How to Set Better Goals so You Can Grow Your Speaking Business with Jon Acuff [Transcript]

Table of Contents

Grant Baldwin 

Hey, what’s up, friends? Grant Baldwin here. Welcome back to The Speaker Lab Podcast. Good to have you here with us today. Today I’m joined by one of my good friends, Mr. Jon Acuff. Glad you’re here, man. 

So a couple of things we’re going to be talking about. One is you’ve got a new book coming out that I want to touch on. It’s called, All It Takes is a Goal. You are a phenomenal, phenomenal writer. You’ve written and published several books. But as it relates to this topic of All it Takes is a Goal, I’d be curious to hear a bit more for you, especially like when you got started in speaking, there’s a lot of speakers in that same spot going like, “I have a goal to become a speaker.” Which sounds nice, but how do you break that down from a practical standpoint? Because speaking, as you well know, is such an aspirational thing that so many people want to do.

You get hit up all the time. “Hey, I want to do what you do, man. Just tell me what to do.” So how do we break that down into a goal-oriented process of what it takes to become a speaker?

What does goal setting look like when you want to become a speaker?

Jon Acuff

I think about goals like a ladder. Imagine a ladder where one vertical rung is time and one is effort. And if you said to somebody, “Hey, Grant, I want you to get to the top of that 14-foot tall ladder. You have two options. You can jump and try to grab the 14-foot tall rung and do a pull up, and it’s essentially touching the top of a backboard in basketball. Or you can start at the bottom and start climbing deliberately, slowly, intelligently until you get to it. Which one would you do?” You would say, okay, well, I’m going to do that bottom thing. 

It’s the same with goals. You start with something easy. You work your way up to something, what I call a “middle goal,” and then eventually a “guaranteed goal.” So an easy goal with speaking is going to find somewhere free that you can speak. A keynote is top of the ladder. I’m going to do a keynote for Range Rover. Awesome. I think you can do that. I think that’s amazing. That’s a great goal. I don’t think that’s going to be the first six months. I don’t think that’s going to be the first year. But can I find a place where I can speak for free? Can I find an organization? Maybe the middle goal is like, can I find a breakout at a bigger event that they’ll let me do? Can I find a breakout spot? And you start to do it that way. 

The challenge is we often see people when they’re toward the top of the ladder. I interviewed my former boss from Dave Ramsey, a guy named Bill Hampton. He lives in Franklin. And he was saying, “Jon, I love getting to see where you are now, but I remember where you were. I remember you in Effingham, Illinois, like, Super Bowl Sunday at the Ramada, and there’s 14 people.” And so a lot of times those things, we don’t see them. We see the after. And so we think, I’ve got to get to the after.

So with speaking, I think about it like, what’s an easy goal I can turn into a middle goal that I can turn into a guaranteed goal? By “guaranteed,” I mean, I just did a podcast with somebody. Their concept is “1,000 hours outside.” And it’s brilliant and it’s so well done. They’ve got over half a million Instagram followers, and we are saying if you spend 1,000 hours outside in a year with your family, you’re going to be more connected to your family. That’s a guarantee. There’s no surprise of like, yeah, it’s weird. If I work out 100 times this year and I did zero times last year, I’m guaranteed to be in better shape. If I write an hour a day, if I practice speaking, I’m guaranteed to be a better speaker. That’s what I mean by “guaranteed.”

I really look at it as a process, but that first step is, can I get some content? Can I get some contacts? Can I get some free engagements where I can get some reps and then build from there?

Grant Baldwin

So a lot of times we look at speakers who are near the top or approaching the top of that ladder and go, I want to be there. And thinking that even if we’ve had some type of success or some type of accomplishment or achievement outside of the speaking world, we think that for some reason, we can skip a bunch of rungs and I can just do a running start. I can jump to rung seven and be halfway there when in reality, it doesn’t often work like that. I know today that you are an incredibly successful speaker. You do really well. I’ve shared this with you. Like, you’re one of the best speakers I’ve seen live and in-person.

