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Embracing the power of “No” and storytelling with keynote speaker, author, and actor Rob Biesenbach

By On Top of PR

On Top of PR podcast: The power of “No” and storytelling with guest Rob Biesenbach and show host Jason Mudd episode graphic

In this episode, guest Rob Biesenbach, keynote speaker, author, and retired actor, and host Jason Mudd discuss the power of saying “No,” the importance of storytelling, how to become a keynote speaker, and challenges keynote speakers face. Rob worked in corporate communications by day and began a secondary career of acting at night. From there, he launched his keynote speaking business and has been teaching people the lessons he learned from acting and improv and how to implement them into corporate communications and business.


Tune into this episode to learn how to implement improv and stage presence into your career as well as the power of saying “No” and the importance of storytelling.


Watch the episode here


5 things you’ll learn during the full episode:

  1. The power behind saying “No” to invitations
  2. Tips on how to say “No”
  3. Lessons learned in corporate communications from acting and improv
  4. How to become a keynote speaker and the challenges speakers currently face
  5. How to get better at storytelling and how to access free storytelling tools


Disclosure: One or more of the links we share here might be affiliate links that offer us a referral reward when you buy from them.


[01:50] Don’t confuse an invitation with an opportunity

  • Many PR professionals struggle with saying “No” because they want to take advantage of “all the opportunities.”
  • Overextending yourself does no one any good.

Rob: “Just because you get invited, doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

[03:40] Ask yourself, “Is it worth my time?”

  • Come up with questions to use as a checklist to help you decide whether to say yes or no to invitations.
  • Examples:
    • “Will this be a good opportunity to help me advance my company or grow my business in some way?
    • Will I get to meet the kinds of people who can help me grow my business?
    • Will I learn something that's really important to my business?
    • Will I be making a difference in doing good?

[04:57] Consequences of saying “Yes”

  • You don’t have extra hours to devote to this invitation. 
  • That means you have to give somewhere, which means taking time from family, fitness, yourself, etc.
  • It also means that when you give up your time in this situation, you aren’t giving it your all, and that doesn’t make you feel good, either.

[06:28] Tips for saying “No”

  • Treat people like humans and be kind; however, be assertive and clear.

Rob: “So when you're turning down an opportunity to say, you know: ‘This is a great cause’ or ‘This is a great, this is really important, I would love to contribute, but right now I have these other responsibilities. And if I took this on, I wouldn't be able to take care of those.’”

[07:49] Rob Biesenbach’s experience at Second City

  • Rob is officially retired from theater, acting, and all other things from his second career.
  • Although, he said he learned a lot through his stage career that he could use in his communications career. That’s where his business spiraled from and led to keynote speeches, workshops, and much more.

Rob: “I was just yearning for something a little more creative in my life, and so I signed up for classes at Second City here in Chicago. I started doing improv and sketch, and just from there, it just blossomed. I went all-in.”

Rob: “By day, I was this communications guy. And by night and weekends, I was a performer. And it was probably one of the most enriching experiences I've ever had.”

[10:47] Lessons in corporate communication learned from Second City

  • Rob learned the importance of storytelling from acting, theater, and improv./li>
  • Rob learned about presentation skills from being onstage.
    • How you stand and face the crowd to bring energy and confidence into the room

[12:24] Storytelling

Rob: “Storytelling has become an industry in and of itself.”

[14:11] The “acting approach” to corporate communications

  • Acting provided Rob with a lot of principles he had “already tuned into” and put into action.
  • It was once he put those principles into the framework of acting and then brought them down to real life that he noticed how effective they are in the workplace.

[15:11] Advice on how to become a keynote speaker

  • You need to be “laser focused” and fit in a well developed niche.
  • It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

Rob: “You have to know who your buyers are, and you have to know what you're offering. What is the problem you're out there addressing, and how are you going to address it among other things?”

