Mic Drop

Rose-Colored Glasses (with Lime Green Frames) ft. Erik Qualman

Episode Summary

In this week’s conversation on Mic Drop, we cover how to bring focus to our work, prioritizing the crucial and shunning the nagging distractions, how to balance a massive speaking business with health and family, approaches to creating something distinctive, cutting through the noise and stand out, what we keynote speakers can learn from the number one digital leadership expert, and how we should adapt to international audiences to drive maximum impact.

Episode Notes

Rose-Colored Glasses (with Lime Green Frames) (ft. Erik Qualman)

Erik Qualman’s relentlessly optimistic and transformative approach to speaking


“And even though I'm speaking to a group... Let's say yesterday, there's 5,000 people there. There's people in there, it's a business meeting, but there's people struggling with personal issues. So, they'll send a note, and "Hey, I was..." I mean, this is at the extreme, but I've gotten emails, I'm sure you have as well, that's like, "I was going to end it. I was going to end my life today, but then there's something that you said that just said, okay, one more day, let me keep it going.

-Erik Qualman


Erik Qualman has been named the number two most likable author on the planet, coming in just behind J.K. Rowling. In addition to penning not only one but five number-one best sellers, he's been named a top 50 digital influencer by Forbes Magazine. Erik has delivered keynotes in 55 countries and reached over 50 million people with his compelling and inspiring messages and, according to him, “Most importantly I'm still trying to live up to the World's Greatest Dad coffee mug I received from my wife and two daughters.”



[12:17] - Intentionality, from Health to Family Time

Staying healthy and connected to what matters

Josh and Erik discuss the difficulties of traveling as a speaker, both for physical health and family connections. For Erik, it’s become about putting processes in place that allow him to fit all the parts of his life that matter most. When possible, he includes his wife and children in his travel— especially during summer vacation. He also actively tracks his time spent traveling so that he doesn’t spend more time away than he wants to without realizing it. 

[16:04] - How to Focus

Simple idea, difficult in practice

Once you start pursuing any sort of career project, you quickly become pulled in a million different directions. Soon, you’re no longer being intentional about your time— you’re being reactive. Erik reminds us all to take time re-focus yourself and your team, if you have one. “How do I be intentional with every minute?”

[29:13] - What are your Green Glasses?

Finding and double-clicking on what makes you unique

Erik tells the story of how bright green glasses became his trademark nearly by accident— but how he later embraced the look as his identifying trademark. It’s not about a gimmick— it’s about creating an image that’s recognizable and representative of what you stand for. In Erik’s case, he stands for optimism and the willingness to be unique, like a pair of bright green glasses.

[29:39] - Going International

Erik’s tips for being a truly global speaker

Erik’s advice for anyone speaking internationally? Prep, prep, prep. Always remember that cultures are different across the world. You need to speak from a place of understanding of your audience’s background, cultural space, political situations, and more. Human experience is universal, but it’s influenced by where we come from. Always remember that when speaking internationally.

[33:31] - Digital Leadership and Speaking

Erik’s perspective as the number-one expert

Erik defines digital leadership simply as empathy. Do I care enough to fix your problem and remove friction? Most innovation isn’t additive, it’s subtraction. Digital leadership is about taking away barriers and causes of friction to create an environment for success. It all begins with empathy.


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Hear from the world’s top thought leaders and experts, sharing tipping point moments, strategies, and approaches that led to their speaking career success. Throughout each episode, host Josh Linkner, #1 Innovation keynote speaker in the world, deconstructs guests’ Mic Drop moments and provides tactical tools and takeaways that can be applied to any speaking business, no matter it’s starting point. You'll enjoy hearing from some of the top keynote speakers in the industry including: Ryan Estis, Alison Levine, Peter Sheahan, Seth Mattison, Cassandra Worthy, and many more. Mic Drop is sponsored by ImpactEleven.

Learn more at: MicDropPodcast.com


Josh Linkner is a Creative Troublemaker. He believes passionately that all human beings have incredible creative capacity, and he’s on a mission to unlock inventive thinking and creative problem solving to help leaders, individuals, and communities soar. 

Josh has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, which sold for a combined value of over $200 million and is the author of four books including the New York Times Bestsellers, Disciplined Dreaming and The Road to Reinvention. He has invested in and/or mentored over 100 startups and is the Founding Partner of Detroit Venture Partners.

Today, Josh serves as Chairman and Co-founder of Platypus Labs, an innovation research, training, and consulting firm. He has twice been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and is the recipient of the United States Presidential Champion of Change Award. 

Josh is also a passionate Detroiter, the father of four, is a professional-level jazz guitarist, and has a slightly odd obsession with greasy pizza. 

Learn more about Josh: JoshLinkner.com


From refining your keynote speaking skills to writing marketing copy, from connecting you with bureaus to boosting your fees, to developing high-quality websites, producing head-turning demo reels, Impact Eleven (formerly 3 Ring Circus) offers a comprehensive and powerful set of services to help speakers land more gigs at higher fees. 

