Breathing Easy

Today (1 March 2016) is a special day for me. It marks the one-year anniversary since I left the World Health Organization—where I worked as an in-house lawyer—to become a full-time professional speaker, trainer and coach. Here is the post that I wrote just as I was preparing to leave the WHO.

Tobacco - Cigarette

The past year has been exciting and illuminating. I have spoken to thousands of people in companies and organizations and communities in several countries. I have collaborated with friends who are also professional speakers and have learned a lot about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. (There is much more to learn.)

I will write more about the life of a professional speaker in the future. But the focus of this post is something that I did quite recently that happened to coincide almost to the day with my one-year anniversary: I turned down an opportunity from a company that could have become one of my most lucrative clients.

The company is a leader in its field. It generates billions of dollars in revenue every year and it pays its consultants very well. One of the company’s global brand managers saw my TEDx Talk in 2014 and told his people to contact me to see if I could help them promote one of their new products in TED style to make the pitches more intriguing.

The company has one of its major global offices close to my home. If I did a good job on the contract—and I always do a good job for my clients—this contract could have mushroomed into a number of interesting projects. Great opportunity, right? Yes, except for one thing …

The company in question is one of the world’s major tobacco companies. They wanted help promoting their electronic cigarettes.

I had a long phone call with them to hear their proposal. If they valued my skills enough to reach out, I had no problem hearing what they had to say. We talked at length and they invited me to meet with them in person. I told them that I needed to think about it and that I did not want them to go to the trouble of setting up a meeting if I was not going to accept the offer.

After the call, I spent some time reading about tobacco companies, cigarettes and electronic cigarettes. I looked at a variety of sites including those from cigarette companies, the World Health Organization and other institutions. I even watched Thank You for Smoking which, coincidentally, had been recommended to me the week before. (Great film, by the way.)

To make a long story short, I said no. Given the harmful effects of tobacco smoking and the uncertainty about the long-term effects of electronic cigarettes, I did not want to be involved in helping with their promotion.
Some people have questioned my decision; others have praised it. But I didn’t make my decision based on what other people might think.

I don’t believe that every person who works in the tobacco industry is “evil”; I have friends who work for tobacco companies and they are great people. And, for some people, working in the industry—and by “industry”, I mean from tobacco farming all the way up to the distribution of cigarettes—is the only way to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

I made my decision because I am in the fortunate position of being able to choose. For me, smoking is a pernicious habit and one that I cannot support regardless of the amount of money offered.

Here is part of what I wrote in my email to the company:

I have given the matter a lot of thought and have come to the conclusion that I must respectfully decline the opportunity. Given what is known about electronic cigarettes at this stage, I would not be comfortable helping with their promotion. And if I am not comfortable with a contract, I will not do it just for the money because I will not give the client my best and that is just not acceptable for the client or me.

The company was gracious in its reply and said that it “truly appreciated the honest response”.

If you are going to take on a new speaking opportunity, you need to be 100% committed to it. Anything less is not fair for the client or the audience. Your audience’s time is extremely valuable. If you are not 100% behind the speaking opportunity (and don’t need the money) let someone else take it.

The life of an entrepreneur is uncertain because you never know when your next paid opportunity will come along. Turning down a big client has risks. But regardless of what comes next, I’m breathing easy.

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Testimonials

John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International