You are very phenomenal at what it is that you do. But I also recognize, having known you for many, many years as a friend and from afar, that you’ve put in a lot of work and a lot of effort, and it wasn’t like you just woke up someday and had some magical golden ticket that nobody else had. So what was that early part like for you?

Where did your speaking journey start?

Jon Acuff 

Yeah, so I found a piece of paper the other day, like a contract from one of my early gigs, and I got paid $800 and I had to fly from Atlanta to San Diego and speak twice, and I was thrilled. But there’s this thing where when you’re doing it, there’s definitely moments where you’re frustrated. You want better, faster progress. But a lot of those moments, I didn’t even know I should feel frustrated. I was just so thrilled to get to do it. I love it so much that I was like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I get to do this. So a lot of the pain of it you kind of get numb to because the joy is so fun.

But I want to touch on what you said. That’s a great point where if you’ve had success in another field, you don’t get to skip rungs. I remember a guy who retired, a top salesman at a huge multibillion dollar company. He saw me speak and called me and was like, “Hey, I want to do what you do.” I was like, okay. And I started to kind of walk him through the process, and you could tell he was furious because he was the top of one ladder. He just thought, “No, I’m just going to lean from the top of this ladder, over this other ladder.”

I didn’t tell him this because he was definitely not in a spot where he could receive feedback. I wanted to be like, dude, no one’s heard of you. You’re the top of your company ladder, but in every other company, no one’s ever heard of you. And that’s not failure. You just haven’t done the thing.

So it’s going to take some time to create some content, to create some buzz, to create some community, to create some and so you go, “Nah, I did this other thing.” It’s kind of like if you’ve ever seen an NFL player who sucks at announcing. They do it for like three games and you never hear from them again. And you’re like, “But I thought he played in the NFL for ten years. He’s a hall of famer.” Yeah, it turns out performing in a game and commenting on a game are very different crafts. And he thought, “Nah, dude, I throw touchdowns. I know how to break down a game and do color commentary.” No, you don’t.

You have a chance to engage in that with humility and work on it and put in the reps and the effort, or it just falls apart. And so I remember so many times where I would go and again, it would be low-fee, small audience, maybe new content, and I’d put together my own slides, and it was me learning how to do it. And whether there’s five people in there or 500, I have to give my best. 

Now, you don’t give the same presentation. I don’t like when somebody acts like it’s a stadium and there’s only five people. I don’t think that’s honest to the moment. It’s better to circle the wagons. Man, I remember I spoke at the college I attended, and I thought in my head it was going to be like Dead Poets Society. I thought I was going to come back as an alumni New York Times bestseller, and all these students were going to stand up on their desks when I was done and be like, “Oh captain, my captain.” Dude, it was a Friday afternoon. It was a sunny Friday afternoon at like, 3:00 p.m..

I wouldn’t have gone to hear me on a Friday afternoon and for no credit, out of the goodness of my heart. And so there were like 80 chairs set up, and I think four people came. So I still tried to really serve those four people, but I didn’t act like 1,000 people were there and do a full keynote in that style. I sat down, we did a roundtable, I asked a bunch of questions of them and vice versa. 

So, yeah, there’s a lot of moments like that where I look back and go, man, that one where that was hard. That was challenging. It was good for the ego. It was good for me and I always tell people, at least in this industry, in my opinion, you don’t arrive, in the sense of when I go speak at a big event, 99% of the time, they’ve never heard of me. I’m trying. I’m writing books. And I’m putting stuff out. I heard Bill Burr, this comedian, say there’s home games and away games, and a home game is when you sell tickets to your event, and an away game is every other game. Ninety-nine percent of my job is away games.

Now I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy going into a room that doesn’t expect to laugh, that maybe has never heard of me. And I’m like, oh, we’re going to have a fun time. We’re going to really enjoy this. Like, if I do my job really well, the sound guy is going to lean in. The sound guy is going to buy a book. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I got off stage. The sound guy was like, “Well, I ordered your book while you were talking.” And if you can win the jaded sound guy over at the JW Marriott who’s heard every presentation, then you’re like, let’s do it. 