Learn more at: impacteleven.com


In Detroit, history was made when Barry Gordy opened Motown Records back in 1960. More than just discovering great talent, Gordy built a systematic approach to launching superstars. His rigorous processes, technology, and development methods were the secret sauce behind legendary acts such as The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

As a nod to the past, Detroit Podcast Studios leverages modern versions of Motown’s processes to launch today’s most compelling podcasts. What Motown was to musical artists, Detroit Podcast Studios is to podcast artists today. With over 75 combined years of experience in content development, audio production, music scoring, storytelling, and digital marketing, Detroit Podcast Studios provides full-service development, training, and production capabilities to take podcasts from messy ideas to finely tuned hits. 

Here’s to making (podcast) history together.

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Episode Transcription

Erik Qualman:

And even though I'm speaking to a group... Let's say yesterday, there's 5,000 people there. There's people in there, it's a business meeting, but there's people struggling with personal issues. So, they'll send a note, and "Hey, I was..." I mean, this is at the extreme, but I've gotten emails, I'm sure you have as well, that's like, "I was going to end it. I was going to end my life today, but then there's something that you said that just said, okay, one more day, let me keep it going."

Josh Linkner:

Welcome to Mic Drop, the podcast for professional speakers. We cover the ins and outs of the business, helping you deliver more impact on bigger stages at higher fees. You'll gain an inside edge through intimate conversations with the world's most successful keynote speakers. I'm your host, Josh Linkner. Get ready for some inspiring mic drop moments together.

Today's show is sponsored by ImpactEleven, formerly known as Three Ring Circus, the best and most diverse and inclusive community built for training and developing professional speakers. They're not just elevating an industry we know and love. They work with hundreds of speakers to launch and scale their speaking businesses, earning tens of millions of speaking fees, landing bureau representation, securing book deals, and rising to the top of the field. To learn more and schedule a free intro call, visit impacteleven.com. That's impactE-L-E-V-E-N.com. 

What do you call a six foot five inch tall, bright green glasses wearing digital leadership expert with a perpetual Kool-Aid smile? My guest today is the one and only Erik Qualman. Erik has been named the number two most likable author on the planet coming in just behind J.K. Rowling. In addition to penning not only one but five number one best sellers, he's been named a top 50 digital influencer by Forbes Magazine. Erik has delivered keynotes in 55 countries and reached over 50 million people with his compelling and inspiring messages and according to him, most importantly, I'm still trying to live up to the world's greatest dad coffee mug I received from my wife and two daughters.

In today's conversation with Erik, we cover how to bring focus to our work, prioritizing the crucial and shunning the nagging distractions, how Erik balances a massive speaking business with its health and family, approaches to creating something distinctive, in Erik's case, his alien green glasses, to cut through the noise and stand out, what we keynote speakers can learn from the number one digital leadership expert, and tactically, how should we adapt to international audiences to drive maximum impact. I just know you're going to love my conversation with this jolly, green glasses giant. Erik Qualman, welcome to Mic Drop.

Erik Qualman:

Yeah, it's awesome to be here. Thanks, Josh.

Josh Linkner:

I've been so looking forward to our conversation. I always look forward to our conversations. You've always been a dear friend and a source of inspiration to me. I'd love to have us go back. I was curious because I don't think you and I have ever talked about it, how did you get into the speaking business in the first place? Take us back to those early days.

Erik Qualman:

I think like a lot of people that are listening to this, I fell into it backwards. And so I grew up in Detroit. And I'll give you the short version. I was on the tech side of business, so I worked at Yahoo back when they were kind of the tick of the Facebook of the day, and then I was head of marketing at Travel Zoo, and so we started to test a little bit with MySpace. And then I saw, whoa, this is going to really change the way the world functions. And so I wrote a book called Socialnomics, telling people that this isn't just teenage stuff. This is actually for business for governments. It's hard to imagine now, but at the time, people thought social media is just like this kids toy. And so Socialnomics was just, "Hey, this is how the world's going to change by social media."

And then they had me speak, the publisher had me speak at an event. And then historically, I have a tendency to mumble in interpersonal communications skills throughout my life. So, I had taken Toastmasters when I was in grad school just from an interpersonal communication standpoint. And then at Travel Zoo, because the founders German, I was kind of thrown in the fire to deal with the press, and also with all the financial institutions when we go on these road shows. So, I became kind of a voice of Travel Zoo, so it's kind of a baptism by fire.

So, one of my classmates said, if there's anyone from our class that would become a public speaker, I would've picked you dead last, which actually is kind of a compliment. And so I would've never thought I'd be in this vocation, but I gave that speech at that book event. It's called Book Expo. It's the largest book event where they launch books. And so they gave me a slot, my publisher at the time. And then some of the audience said, "I don't know what you do for a living, but you should speak for a living." And then it took me four years to really go all in, but that's kind of how I fell into it backwards. I had no idea that this whole world existed.

