book is that, if you have gone to school for 26… Not 26 years, but if you’ve gone to school for, let’s just say hypothetically, 26 out of 28 years of your life, you’re unfit for the real world. How do you think you’re gonna be an artist? He said, “You’ve got to go live.”
0:52:35 Michael Port: And so, what he was saying is, please don’t conform because the performer’s job is to break the rules. Not just to break the rules, not just to be oppositional, but to break the rules to create something that may not have existed before. And it seems to me that in large part that is a big part of your work, whether or not it’s intentional or not, it’s a big part of your work. And you mentioned something before about how we’re often afraid of rejection. And that becoming an artist is in large part about doing the work over time. And I heard Ira Glass in an interview say something that I thought was really quite profound. I’ll paraphrase of course, but he said that, often when you start a creative activity, writing, painting, speaking, etcetera, your taste is so much better than your actual ability to deliver. And what happens is you get frustrated. You say, “I know what’s really good and I’m not making it.” And so, you give up because it’s too painful to produce something below what you believe to be great work. And he says the creative artist though, over time will produce work that is up to their standard, not all the time, but every once in a while, and that’s enough to keep the passion, to keep going. But in the early days, you may not have the skill to create the kind of work that you think is worthwhile. But if you just keep doing the work, over time you will.
0:54:21 Erik Wahl: That is true in every element of my life. And I’ve got… Nothing ever meets the dreams, and visions, and ideas that I have in my head. Whether it’s in my art, my paintings, my writings even, my performances. I’ve got a platonic form in my head, in my mind of how amazing this is. And I’m just doing my best to kind of actualize it into a translation, so that someone else can hopefully see what I’m seeing. And that’s what I want to capture and it never does. My art is never as good as I have in my head. My shows are never as good as what I have in my head. And I’ve realized that now as an artist, as a performer, and I actually give myself space. My team gives me space because I am very emotional and very volatile. And when I’m done, when I walk off the stage, I have to go and be by myself for at least four to five minutes. Like completely by myself because there’s a come down. And I realize, this is again being very vulnerable and not everyone has this. A lot of people are triumphant, walk off, and high five, and go talk to the president, and are glad-handers, and they feel this adrenaline.
0:55:34 Erik Wahl: I have this tremendous let down that all of these things didn’t go like I wanted them to go. And I wait ’til I step off stage to feel that. But I have to let those emotions go and then I realized that’s not real. Then I pull myself back together and then I realize, “Oh they gave me a standing ovation. They did like it.” “Oh, my show producer said it was a great show. The meeting planner loved… ” And I go back into and I reconnect with reality again. But I’ve become very, very familiar with that. And that was a hard lesson for me to learn because both in my art, in my writing, in my shows, it’s like I had to realize that it wasn’t gonna meet these elements of perfection and brilliance that I have in my head. It’s always gonna fall short. But that’s a good thing. That’s what drives me now to create and want to become better, and to translate better, and to create better art, tell better stories, be a better performer, is because I wanna share what I have in my head.
0:56:34 Erik Wahl: And I really like… [chuckle] I’m in love with these ideas that I have in my head. I just want other people to see them as clearly as I do. But that’s on me then as an artist, as a performer, as a speaker, to do the best that I can to find those ways, to make those ideas translate, and to not get in the way, or to self-critique them to the point that they fall apart. That’s a dangerous game for me.
0:56:57 Michael Port: Well, so many creative artists are like that when they come off stage or after a performance. And it often surprises people who are not in the creative fields ’cause when you’re on stage, you look so confident. You look like you own the world up there. And then they just couldn’t imagine that you don’t feel that way as soon as you walk off. Now, what you know is that you would never tell an audience member, “Oh, it wasn’t my best show.” You would never say that in a million years, because of course their experience would be influenced by what you say and they… Even if you thought you had the worst show you’ve ever given and they took away so much from it, you’re not gonna take that away from them. Yeah.
0:57:41 Erik Wahl: I’m having a little bit of vulnerability hangover here. I feel like I’ve just allowed everyone into my inner sanctum of emotions and what I go through. And I would love to tell people, “Yeah, there’s just this rush of adrenaline, then I go out and… ” That’s just not how I am. I’m very, actually, very, very introverted. I don’t go to cocktail receptions. I don’t do a lot of meet and greets. I don’t do a lot of the other elements because I’m not that great at them. But I am… I know that I’m gonna be… I’m very confident about what I produce on the stage. But then I have to allow myself that space on the back end. And my show producer knows me and deals with my volatility. It’s part of what he does also, is lifts me back up and talks again about the elements that did go so well, “You connected so well.” My wife knows me, protects me. And again, we’re talking about this meeting planner, is we know that for the first four minutes after I exit the stage, is I’m excusing myself from interaction with the meeting planner.