[16:39] How to find your niche as a keynote speaker

  • Start with what you know! What are you good at?
  • Write out a manifesto, and from there it could become a platform or series of speeches.
  • Go with audiences that you know. Ask organizations you belong to or companies you know well and offer your services for free.  

[18:09] Challenges of being a paid keynote speaker

  • It's all about growth. Go from one level to the next.
  • You need a good marketing package.
    • Headshots
    • Videos
    • Marketing materials

[19:13] The speaking situation: Are keynote speakers more virtual or in person?

  • Rob has done purely virtual speeches since early March 2020.
  • In-person speeches are happening more, but virtual is still popular.
  • There is uncertainty about what’s next and where things will go for keynote speakers.
  • Virtual keynote speeches have their ups and downs, but they save money and time for speakers. 

[22:26] Free storytelling toolkit

Rob: “One of the most important stories that anyone can tell is the story of who they are.”


About Rob Biesenbach

Rob Biesenbach is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, and author. Oh, and did we mention a retired actor? Rob has not only built himself a successful career in corporate communications and started his own business, but he took classes at Second City, where he learned how to act and do improv. Rob joined as a guest to share more about storytelling, presentation, how to say “No,” and much more!


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- Hello, and welcome to On Top Of PR. I'm your host, Jason Mudd. Today, I'm joined with Rob Biesenbach. Rob is somebody I've gotten to know over the years through the Public Relations Society of America. Rob, welcome to the show.


- Thanks, Jason. Thanks for having me.


- Well, we're glad to have you. I'm glad to be here and glad that we got connected on this. So truth be told, as I mentioned earlier, we've known each other for, I think since we first met in Puerto Rico at the PRSA conference there. If it wasn't Puerto Rico, it might've been Key West.


- Key West.


- Yeah, there we go. Either way, you were a great keynote speaker there, and we became connected on LinkedIn, and then recently saw an article you wrote in an industry magazine and I said to Darby, “Let's get Rob on the show.” So, welcome.


- Glad to be here.


- So I think initially we're going to talk about embracing the power of no, but you have so much knowledge and information. We'll probably pivot and talk more about storytelling and many other things. But you know, as I kind of set the table for this conversation – there's been a lot of studies that have said the PR profession is one of the most stressful professions you can be in. So I'm always mindful of kind of guiding my team through those stressful days and stressful moments and making sure they've got a purpose and why they choose to practice and be in the public relations profession. But one of my secrets for enjoying less stress is definitely embracing the power of saying “No.” And so I thought for our audience of other PR professionals, marketing professionals, let's talk about embracing the power of “No.” And Rob, why don't I turn it over to you to kind of set the table a little bit about that?


- Sure. Well, I think the headline to it all is: Don't confuse an invitation for an opportunity. Just because you get asked to serve on some committee or task force or even take on an assignment at work or a volunteer effort in the community, just because you get invited doesn't mean that you have to do it. And I think our instinct, you know, we're hardworking people in PR, like, “Yes. Yes, I can. I can take care of that no problem.” And then what happens is, well, it all leads to that stress, as you just talked about. It's a very stressful occupation because I think people overextend themselves unnecessarily.


- Yeah, I completely agree, and I love your comment about “Don't think of an invitation as an opportunity,” but also maybe not every invitation is an obligation, right? You have the opportunity to simply say “No,” and especially with our busy schedules and personal life and things like that. So, yeah, for sure. My little anecdote is when the great recession hit, we started realizing that we had a lot of activity but not a lot of strategy behind our own marketing for our own agency. And so one of the things we did was just eliminate. Eliminate a lot of the stuff we were doing, a lot of the busywork or networking events we were going to, and suddenly my team and I found ourselves with a lot more free time, right, to enjoy life and to get out and be involved in our family and community in a different way. And actually that brought renewed energy and enthusiasm and creativity to the workplace. So I'm a big believer in, it's easy to have … a lot of activity and no strategy. And part of that is embracing the power of “No.”


- Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's all about what are your core priorities? And if you're asked to do something, you should ask yourself – everyone should have a set of questions they ask themselves. For me, it's: “Will this be a good opportunity to help me advance my business or grow my business in some way? Will I get to meet the kinds of people who can help me grow my business? Will I learn something that's really important to my business?” And of course, there's also the question of, “Will I be making a difference in doing good?” Ideally, you find something that will tick most of those boxes. But I think very often, we choose to help out in a way because just to help because it feels good, it's the right thing to do, but it doesn't tick any of those strategic boxes. And I don't know too many people who have a lot of extra time on their hands. Why not focus on those things that are really going to make a difference, not just for the community or for the project, but for yourself.


- And so that might include perhaps making sure: Does this align with our mission and vision? Does it align with our core values? Does it align with my personal core values? You know, is it a priority compared to my family, hobbies, and profession? I would imagine as well.


- Yeah, I mean, you think about all the things already on your plate, you're going to maybe add another one. OK. If you don't have an extra several hours a week to devote to this, what are you going to cut back on? You're going to cut back on family time, fitness, work priorities, your other obligations, your clients? It's, you know, something's gotta give. And what I find is sometimes people get into roles – and this has happened to me. You get into a role, you volunteer for something and you just can't give it your best. And I think it's nothing worse than being stuck in a role that you know you're not living up to your potential. It makes you feel bad and it doesn't help the organization that you're volunteering with.


- Yeah, one thing I do every year around the end of the year towards December, I really start looking at where am I involved and what are my commitments, and which of those do I want to continue? And that's based on, one, do I feel like I'm adding value? Two, do I feel like I'm getting value? And three, do I feel like the organization is advancing, right? The nonprofit I might be volunteering with or stuff like that. And there's been boards where I've served on for years and I feel like we're still at the same point we were when I first joined the board, and whether that's my fault or just the momentum in the organization itself. And so, you know, that's kind of the way I figure out how to say “No” is just say, you know, “Hey, I'm not going to be involved in this organization next year and pursuing some other interest,” and the like. So what tips do you have for saying “No” or anecdotals, Rob, where you have maybe politely exited out or just said “No”?


- Yeah, apparently I'm really good at saying no. I remember one time I–


- [Jason] At least you said yes to this interview.


- Yeah, yeah, there you go. I once had to turn down some job candidates. I picked a certain candidate that was interviewing people for a job, and one person wrote back, that was the nicest rejection letter I've ever received. So I think it's about treating people like humans, being sensitive, but also being assertive. So when you're turning down an opportunity to say, you know, this is a great cause or this is a great, this is really important, I would love to contribute, but right now I have these other responsibilities. And if I took this on, I wouldn't be able to take care of those.


- Right. Nor be a good participant in whatever you're being asked to do, I think, is the way to look at that also. Now, Rob, it just dawned on me because we're friendly, I forgot to kind of formally introduce you with your great bio here, so. You're a keynote speaker and award-winning communications consultant, and this is the cool part, a Second City trained actor. And of course you are a, there you go, in the background. If you're watching the video, you can see some of that. You've also worked with great organizations like ARP, Allstate, and Coca-Cola in your career. Tell us about your experience at Second City.


- Oh, it was great. Early 2000s, I was just yearning for something a little more creative in my life, and so I signed up for classes at Second City here in Chicago. I started doing improv and sketch, and just from there, it just blossomed. I went all-in. Screenwriting, sketch-writing, playwriting. I went on to theater, theater dramatic and comic, commercials. So I really, I had a whole second career. By day, I was this communications guy. And by night and weekends, I was a performer. And it was probably one of the most enriching experiences I've ever had.


- So second career through Second City, I like it. Are you doing anything like that actively today?


- No, I officially retired a few years ago because I just, my schedule got too busy. I stopped doing theater because that's, that could be 30, 50, 60 hours a week. I just stuck to the commercials, but even that was too much cutting back my time, so.


- Sure, sure.