Josh Linkner:

And once you started learning about the world, what was going through your mind? How did you decide? Because you obviously are very talented on number of fields. You could have pursued a lot of things. What drew you into the world of professional speaking and sort of captured your heart and mind?

Erik Qualman:

I just love the impact of the audience, just to be able to get that real time impact, that, oh, you're making a difference, and that people couldn't see at the time what I could see. So, I go, well, this would be kind of selfish if I didn't get this word out there. That's the initial start of it. And then I just fell into love with it because just to be able to see the impact that you could have on individuals. And you're right, it wasn't an easy switch, because for four years, I basically would take vacation days to go speak, so still running this global operation. And eventually, I was fortunate enough just to talk with my boss that owned the company and said, "Hey, I can't manage a team anymore. I'd love to stay on as kind of advisor." We don't need to get into that, but that's really how I fell in love with the world of speaking.

Josh Linkner:

And so when you started, like all of us, I'm sure you weren't on the world's biggest stages. You and I were just chatting earlier and you mentioned that yesterday you did an event in Vegas and there were two keynote speakers, you and Magic Johnson, and that that's probably not how it was on day one. You were probably, like most of us, speaking at pancake breakfasts and such. Tell us about those early days. What was that like? How did you refine your craft, and then ultimately launch to where you are now?

Erik Qualman:

No, you're exactly right. I always tell people, speak for free, and we all start speaking for free. And I got so excited when someone would pay for my flight into Atlanta, because my brother lived there. I'm like, oh man, this is great. They're going to pay me just to go and speak, which I like to do. And then all of a sudden you start to figure out how this whole thing works. And that's why it's been amazing, the work that you've done, because it didn't exist when I was there. And so Josh, you and your team at ImpactEleven, it's been amazing just to kind of put it more into business context so that people that are new, like I was, I had to figure it out myself.

And so what you've been able to develop is fantastic. Obviously, this podcast is amazing for that as well. But yeah, bounced around. Most of those events starting off were free, and then eventually grew from there. Just someone sat down and goes, "You should ask this amount. They gave me this amount of money." I go, "Are you kidding me?" And they go, "Yeah, just ask. They'll probably say yes." And I couldn't believe it. I felt so nervous just asking for that amount of money at the beginning, and in the way we went.

Josh Linkner:

So, now here we are today. You've been named the number one digital leadership speaker. You've been named the second most likable author only to J.K. Rowling. Amazing. And we look at your accomplishments now, and it almost seems so impossible for many of those that are just getting started. Maybe share with us some of the struggles that you had along the way and how did the Erik Qualman that we know today become the Erik Qualman that we know today?

Erik Qualman:

For the listeners out there, I mean, I mentioned it, and so you'll even hear it in this interview, I have a tendency to mumble. And so that's one of the biggest challenges. Also, I'm an introvert extrovert. I'm kind of a combination. When I'm on stage, I love to kind of get into it, but even that's been a learned process, to really let go on stage and to divulge some of your personal life, to make it personal so that the audience trusts you and leans in a little bit more. So, that's been a learned process over the last 12 years from that standpoint, just to make it as personal as possible, as you can, as much as you're willing to do on stage, and kind of be vulnerable on stage. So historically, that has not my DNA. So, that was the biggest challenge. I'm a business person. I'm going to speak about business. You just want the brass facts.

And then over time... I mean, I was like a tech guy, so that was my background. And then over time, I realized, wait, these people want to be motivated. They want the stories. They want to kind of be entertained rather than just educated. And so that was the biggest shift. And then once you realize that, that really propels you. That really takes you to the next level. But for anyone starting out there, I always say, if you want to speak, speak. They sit there and they want to get all this armor around before they go in. I go, you got to get out there and start testing what works, not only content wise, but also delivery wise. And also, do you like this? And what do you love about it? And try to figure out what's going to be... Where are you going to carve something out for yourself?

Josh Linkner:

Such great advice. And just to emphasize... I appreciate you sharing that. Again, when we see people at your level of success, it feels unattainable. But as you point out, you were voted last likely to be a public speaker, you mumbled, it wasn't your thing, you have some introvert tendencies, so you weren't born the rockstar that you are today. You had to develop those skills, and that actually is really encouraging because it's a learned skill. It's something that we can all learn to develop and cultivate. You said something though, I want to drill on. You said something about find out what you really love about speaking. What is it that you really love about speaking? What fuels you today? What have you fallen in love with about the craft of this oddball profession?