0:58:47 Erik Wahl: So, there won’t be any eye-to-eye contact and like, “How did it go? Did they like it? Did you love me? Am I best they’ve ever had?” And I need to let them have space. And I need to go collect myself and then come back. And so, they’ll cover for me. They’ll come in and talk to the meeting planner ’cause we know that the meeting planner, the president, the CEO is always gonna want to talk to me right when I come off the stage. We’ve again, felt that experience enough times, know what the right actions are to take. They don’t know that I’m on the come down, or that I’m emotionally volatile, or collecting myself. I just kind of slip out the back like I’m washing my hands and gather myself mentally. And when I come back, it’s again game on. And I’m able to hug the meeting planner. I’m able to give high fives to the AV team. And even go out and talk with the audience. Because again, I’ve let go of my need for perfection and I’ve learned to kind of shrink this time down. What used to take… I would even rest on this for hours on how bummed I was about an element of the show that didn’t go as perfectly as I wanted. Is I’ve learned to shrink this down and through therapy with my wife, and with my show producer, and with people around me, realized that I live in a different space in my head and that’s not what they’re experiencing.
1:00:06 Erik Wahl: And so I need to be able to, again, surrender my ego, let go and come back and play the professional. And I do and it’s easier for me to do now but talking about this again, it’s somewhat vulnerable for me because meeting planners, audiences, other speakers, other performers, they don’t know that about me because I don’t talk about it much. So, I hope this comes across okay for your listeners. I hope I’ve expressed myself kind of okay, because this is kind of the inner me that works for me but I don’t know that it would work for anyone else.
1:00:39 Michael Port: No, it’s so wonderful that you did. It’s so meaningful to the folks who are listening. I know because they often have those kind of feelings too and sometimes they feel like they’re the only ones. And if they see and hear from you, who is on the biggest stages in our industry, some of the challenges that you have and the feelings that you have around the work, it gives them some encouragement. So, I thank you for that. I thank you for bringing that to them. I have two more questions, Erik. Number one is about costume. You have a costume. Now sometimes you’ll wear a bandanna, sometimes not. Sometimes your hair is back in a little ponytail, and sometimes it’s down. I don’t know if it’s long or short right now. But generally, you’re all in black and usually a t-shirt and jeans. And maybe you’ve got that chain that you wear. So, talk to us about your costume and the choice behind the costume that you wear?
1:01:40 Erik Wahl: Sure. It’s a branded identity and this is again shaped over the years. And what I wear on stage, I don’t wear before at AV checks and I don’t wear after for meet and greets, or I change out of. So again, that’s part of entering this character, is I have very specific… I wear Chuck Taylor’s, I wear slim fit custom jeans, and I wear a either a black T-shirt or a black button up shirt, depending on the audience and the formality of the audience. But it is all black. I now am, [chuckle] I’m 45 years old and so I do have long hair but I pull it back in a ponytail. I don’t know how long I’m gonna be able to have long hair. Genetically, it just might not be part of the cards and I’m willing to adjust. And I’ve had short and long hair multiple times in my career now and it’s been part of… And I’ve morphed. I’ve gone from a suit, to a dress shirt and jeans, to t-shirt and jeans, to Chuck Taylor’s and it’s become my branded identity. Even the chain that I wear, you picked that up. That’s part of the brand, part of the character, part of the aha.
1:03:04 Erik Wahl: Again they’ve not seen a keynote speaker look like this and then again, once I’ve created the first painting and kinda blown the, “Oh, he’s an artist.” Then, I transfer into business speak and I’m using their language. And again, “How’s this guy in Chuck Taylor’s and skinny fit jeans, and a tee shirt, how does he know this much about our industry, and about our competitors, and about our opportunities and challenges?” So again, it’s creating those alas, where they wouldn’t expect a long-haired artist to be able to know that much entrepreneurial business content. And so, that’s again part of this very intentional shaping, and the kit that I wear when I take the stage because that’s part of my entering the character. That’s just something I very specifically wait to put on, almost like a uniform or the final game jersey, and then I take off and change into another shirt once I’m off the stage because I’ve exited character. Now I’m back in Erik mode or back into a meeting planner mode, or whatever it is.