- But the great thing is, I went in with the idea of this will be creative, this'll be fun. Maybe I'll have a career in comedy. I don't know. What it ended up happening was I realized that everything I was learning and doing onstage and in front of the camera could be applied directly to my business career. So that became the whole basis of my business going forward over a decade ago, that using lessons from the world of performance to help people perform better on the job and in the marketplace. And that led to keynotes, workshops, consulting, all the rest, books.


- Yeah, so one thing we try to do once a year is have some kind of improv workshop where our team, you know, we're spread kind of across the U.S., so we try to get people that are in the same city to get together and do some improv workshops together just to kind of learn how to yes and, and how to improvise. It's not officially one of our core values, but I talk about that on a weekly basis. Like, well, we'll just have to improvise. And so, as you know, getting people on stage and in a role where they're kind of practicing, whether it's in a conference room or just together having fun is a great way to help them obviously improvise and think quickly on their feet and lead to more creativity in my experience as well. And so that's something that we do on the regular, and I highly encourage other marketing corporate communications departments to bring in a improv coach or trainer and have those sessions. And we use those as warmups for our brainstorming sessions and things like that. Rob, in your experience, how have you taken what you learned at Second City and being a keynote speaker, how have you applied that to your corporate communications profession?


- Well, first, one of my most popular programs is storytelling, and I wrote a book, "Unleash the Power of Storytelling," and that's one of my, that and presentation skills, are the two biggest programs that clients demand. And so the storytelling comes from just the training I got at Second City and studying the way stories work on stage and on film and all the rest. So that was a big part of it. In presentation skills, I talk a lot about using your body correctly. I talk about bringing energy to a room and focus. Practice, rehearsal. So there's just tons, and my first book was "Act Like You Mean Business." It was all these lessons from the world of acting that can help you in business.


- Interesting. Well, I'll tell you what, we're going to take a quick break. And on the other side, I'd like to dig into that a little bit more, Rob.


- [Rob] Great.


- All right, we'll be right back after this message.


- [Announcer] You're listening to On Top Of PR with your host, Jason Mudd. Jason is a trusted adviser to some of America's most admired and fastest-growing brands. He is the managing partner at Axia Public Relations, a PR agency that guides news, social, and web strategies for national companies. And now, back to the show.


- Welcome back to On Top Of PR. We're joined by Rob. And Rob, we were just talking about one of your books and how you've been able to kind of give some tips and what you've learned in acting and how that can help in corporate communications. Let's run through a few of those, just a few highlights that you think would be interesting to our audience.


- Well, you know, storytelling has become an industry in and of itself. I think there's 30,000 books on Amazon on storytelling. But that's, it is core to everything we do. And so I wrote all book on the subject, and you know, I don't think I'm the world's best author, but I will say coming up on our fourth anniversary of the book, four years.


- [Jason] Congratulations.


- Thank you. December was its highest amount of sales ever. I mean, and last year, it was just off the charts.


- [Jason] That's great.


- So I think that's an indication that this is a subject of deep, deep interest to a lot of people, and it's the foundation of everything, storytelling.


- I completely agree. I think we could all be better storytellers. And we remember people who are great storytellers. My late grandfather was a great storyteller. When people remember him, they remember his great stories and the jokes he would tell and things like that, and I think people are naturally attracted to storytelling. And as we keep coaching with our clients, the better your company is about telling stories, the more interested people will be in who you are and what you do. And until you become interesting to them, you're really just kind of beating your chest and no one's necessarily listening to what you're shouting.


- Yeah, Seth Godin said logic is a battering ram. I mean, you can bury people in facts and data and evidence and all the rest, and you need that stuff. But by itself, it's not enough to persuade. You have to win hearts to change minds.


- So in your experience as an actor, how was that informed and changed your approach to corporate communications, Rob?


- It changed, well, I think it provided, it took a lot of the principles I was already tuned into. Things like keying into your audience and telling stories and developing a narrative and connecting with people and showing empathy, all of those things, but what it did, it crystallized it all for me into a framework of how to approach communications. You think about it as a performance and you take those principles and you bring them on down to the everyday in business or the workplace or the marketplace, then it all just really came together for me.