Erik Qualman:

I love when just getting an email, or maybe it's a text from an audience member that says, "You changed my life. I switched vocations because of you. You gave this speech. You showed this video when you're on stage. And at that moment, I know I wanted to do this, and I switched vocations and it really changed my life." Or, I mean, it can get kind of dark-

Erik Qualman:

... patients and it really changed my life. Or, I mean, it can get kind of dark too if you get in front of enough people, there's a lot of mental illness out there. And even though I'm speaking to a group... Let's say yesterday there's 5,000 people there. There's people in there, it's a business meeting, but there's people struggling with personal issues. So they'll send a note. And hey, I mean this is at the extreme, but I've gotten emails. I'm sure you have as well. That's like, I was going to end it. I was going to end my life today. But then there's something that you said that just said, "Okay, one more day, let me keep it going." And I'm definitely not trained in that area to handle those type of situations, but to get those type of emails and those communications, that's what I really love about is how can you impact someone's life? How can you change just one person? Even it's just one person throughout your career, that's a successful career if you just changed, positively impacted one person.

Josh Linkner:

What a beautiful sentiment. And I agree. I mean, to a degree as speakers, we're in the aha business. We help people make new connections, form new opinions, see the world differently and it can really have a wonderful and positive impact. For me, I love learning. I love the stagecraft, I love teaching, I love sharing, I love storytelling. And I know you love many of those things too. We talked about what you love about it. Maybe hate is a strong word, but what don't you like about the speaking business?

Erik Qualman:

Well, I think for yourself and also a lot of the listeners, it's really the travel. And so it's trying to figure out... It's really the time and the complications we all are faced with travel and so trying to figure out how to deal with it. And so for me, I've got two young kids at home, I've got two young daughters. They're growing up quickly and so I didn't want to make sure I didn't miss that time. And so trying to figure out works well with the family, what can you put in place so that it works for you? And then so for us, my wife fortunately loves to travel. So during the summer we take the kids. So because of the speaking career, we've been to Vietnam, we've been to Singapore, we've been to Spain, France, Portugal, on down the list. So it's been invaluable.

Once they're in school, then it's just something that I've learned to figure out how do I physically and mentally handle travel. And so I've been able to figure out systems so that I can sometimes speak in three different cities in two countries in two days. Now over time, as you get older it's a little harder. But that's been something we've put in place. And also I've got... We track it to make sure I'm not away from the kids too often. So then that adjusts our business. So I live in Austin. We try to get a lot of events that are Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and more and more people are coming to Austin. And so that doesn't count as a day away because I'm at home, I speak and then I'm at home that same evening. So that's probably been the biggest challenge is just trying to do that balance with the family and the travel.

Josh Linkner:

Double clicking on that, are there any hacks or systems that talked about the systems? What are some of them that the speakers listening can learn from on how they can balance work and family in their own situation?

Erik Qualman:

First, when you're signing a contract, make sure what time is that event. So I know that sounds pretty intuitive, but literally you might have someone that helps you sign your contracts or it's a bureau that's signing them and then they're indifferent at what time it is. So they'll just kind of put the contract together. So you want to make sure, I actually review every contract and specifically the first thing I look for is what time am I speaking? And so over time what works best for me is that morning kickoff. A couple reasons because I know there's not other speakers in front of me. So someone might have said something already said. And if I wasn't in the event, I'm not aware of that. Everyone else in the room is, but I am not. So being the first speaker of the event in the morning to help kick things off and I'm a morning person. So that also helps is that there's a couple reasons you want to do that.

One, your content's fresh. You don't know if someone already said something you did. And then also it allows me to fly back in the morning. So I fly in the night before. That gives me some safety and then I speak first thing in the morning and try to get out. That doesn't always work out. Sometimes they say no, it's a night event. You have to be here for night. But just being more intentional, that's a system of what time you're speaking.

From a physical standpoint, as hard as it is to do, I just made a rule. I don't drink the night before I speak. And most of the times when we're at these events, they have a cocktail reception so they're expecting you to drink. Or if you're in South America, my wife's from Columbia, different culture. So we always say Eric can be great at night or great in the morning, but he can't be both. So what do you want him to be? Do you want him to be at this cocktail reception until 11:00 at night or do you really want him to rock the stage at 8:00 AM?

Josh Linkner:

That's such a great way to frame it. And I'm sure how could a client choose the wrong thing there? That's amazing. And one of the things I admire about you is your thoughtfulness and your intentionality. Your most recent book, The Focus Project: Pursuing Less in Order to Achieve More. How does that weave into this intentionality? Maybe you can give us a little hint of what the book is about and perhaps what we as speakers can learn from your body of work.

Erik Qualman:

So the book is called The Project. Because all of us, I was realizing my hair's on fire at the end of every day. And so this isn't sustainable. And ironically enough, I run the organization so if I don't feel like I'm in control, than I bet other people out there in the world feel like their hair's on fire and they're not in control. So I started talking to school principals, I started talking to CEOs, to senators, and everyone was in the same boat. They had time famine. They just felt like they were running a million miles an hour on a treadmill. So that's why I did the Focus Project to figure out over... This isn't a new problem, it goes back thousands of years. How do I focus on the big versus the busy? So I started to test old concepts, new concepts, just to figure out what might work and what might not work.