1:04:07 Michael Port: Well, the deliberate nature of the choices that you make is the thing that I wanna highlight for people, that this is a costume, it is a uniform. It is telling the audience something about you in that particular moment. It influences the way you feel when you put those clothing items on and you walk onto stage. All of this is orchestrated. They’re all choices and they’re incredibly important choices. And they will… You’ll make difference choices over time, as you said, you morph from this, to that, to the other thing. But it’s something that I wanted to highlight because I hope others will think in the same way. So for example, if I do a speech, say my Think Big Revolution speech, I actually wear all black in that as well for completely different reasons. But in that particular speech, I wanna be every man. I wanna be every man. Just like the crew wears black. So you don’t really see them on stage but they’re helping create this experience.
1:05:05 Michael Port: For me, in that show, I’m the crew. And the audience, they’re the ones who are the people that get all the visibility. That’s the way that I see it. Now, nobody in that audience may put that together, they might not think, “Oh, well, that’s why he’s wearing black.” Unless I told them. But they may feel something when you add up all of these different choices that leads to the feeling that I’m trying to create in that room. But if I’m doing say a Book Yourself Solid speech, I’m gonna wear completely different clothing, so you see a completely different character up there. It’s still me, my values, my voice is gonna be quite similar, I’m still not gonna have any hair on my head, that’s not a lot I can do about that at this point. I, too, am 45 but I’m a little bit ahead of you in that particular area.
1:06:02 Erik Wahl: I’m coming. I’m coming.
1:06:03 Michael Port: But nonetheless, all of these things are specific choices. And then, also when people are rehearsing their speeches, they should be wearing their costume, specially shoes, in all of their rehearsal. Because you move differently in different clothing, you move differently in different shoes. Is there’s an influence, the character that you’re creating as a performer. So, that’s why I wanted to ask you about that. Number two and this is the last question. And I wanna make sure everybody knows your website is, The Art of Vision. And if they have not seen your work, they’re just gonna be blown away. Because, they probably have never seen anything like it in their life, and I’m not one that tends towards hyperbole, but I think I can say that with some truth behind it. So the last thing I wanted to ask was about your decision to stop selling paintings to individual buyers, or display at gallery. At least, this is what Wikipedia has to say. How did you come to a decision? How has it affected your performances or increased creativity? What was that about?
1:07:13 Erik Wahl: Yeah. It’s been very liberating for me. It actually first came from uncomfortability, is the commoditization of art, really felt uncomfortable to me. Why was this painting worth $1 and this painting was worth $1000? Why is that painting worth $1 million? Why is art really only available to the wealthy or for the rich, or the… It’s kind of a chichi group that appreciates art, or buys art and it’s not for the people. And that’s why I was really drawn to street art and graffiti’s, because that was for the people.
1:08:01 Erik Wahl: And so, very early on, I loved creating, I loved painting, I loved creating paintings and finished products, but I didn’t like the idea of selling them or I didn’t… And fortunately for me, I was knocking out the rent with my speaking career that I didn’t need to profit from the… I didn’t need more money. I don’t want more money, I don’t want my art to be worth a certain amount. But from that, because what I do is the paintings that I create on stage, we give back to the meeting planner, back to the client, as a thank you. And they will either auction those paintings off for charity, or they’ll hang them in their corporate offices, as an ongoing reminder of the message, or they will gift them to an underwriter, or to a VIP, as a special thank you. And so, it gives the message legs. And, particularly when they go for auction, they go for just embarrassingly high amounts, but that’s because, I’ve kind of built up demand, but not made any supplies. That’s the only place you can get one of these paintings, is from the live performance. And for me, it’s very important.
1:09:02 Erik Wahl: I’m creating an emotional connection, or attachment to these pieces of art. By itself, a painting of Bono is just a painting of Bono. But when they watched it come together live in three minutes, when they saw the message that I wrap around Bono, they see themselves in that painting and they want that painting. That painting is part of their spirit or their soul and that’s why there’s such a connection, why they cost so much in charitable auctions, or they go for so much or are worth so much, is because I’ve surrendered all that and let that take itself, just reduce supply, but continue to raise demand. And I love it, because it’s raising good money for great causes, and I’m getting to create and not have to worry about, “Oh, did that painting sell? Did that painting go for this amount? Hey, I wanna be known as an artist whose artwork is worth a certain amount.”