- And so if somebody who's listening, maybe they're a CEO, maybe they're a chief marketing officer and they have this vision of, or maybe they're just mid-level, junior level in marketing and PR, and they think, “I would love to make a living being a keynote speaker.” What advice would you give them just simply for getting started?


- It can be a long road. There's a lot of people out there who want to be speakers. I would say you have to have a crystal clear idea of your message. I think you have to be a superior communicator – which if you're in this industry, you are, or in this profession.


- [Jason] You should be.


- Yeah, you have to have a laser focus. You have to know who are my buyers, and you have to know what you're offering. What is the problem you're out there addressing, and how are you going to address it among other things?


- [Jason] Yeah.


- I was fortunate, I was able to leapfrog a number of steps in my speaking career, and I think it was because I had this foundation. First of all, I was already a professional communicator, so I have that down. Secondly, I spent 15 years as an executive speech writer working behind the scenes with CEOs on crafting speeches and coaching them. And third, the performance angle. So it's not just the words, not what you say, but how you say it. And so that all kind of came together, and my career accelerated pretty quickly.


- Very nice, very nice. And so, Rob, how did somebody that wants to become a keynote speaker, how do they figure out what their topic is, and how do they make sure and fine-tune that topic so it's relevant and attractive to audiences?


- Well, you start with what you're good at and what you know. I mean, my first book was really an attempt to just capture all of my experience, anecdotes, and viewpoints on the subject of communication. So I think that might be a – you don't have to write a book. Certainly not one for publication, but I would tell people, write out a manifesto. Just write out what you believe about your subject area, what you know, and what stories you have. And from there, maybe it starts to percolate and it becomes a speech, a platform, or a series of speeches. That's the first step, that's the content.


- Okay. And then, sounds like there's something else?


- Oh. Well, next, you’ve got to figure out who you're talking to. And the age-old wisdom, and it worked for me, was: You go with audiences you know. Any organization you belong to, anybody you know who belongs to an association, a volunteer group, any company, any whatever, you ask: Hey, I'd like to come and do a lunch-and-learn. I'd like to do a webinar. I'd like to do, you know, and you start for free. And you get some practice and refine it, and then you build out and then you do enough of those and you get more confident, then you start getting paid gigs.


- Nice, and then once you start getting paid gigs, what are the new challenges at that point, Rob? 'Because I'm sure it doesn't just suddenly become all downhill from there.


- Yeah. Well it's all about growth and going from one level to the next. There are certain levels of speakers, and it depends on where you want to go with it. Part of it, you’ve got to have a good marketing toolkit. You've got to, I think, keying in on your buyers and what their problems are, being able to do that. Packaging your experience. I mean, you need headshots, you need video of yourself speaking, you need marketing materials, all the rest. I remember when I first started, my goal was to do 50 speaking engagements a year. And now look at that and just think that's just, that's ridiculous. I've gotten up to maybe two dozen or 30, and that's a lot. So I decided, you know, instead of trying to do 50 speaking engagements at my then rate, just work on escalating my rates and do fewer.


- [Jason] Right.


- So, that's been a good strategy.


- Yeah, excellent. So what have you seen as far as, you know, recording this January 27th, 2022, what have you seen as far as changes in the speaking marketplace now that we're hopefully coming out of COVID and dealing with the current variant and things like that. What are you seeing as a speaker? Still a lot of virtual opportunities or are we starting to see more in person?


- Ninety-five percent of my clients are corporate or organizations, as opposed to associations. The associations have gone back to live much longer than corporations have felt comfortable doing that because that's their bread and butter, their annual conference. That's where they make their money. The companies and the organizations I work with have been much more cautious, and they've found a lot of virtue in virtual. So I have not done an in-person speech since early March of 2020, and that suits me fine. And so I think it's coming fits and starts, and I think people were feeling good, obviously last summer, last fall. And I think right now people are feeling pretty whipsaw. They're like, OK, are we back to square one? What's next? And people just don't know. And I think last year was all about, I had my best year ever because I think everybody said, we're doing virtual, that's it. This year, I think people are really uncertain about where things are going to go.