And so it's been revolutionary for me and I'm learning every day. So I'm just trying to get 1% better when it comes to that focus. But it's been revolutionary for me when it comes to what I do for a living. Part of it, you'll laugh at this as a speaker and this is funny because it happens to a lot of people we interviewed, very successful people, is that you start getting pulled in a million directions. So then all of a sudden, literally for the week, I might put zero minutes except for when I'm on stage into the speaking business, I'm not being intentional, as you mentioned, being intentional with the business. And so a couple times a year we always pause in our small team here. We go, "Let's get back to the biggest part of the business, which is me speaking on stage." Other than getting pulled, you can get pulled in many directions. Let's run this website, we're running this thing that we do over here or we're doing this board game.

So there's a lot of things that pull you in different directions. So that's a key learning from the Focus Project itself for me is how do I be intentional with every minute?

Josh Linkner:

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So good. Maybe you could share a little bit more like if we dug into the book, what are some of the other key findings or insights or revelations that you share in the book that, again, we could take as speakers and apply to our own speaking practice.

Erik Qualman:

Yeah, first and foremost, just think about... And this is covered in a lot of different periodicals over thousands of years, what's the one thing that makes everything else either easier or unnecessary? It always go back to that first principle. What's the one thing that makes everything else either easier or unnecessary? And you're huge list because you've got 60 things on the to-do list. If I gave you 48 hours, you're not getting them done. So it's not a time issue. It really isn't. It's an energy management issue. So number one is what's the one thing you need to focus on and try to attack that during your power hour. So try to figure out, and this is a simple way to do it, but all you listeners out there kind of close your eyes. Think of a Saturday, it's a Saturday morning and no one's getting you up.

There's no alarms. There's no kids jumping on your head. I know it sounds like a fantasy, but literally Saturday morning, if nothing was going to wake you up, when would you naturally wake up? When would you naturally get out of bed? And so if you get up before 7:00, you're a robin, you're an early bird, so you're a robin. Most of us are eagles. If you got up between 7:00 and 10:00, you're an eagle. And then if you got up after 10:00, you're a night owl. So the key is you want to attack your power hour.

So basically after a half hour you're awake. After a half hour, you do your stuff in the morning. That hour after that first half hour, you naturally wake up, you need to attack that one thing that'll make everything else either easier or unnecessary before your brain gets drained. It's like an iPhone. Over the course of the day that battery drains. And so figure out if you're a robin, eagle, or an owl and attack that power hour as much as you can. Some days you can't do it, but most days just focus on that one thing that really is going to take your speaking business to the next level.

Josh Linkner:

Such great wisdom. If it's often been said that that focus is a lot of what you say no to, not what you say yes to. What are some of the things that you say no to? I mean, you're right. I'm sure you're inundated with people like me. Hey, be on my podcast. What are the things that... How do you think about what do I say no to? Because honestly for me it's hard. I like to say yes to everything as do many people. And then what you do is you become an unfocused, tangled mess of spaghetti. How do you say no? What guidepost do you use to reject something rather than accept it?

Erik Qualman:

Yeah, good guidepost is if it's not a hell yes, it's a hell no. So think if it's not a hell yes... Oh, hell yes, I want to do that, then it should be a hell no. Hell yes could be, "Hey, do you want two tickets to this jazz concert? Hell yes. You want two tickets to the Superbowl that the Lions are in 2040? Hell yes." If it's not a hell yes, it's a hell no. Because Josh, as you mentioned, most of us are people pleasers and that does this well most of the time. But you got to also remember if you say yes, this is... Because historically I'd say yes to everything. And so once I did this project, I realized, wait, I'm saying yes to everyone-

Erik Qualman:

... this project, I realized, wait, I'm saying yes to everyone. That means I'm really saying no to everyone. Meaning I'm not able to put my full self in there, so everyone loses. And so it's really about the art of saying no and saying it quickly and strongly. I mean, that's not easy to do.

Just a quick story from the book is I volunteer my time at church with my girls. Now this is because I travel so much, I want to make sure I spend time. So we're going to go to church, so why not volunteer so I'm with the girls for another hour. But invariably they don't have enough volunteers for the boys. At the age the boys are a little harder to handle. No one wants to volunteer for the boys. And so historically what would happen is they'd go, hey Eric, I know you volunteer for the girls but can you handle the boys today?

And I'd go, sure. Because I mean it's church. You're like, what kind of volunteer am I? I'm just on my own terms. But then eventually I said, I did sign up for the girls because I travel a lot, I want to spend ...

So I write this email and I'm like, good, I said no, I'm done. And then they come back and say, actually can you really work with the boys because I know you want to work with the girls but we really don't have enough for the boys. I'm like, I got to stick to my guns. So I copy and paste the same email back.