1:09:51 Erik Wahl: I just don’t have to worry about any of that and I love that. That’s a precious part of our brand, is that I don’t sell any of my art, I don’t do commissioned pieces for clients, you know after I perform a lot of times, the client will say, “Hey, we want you to do a special piece for our branded logo or for this party, or for the president.” And we just don’t and it’s very easy for me to turn down any amount of money, because that’s just not anything that I’m interested in. And partly because, the money doesn’t interest me. So it’s very easy for me to say no. And my friends joke with me, “What if someone said, I’ll give you $2 million for that painting?” I realize what they’re getting at, but for me it’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. And if I did it once, it breaks the pattern of everything else that I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and the principle is behind why I’m doing it. So that’s why I don’t sell any of my art, ever.
1:10:47 Michael Port: That’s beautiful. It’s fantastic. And look, the last thing I’ll say, is thank you for demonstrating that entrepreneurship and creativity are not two different things, they are in fact, synonymous. Because if somebody listens to the description of why you don’t sell your art, they’ll see that part of it is for personal reasons but there’s also a very smart thinking behind that choice, as well from a business model perspective. You said, “It reduces supply in the marketplace.” And there’s something that is compelling about that to the people who do buy these at the events based on the experiences that they had. So, commerce and creativity can go together in the way that is right for you, based on the way that you see the world. And I think, each one us should make those kind of choices. So it’s pretty cool.
1:11:50 Erik Wahl: To punctuate that point, you can’t put a price on cool. And so, that’s what I’m trying to do with my art, that’s what I’m trying to do with my shows, is make them un-duplicable, make them fascinating, and make them engaging to the point that it is hard to put a price on it because it’s so uniquely cool, it was an experience. And so, it’s not about how much can I get for a keynote, how much can we commoditize this, or… For me, it’s about building the brand, building the tribe, building the message, which has nothing to do with building the money. And that’s where everything about what I’m doing, why I’m trying to grow, why I love entrepreneurship and why it connects to art is because it’s all connected to the brand of sharing a bigger message. And that’s what’s exciting to me about both and that’s where art and commerce cross.
1:12:36 Michael Port: Yeah. And of course the benefit for those who are listening, who are either professional speakers now or are on that track, I don’t know exactly what your fees are, but you are on the biggest stages in the business, so they’re gonna be pretty significant guys. So, [chuckle] this work, this kind of attitude can produce significant amount of revenue in speaking fees, no doubt.
1:13:00 Erik Wahl: I’m very fortunate that that’s been a nice secondary blessing from doing the work, from becoming a pro, from wanting to perfect and grow, it’s been a nice thing. It really has helped us be able to grow because we’re able to reinvest money back into a show produce or reinvest back into social media, reinvest back into building and amplifying the brand and the message. And you can’t do that broke and that’s where a lot of artists make mistakes is they don’t wanna sell out, they don’t wanna… So, I do talk with artists very, very specifically like I talk with businesses, I go back and I share with artists because artists oftentimes lack a lot of discipline. They lack a lot of structure, they lack a lot of awareness about branding and translation of the message. And they’ve created either beautiful music, beautiful acting, beautiful paintings, but they don’t know how to scale them or get them to market.
1:13:57 Erik Wahl: And so, I work with a lot of artists on how to embrace the ideology behind, not commoditizing it, but being able to translate to a larger audience so that they’re able to grow their tribe, so that people are banging down their doors to want to access their genius. And then they have to, at some point, pay maybe a certain fee to get access to that genius, but they’ve already built the brand to such a point and built the marketing, and the structure, and the loyalty that price is secondary to what their genius is.
1:14:28 Michael Port: That’s fantastic. So, The Art of Vision, go visit Erik, maybe shoot him an email in there, just tell him thank you for his time because I thank you for your time, Erik. Fantastic to get to know you and I look forward to spending more time with you in the future. And for the…
1:14:43 Erik Wahl: You’re very kind, Michael. And cool interviews/podcast for me. This is unusual, I don’t normally talk in these terms and rarely does anyone even understand what you understand, so that’s why we’ve kind of elevated this and I’ve been able to talk about unusual things. But this is special for me that you not only get it, but you actually teach it, and a very cool experience for me. So thank you for honoring me as one of your guests, for taking a risk that someone like me would add value to your brand, your podcast. I’m honored that you would take that risk.
1:15:20 Michael Port: It’s my pleasure. And guys, keep thinking big about who you are, and about what you offer the world. Take risks, not stupid ones like jumping off bridges, but take risks in service of your audience. And I love your very much, not in a weird way, but I love you for standing in the service of others as you stand in the service of your destiny. That’s it for Steal the Show today. Bye for now.