- Yeah, yeah. I'm kind of the same way too, you know? I would think by now, we'd be a long way out of it. I hope by summer we're encouraging more in-person-type activities. But from a productivity standpoint, I'm not on an airplane as much as I used to be, right? I'm not expected to be in person for meetings as much as I used to be. So I feel like I'm getting twice as much done, and, you know, just battling through it like everyone else. And you said you had a great year last year. We had a great year last year as well. And there's a lot of business to be had and the economic reports that just came out yesterday and today are showing significant economic more than recovery. Economic growth beyond what it was like before the pandemic even set in. So those are all good signs, I would say.


- Yeah, and you know, I think when done right and well, virtual can be every bit as good as in person, and with all the advantages of easier to get people together, saving money, and all the rest. There are certain things that are much better live, but technology has come a long way, and it's continuing to advance where, you know, if we're looking at, if the metaverse is something, then maybe we'll all just be avatars at some big virtual conference somewhere. I don't know.


- Yeah, who would've thought that Bruce Willis movie "Surrogates" years ago, we'd be so close to that being possibly true with the metaverse that's coming live, so.


- That's right.


- Yeah, I had to rewatch that movie recently just because I remember it so well and thinking in the pandemic months or years that we almost feel like surrogates in some way, especially with this whole chatter of the metaverse being the new thing, so. Rob, this's been a great conversation. I understand that you are offering our audience a free storytelling toolkit that they can download. Tell us more about that.


- Oh yeah. One of the most important stories that anyone can tell is the story of who they are. What happens is, time and again when I go to meetings and people introduce themselves, we're terrible at it. It's what I call alphabet soup syndrome. It's just this recitation of their LinkedIn profile. Every job, title, organization, location, year, date, number. It's data, and it doesn't stick. It doesn't help you stand out. So everybody needs to learn their story. So I have a storytelling toolkit. It's Chapter 13, you get Chapter 13 of the book as well as some worksheets with examples of people's stories and a process that you can go through to build your story. And I know we'll drop a link in the show notes, but it's robbiesenbach.com/storytoolkit. But yeah, it's going to be much easier, especially spelling my name, if people just follow the link.


- Yes, we will be sure to put a link to that in the episode notes, Rob, as well as a link to your book that you mentioned earlier and any other resources that might be helpful based on the conversation we've had here today. Rob, I want to thank you for joining us on On Top Of PR. It's been a pleasure to reconnect with you. I look forward to seeing you speak live in the near future. Hopefully at a great venue that's much warmer than what we're experiencing right now in late January. And if our audience wants to get ahold of you directly, how do they best do that?


- It's all on my website. If you can spell my name, you can find me. There's only one Rob Biesenbach. B-I-E-S-E-N-B-A-C-H, or connect with me on LinkedIn or check out my YouTube channel. Those are the primary places where they can find me.


- Well, Rob, that sounds great. We'll also post a video version of this on YouTube as well. Appreciate you joining us, and like I said, look forward to seeing you soon, and it's always a pleasure.


- Great, thank you so much, Jason. Have a great day or evening.


- Thanks, Rob. And so this has been another episode of On Top Of PR. Thank you for tuning in. If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend or colleague who would benefit from it, and we just appreciate you and your support of On Top Of PR. Be well.


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About your host Jason Mudd

On Top of PR host, Jason Mudd, is a trusted adviser and dynamic strategist for some of America’s most admired brands and fastest-growing companies. Since 1994, he’s worked with American Airlines, Budweiser, Dave & Buster’s, H&R Block, Hilton, HP, Miller Lite, New York Life, Pizza Hut, Southern Comfort, and Verizon. He founded Axia Public Relations in July 2002. Forbes named Axia as one of America’s Best PR Agencies.


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