And then so they switched this other lady. And this isn't always going to be rainbows and unicorns, but I got to spend time with my girls. But the lady that had switched to handle the boys, she found out she likes dealing with the boys better. Now that's not always going to be the case.

But I was so proud of myself in that moment and it wouldn't have happened without writing the book. If I wasn't in the process of writing the book, I would've succumbed and just said, I'll do it. And then everyone, it would've been a lose-lose. And this situation worked out to be a win-win.

Josh Linkner:

Love that. Love that. So I want to switch a little bit because we could talk about your writing, I mean, I'm fascinated, I've read your books and I'm a super fan of yours. But I want to switch to the speaking business.

One thing, when we think Erik Qualman, and I say we meaning the entire world we, we think of bright green glasses. This is your signature look, you're wearing them now, I know this is an audio recording, but I'm looking at your beautiful, shiny, cool certain color green glasses. And this is not an accident. Back to being intentional.

Tell us the story of how you came up with this, how you are known for it, what green glasses has meant. Because I think so many of us speakers are trying to find something to cut through and to be distinctive. And you've done that in a really special way. It's a visual cue that's instantly recognizable around the world. Help us understand the myth and the legend of the green glasses.

Erik Qualman:

I'll tell the story, I'll try to keep it as tight as possible. But you're right, a lot of things happen organically. And then from there then you have to be intentional with it.

It doesn't have to be something physical, like Brene Brown, her superpower is when she came on stage at Ted and was very vulnerable, said she had a psychiatrist, this is well ahead at the time. Now it's accepted partly because of her work that, hey, some people are wrestling with mental issues. And so it doesn't have to be a physical thing that you embrace around your personal brand, but you have to be intentional. Definitely have to be intentional.

So my name's Erik Qualman, so when I hand out email addresses, it's first initial, last name. So it's equalman. And I didn't like it, for 15 years I resisted it. Partly because I'm in Detroit, I'm working at Cadillac. They're like, an intern, hey, we need some coffee. Well, equalman, you got a superhero name, you must be fast, why don't you go get the coffee? And so I resisted it, didn't really like it.

And then in a moment in time I realized I'd always thought this was happening to me rather than for me. And so you want to look for those opportunities where you're thinking, I can't believe this is happening to me. I'm not getting speaking deals. But then you look back and go, something might be happening for you. And that's exactly what happened for me.

So I think my book, Digital Leader, was doing well. So we did an interview for a magazine. They wanted to take a photo for the cover and they said, hey, your unique email moniker, do you mind, for the cover we want to have some fun, do you mind wearing some Clark Kent like Superman glasses? I'm like, yeah, we can do that. And they go, well, it's our St Paddy's Day issue, do you mind if they're green? I'm like, yeah, bring it on, let's do it, we'll have some fun. They bring them out. I'm like whoa, those are bright, alien green.

But we take the photo. And then a couple of weeks later I fly to Kenya to give a talk. And this is the first time I've been to Kenya at this point. So I wanted to figure out what Kenya's all about the night before. Which is another tip for speakers. You really need to know where you're speaking and who you're speaking to. So do as much recon as you can the night before when you're on the ground.

So I go to a rescue shelter to adopt a baby cheetah, not to take home, my wife would kill me, but just to support the local area. And on the ride over the lady that I'm with, she says, hey, Usain Bolt the Olympic sprinter was here two days ago. He adopted from the same litter you're going to adopt from. And we filmed him. We'd love to film you. Marry that footage together to raise more money for the shelter.

And I go, yeah, it sounds great. It's a great idea. You should do that. And then she pauses and looks at me and goes, and I'm not wearing green glasses, she goes, but when we're filming we want to make sure you're wearing your green glasses. And I look back at her and go, I don't walk around the world wearing these green glasses, I'd look like a fool. That was just for that magazine. And then she pauses and looks at me, and the look of disappointment, it was like, no, everyone in Kenya, that's what they think you look like. That's the expectation that we're going to have tomorrow.

So I fell into it by accident. But it was that moment that I realized, wait, this isn't happening to me, it's happening for me. It's time to step into that discomfort and really own equalman. And the only way that I could own it, because wearing bright green glasses, people are going to look at you. And again, when I'm off the stage, I want to just be introverted, do my thing. But if I can help one person just from the green glasses, then it's worth me wearing them.

And we don't have time to go into different stories that have happened since then because of the green glasses, being able to help people or even getting booked for business because of the glasses. Because some person will come up to me and start a random conversation, they happen to have an event coming up.

And so over time it's just taking ownership of it. And we've had fun with it. Several years ago they'd started going, hey, can we get some of those glasses? We're like, yeah, you can order them over here. And they go, no, we'd really like you to produce them and handle it for us. And so now we're in the business of making these glasses. They'll put them on everyone's chair at events.

And so it's just been a wild ride. It's crazy to think about it. I would never would've expected this, that we're in the business of selling these green glasses. But again, it all stems from can I help one person with these glasses? And people are having fun with it now. So we step into it.

