I welcomed Bill Stainton onto my podcast/FaceTime video-cast the other day (April 27, 2021). He’s been a good friend of mine ever since I met him through the National Speakers Association. Bill is a funny motivational speaker who’s been in the biz for a long time. He’s in the NSA Speaker Hall of Fame. He’s the proud owner of several Emmy awards for writing and performing for a comedy show in Seattle, called Almost Live. He’s actually a quite famous local comedian in the Seattle area. We talked about comedy, about working through the pandemic, about why comedians bust each others’ chops so much.
We pretty much started the show by calling each other names and being as insulting as possible. Bill and I routinely rag on each other—it’s a high point of our relationship, I think. We both agreed that only people who care about and respect each other can do that with each other. Bill apparently (and I mean apparently) is a card carrying member of Mensa, and of course he had to show me the card. Which of course prompted a further round of teasing. Really, we had a great time.
One of the comments said that it was fun to watch us pick on and tease each other. When I’m with my funny motivational speaker friends, we constantly joke around and often the jokes take the form of insults. I asked Bill why he thinks that is? He says that comedians are just wired differently and always are looking for a laugh. For a long time it seemed that just getting the laugh was good enough, whether or not it was appropriate. Of course you have to mature over time and know when to be serious and when not to be. But it is true that comedians (and funny motivational speakers) encourage each other by being mean to each other. It’s a sign of love. Really.
We also talked about my bailiwick in the speaking arena, emotional and social support. I asked him if he had any examples of anyone who especially encouraged him. One summer when he was around 17 years old, Bill’s parents sent him to Wyoming to stay with his uncle, who worked in Wyoming politics. Bill was acting out at home and he thinks his parents just wanted to get him out of their hair for a while. So basically Bill drove his uncle all over Wyoming visiting his constituents for about a month or so. And while they were driving, Bill’s uncle would ask him his opinion about various things. “So, Bill, what do you think about the unemployment situation in Lancaster County?” (Bill was from Lancaster, PA.) He was asking Bill questions like he was a grownup. And this really struck him on looking back, because he felt like he was a 17 year old punk kid, but his uncle was asking him questions and really listening to the answers Bill gave, like Bill knew what he was talking about. Bill believes that people will rise or fall to the expectations others have of them. And Bill’s uncle treated him like he was expected to know the answers, so Bill felt his confidence rise. He treated Bill as though he was a person of consequence, who mattered, so Bill became that person of consequence who mattered. If we automatically treat people as if they are deserving of respect and are intelligent, then people will reflect that back to you. The reverse is also true, of course. If you treat people like they are stupid, they will act stupid. So why do that? Give people the gift of assuming they are intelligent and have something worthwhile to say, and they will always reward you, says the Wise One, Bill Stainton.
So emulating Bill, I told him he was an idiot. No, I told him how wise I thought he was. I was expecting Bill to say that his uncle told him something like, you are amazing, and you’ll go places someday. But no, Bill’s uncle acted like Bill was already there, already had arrived. And that made an impression on a young punk kid.
We also talked about being famous. Like I said above, Bill was part of a local Seattle comedy show called, “Almost Live.” He was really famous in that market and he talked about his experiences with that minor type of fame. Like one time he was at a restaurant and went to the bathroom and neglected to wash his hands afterwards for whatever reason. Someone else had been in the bathroom and actually noticed. Next thing you know, it’s in the newspaper—“Bill Stainton Doesn’t Wash Hands in Toilet.” Another time someone just sat down at his restaurant table and started talking forever. Stuff like that.
When his fame started to wear away, he kind of missed it, while he was also kind of glad he wasn’t always getting recognized. Even though I’ve never had and never will have the kind of fame that Bill enjoyed, sometimes I do get recognized on airplanes if the entire conference I just spoke at is heading home as well. And it is kind of awkward while at the same time kind of nice. I can’t imagine being someone like Brad Pitt (or looking like Brad Pitt) enduring that kind of recognition ALL THE TIME. No thanks.
I tend to downplay any attention that I get after keynotes from kind audience members, and say gee shucks. Another great speaker, Leanne Thieman, told me that I shouldn’t be so diffident, but should accept the kind words or accolades as my due, because the audience that just invested their time into listening to what you have to say, wants you to honor that investment. They want you to be a notable authority on your subject, someone who is used to being recognized as an expert, and they want you to acknowledge their attention. She kind of took me to task for being self-deprecating.
Bill agreed with Leanne, but did pay me a nice compliment by saying that I could get away with self-deprecation more than perhaps most speakers because I come across the same on stage as I am offstage. (I said, awww, gee, thanks.) But he also thinks that we shouldn’t be so self-deprecating. He says we don’t have to say, “wow, I was amazing, wasn’t I.” But we can authentically say thank you, and accept the compliment with grace. You need to validate the complimenter by accepting their compliment.
I understand what Leeann and Bill are saying. Finally I feel that I’m hitting my stride as a funny motivational speaker. I am starting to own that part of me that is a speaker and knows what I am doing. My modesty is not “false,” if that makes sense. I think I am modest, but if people want to acknowledge my skill or my knowledge, I’m cool with that. Bill says we as speakers can recognize our skill at our craft and acknowledge that without being assholes or arrogant. It’s just part of our maturity in the business that we don’t have to be so insecure about our skills anymore. One good thing about “maturing” (or getting old) I guess.
Bill also says that if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us it’s that we need entertainers, that entertainment and making people laugh, or giving them some escape, is no longer frivolous or inconsequential. We need it for our mental health, for our sanity. And many entertainers are also putting more of a texture into their craft, by marrying entertainment with a message they truly believe in. And this is important for our audiences also. Which is why the term “funny motivational speaker” is really accurate. We are gifted with the ability to make people laugh while also making people think.
Bill is an amateur magician which is another reason I really like him. He told me once that as magicians it was “our duty” to perform the art, to use the skill that we have worked so hard to develop. It’s really a gift to others to to provide that entertainment to others. Although he has a great tip: don’t do magic on a first date. That tends to be a mistake unless the person you’re taking out is a magic enthusiast.
Bill and I also traded war stories about keynotes that we’ve done in the past, and about having to reinvent ourselves as virtual motivational speakers, meaning we are now funny motivational speakers on Zoom. Talk about a hard gig—trying to be funny in front of an audience where half of them have their video cameras off and the other half show empty chairs. It’s really hard to get the energy flowing in front of a video screen. That’s why comic specials are always in front of a live audience.
An interesting point that Bill made was that prior to the pandemic, most people looked to video conferencing for training purposes, videos that taught people certain skills. So it was hard for those of us who used our on-stage presence to make a living. We had to pivot to figure out what value we actually could add to a video presentation. Again, it’s hard to be funny without a live audience to play off of. He noted that it will be a difficult reentry when we do start to work again live. Will audiences be receptive or nervous? Will they be too spread out to get the energy going? Will they be too freaked out to really enjoy themselves. And will we, the speakers, even remember what we’re supposed to be doing. Or even how to pack our suitcases, he says.
It was such a delight to speak with funny motivational speaker, Bill Stainton. Check out his webpage: billstainton.com He’s the real deal.