At the beginning we lost business, some business, because of it. Because at the time most speakers were wearing suits. They're like, we're just a business, man, we can't have a guy with green glasses on there. The world's shifted. And so we're willing to lose that business to gain other business. And then in time when the world's shifted, it's just been a benefit that we've had.

Josh Linkner:

I love that, I mean, first of all, the fact how it came to you. And even the fact that you were coming in the night before a speech and volunteering and adopting cheetahs. It just speaks volumes to the amazing person that you are.

But this notion of the green glasses, I think everybody, all of us, need to think about what's our green glasses? Doesn't mean you're going to get purple glasses. It means that what's the thing about you that's distinctive? Could be your heritage. It could be ... but something. And so if we could all find that one little something that makes us special and stand out, I mean, that's really how we can cut through the competitive set and ultimately shine on the world's biggest stages. Erik, exactly as you are. Which is just so darn inspiring.

I had another question, because you mentioned Kenya, and I know on your website you've spoken in over 55 countries. Could you give us your sense of how do you adapt to those international opportunities? Certain language things that we say in the US don't apply there. There's cultural nuances, there's religious implications in some cases. How do you make your message, even though it's a universal message, how do you adapt it so that it feels really relevant and on point to audiences that are not sitting in Detroit, Michigan or Austin, Texas?

Erik Qualman:

It's a great question. And I love that you have this podcast because a lot of people can learn from mistakes that I've made and others, guests that you've had on here.

At first, you have a prep meeting before you go. Obviously most of your listeners, if you're giving a talk, you have prep meetings leading up. And at the beginning as a new speaker, this is going back 12 years ago, I used to go, prep meeting, I don't have time for this, this is going to be an hour. And then I realized, wait, I want more and more prep meetings. Anytime you want to meet, let's have that prep meeting. Because not only am I going to be better prepared for that audience, it helps me deepen that relationship with that partner.

Because what I've learned is that if you do well, and you stay in this business long enough, they're not going to have you back the next year. But they will have you back a third year or maybe five years from now. They're like, hey, we can bring you back again because it's been long enough, we can bring you back.

Or as you write new books, they go, hey, I heard you had a new book, do you have a new topic? Yep. Okay, let's bring you back. And so those prep meetings I love now, I embrace them. And tell my team, if they ever want a prep meeting, the more the merrier. Let's have those.

And then you've got to ask those poignant questions about what's different and try to listen. Really listen on those calls. And you'll pick stuff up about the language they're using. And then if you can, you can look at previous speakers that have gone to that event.

Now I've been blessed now with 12 years over time you speak in enough countries, as you go back to those countries, you learn your lesson. So I learned it the hard way at first. I was speaking in Austria. In America, they want to be entertained, you've got to have that sex, you got to have that sizzle. And then the story wrapped in it. They still want to be entertained in Europe or in Austria, but they also want a lot of facts that are more fact based than say an American audience.

And so after I got done, and the event went okay, this lady came out, she goes, yeah, it was pretty good, but it was very American. I'm like, what does that mean? So I sat there and talked with her at length. And then I realized over time, okay, different cultures, different delivery. And so that was important. How you dress, how you speak. Is there a translator? You got to speak slower. What jokes translate?

And so fortunately over time you start to learn, okay, videos, when I'm at a different event, I show a lot of videos, I'm a video storyteller, can this video work if you didn't understand the language? And ironically, that actually makes it more powerful, if that video's in English, it makes it more powerful for the English audiences I'm in as well.

So over time you figure out, okay, 60% of what I'm going to speak on, that works universally because I've figured that out. Here's how I have to switch things out. Okay, this country doesn't understand a Jetsons Flintstones reference. They didn't grow up watching that. So, that doesn't make any sense. Or there's a translator. Okay, I got to speak slower. Maybe more videos if there's a translator that don't require you to understand the language when you watch that. Q&A's a little different when you're in these different ...

Erik Qualman:

When you watch that. Q&A's are little different, when you're in these different markets. Trying to figure out what questions they're interested in, making sure you have seed questions, if it's a shy audience. Say if you speak in a country in Asia, where they're not prone to maybe ask a question. It's really over time figuring out, just like a good comedian, who's trying to figure out what jokes work where, you're trying to figure out content across different countries. If it's your first time going to country, be curious, dig into it, watch other speakers, see what works, what doesn't work.

Josh Linkner:

The word that keeps that going in my mind, Erik, is intentionality. You're intentional about your focus, and your family, you're intentional about your health, obviously you're in great shape, you're intentional about your green glasses, your approach to foreign markets. And I wanted to, as we wind our conversation down, talk about your intentionality around digital leadership. You're named the number one digital leadership speaker. You've been named by external sources. Top 50 digital influencer. What is digital leadership, and what are some of the strategies that we, as speakers, can use to be intentional about our speaking businesses as we grow them in the digital realm, as well as on physical stages?

Erik Qualman:

It's a great question. I was listening to your podcast with Sean, and you guys had great insight saying... You can pick a topic, or you can pick your speaking career. I'm getting this wrong, but it's just giving it a quick summary. You've got to pick your speaking career. When I first started speaking, it was on Socialnomics, it was very specific to social media. And number one, I knew that that... That's actually lasted longer than I thought. I still get booked for socialnomics speeches, but it's not the lions share of what I do right now. I realized when I was speaking, and also long-term, and also speaking with some of these companies, like MontBlanc would bring me in, the CEO would go, "We need a social strategy." I'm like, "Okay, you're selling watches, you're selling pens, these high end $10,000 watches. Wait, you don't even sell these directly online? You only go through your main songs, your retail outlet. No, no, no, no. We're not talking social until we get an e-commerce strategy in place."

I realized that these leaders in this digital era didn't have that digital leadership capability. That was the biggest thing lacking, not an understanding of social media. It was much bigger. That's what got us into digital leadership. A short answer, if someone to ask me, "How do you define digital leadership?" A one sentence answer is, empathy. Do I care enough to fix your problem? Or most importantly, remove friction. And obviously you're the world's most foremost expert on innovation. Most innovation's actually not additive, it's subtractive. Can I take that friction away? That's really digital leadership at its core is really, do I have empathy? Do I have empathy for that customer, my teammate, my partner? Do I care enough to show that I'm willing to go the extra effort, using digital tools or not, to make things happen?

Josh Linkner:

Such brilliance, my friend. I wish we had more time. I could hang out with you all day, but we have to conclude our conversation. Going to end with one question. You said earlier, instead of something happening to you, maybe it's happening for you. I know that when you look back, I presume you don't have a whole bunch of regrets, but my question is this, if I asked you to give a piece of advice to the younger Erik Qualman, the Erik Qualman that was just getting started in the speaking business. That was finishing things up at Travel Zoo, and was looking at stages, and saying, "God, can I do this? Do I want to do this?" What piece of advice would you give to the beginner speaker, Erik Qualman, today?

Erik Qualman:

Focus on the big, not the busy. I grabbed a lot of things that were so new. I was saying yes to everything, and I should have just looked at and said, "Nope, that's the big opportunity." Instead of doing these 10 things. That's what I love to do, and focus on doing that big thing. We started a social agency. I didn't want to do it, because it wasn't in my DNA, but I got asked enough by some... I'd get done speaking, like, "Hey, can you run our social?" And I talked to our small team, and they really wanted to do it. So I'm like, "All right, but I can't be involved." And so we kicked off with this big brand to run their social, to be a actual physical agency. And that did not work on either side of the equation. And I knew that if I wasn't all in, to not do it. And so that was a big learning, and a big lesson, because I missed other opportunities because I had selected that one, even though I knew it wasn't in my DNA to run a big agency like that.

Josh Linkner:

What a perfect way to end our conversation. The big Erik Qualman, big in physical height, of course, but big in influence, and big in impact. You've got a big generous heart, and I really appreciate you sharing it with us today. People can find you at equalman.com, is that correct?

Erik Qualman:

Yeah, equalman.com

Josh Linkner:


Erik Qualman:

Equalman across the board, anywhere, and everywhere.

Josh Linkner:

Amazing. Thanks again for your time, my friend. Thanks for continuing to make such an impact on the world, leaving your fingerprints across 55 countries, and counting. All the best out there on the road, my brother.

Erik Qualman:

No same to you. Good to see you. And an honor to be a friend with you. I love what you're doing here, Thanks for keeping... Change the world. You're making it easier for people like me, and everyone out there, so really appreciate what you're doing.

Josh Linkner:

I wish I had more time with Erik. I love his energy, humility and generosity. A few things stood out from our conversation. Number one, when things don't go our way, reframing it from something happening to us, into something happening for us. Man, brilliant. Number two, I love how Erik sets boundaries with his time, and focus, so he can show up fully to the things that matter most, instead of being stretched thin, and burnt out. And number three, there's nothing about Erik that's unintentional, his look, his content, his approach to building his keynote business. And yes, even his green glasses. Inspiring to see the power of intentionality in action.

We can all see why Erik is giving JK rolling a run for her money. And I wouldn't be surprised if he passes her soon as the world's most liked author. He's certainly one of my all time favorite humans. I hope your feeling as energized, and inspired as I am. I can't wait to double down on my own focus, intentionality, and genuine desire to serve. Maybe that Equalman is a superhero after all.

Thanks for joining me on another episode of Mic Drop. Don't forget to subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your favorite shows. If you love the show, please share with your friends. And don't forget to give us a five star review. For show transcripts, and show notes, visit micdroppodcast.com. And a big thanks to our sponsored IMPACT 11. I'm your host Josh Linkner. Thanks for listening. And here's to your mic drop moment.