So now I have that mentality of like, I don’t feel like I’ve arrived because most of the time I step into a room, they’ve never heard of me. I don’t have any home games. I really don’t. They’re all away games but like, I love to play on the road. Let’s go. So that’s how I kind of think about it.

Grant Baldwin 

Well, sticking with the sports analogy, I always think about Michael Jordan the basketball player and Michael Jordan the baseball player.

Jon Acuff

Jordan the basketball player and the business owner. He’s been a terrible owner of the Bobcats. He drafted Kwame Brown, he was terrible. He was the one that drafted Kwame Brown or whatever, and you’re like, that guy was a bust. Turns out Jordan isn’t great at everything because he’s human.

Grant Baldwin

So for someone who’s had some level of success in whatever their career or whatever element of life and they go, “I want to become a speaker,” is the biggest necessity to start back at the first couple rungs there of setting that goal? 

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Does everyone have to start at the bottom of the ladder?

Jon Acuff

No, I think it’s a mix. So I think you take as much as you can from your previous success. So I’m not saying to discount that. A lot of times when speakers or people who want to be speakers will say, “Hey, I’ve been a successful doctor, and I did it,” I’ll go, that’s amazing. You have 80% of the things you need. That’s amazing. Let’s make sure we bring those. And so you don’t discount that.

But it’s this tension of bringing that expertise, but then also going, okay, I might have been on stage for my company. I’m the CEO of a hospital. I might have been on stage for my company every year for ten years. So then when I go to try to speak to Nissan, and they give me a breakout in a small room, that’s not failure. That’s the rung I’m on. Cool. I’m going to work my way up that ladder with my expertise. 

I think you could climb the ladder faster when you’re an expert at something else already. Like, you and I have seen that – former athletes climb the ladder faster. People that have done other things climb the ladder faster. But I think it’s about setting your expectations.

I think it’s about setting the reality. I think it’s about putting in the work, about thinking about the client, outperforming what their expectations are. So I think it’s just this huge mix. I mean, humility is in there, but if you’re already a high performer, you’re probably already going to have the willpower to get up the ladder. You just have to decide, is it worth the time and the effort? And for me, speaking is. I think it’s the best career in the world. You and I talk about that all the time. I think it’s the greatest career in the world. And so I think the people listening to this, if you’re thinking about joining the greatest industry, yeah, let’s go. It’s the best. I love it.

Grant Baldwin 

When setting a goal, how can someone keep the balance between what is realistic and what is not? Whether it comes to speaking, whatever it may be, because there’s going to be people who are listening, going, “I want to be a $50,000 keynote speaker.” Some of them will have the skill set, the ability, the name, check the boxes, enough things, and they can get there. Other speakers, like, for the topic or for their skill set or for their background or for whatever it may be, they’re just not going to be a $50,000 speaker in the same way that you and I, as much as we may love some sport, we’re not going to be professional athletes. We’re just not. And so how do you balance, okay, I want to set a goal, but also not set myself up for failure?

How do you avoid setting yourself up for failure?

Jon Acuff 

Well, I’m writing the best books I can. I’ve sold 867,000 books. Like, I’m working my way toward a million. But I know I probably will never be a $250,000 speaker because I’m not a celebrity. There’s a celebrity ceiling in what we do. There is. So if I had directed a movie, if I was in a movie, whatever. In the same way, do you think George Clooney is a tequila expert? Of course not. Did he sell a tequila company for a billion dollars? Of course he did. Is Ryan Reynolds a gin expert? Like, you think he spent his whole life with floral notes of cucumber and elderberry making? Of course not. So there’s a celebrity level.

You have to make peace with that. It’d be so crazy for me to be frustrated. Imagine, because we’re friends off this podcast, if I called you, I was like, “Dude, the $250,000 offers are just not coming in. I’m furious.” You would be like, “Oh homie, I have terrible news. You don’t have access to that.” 

So I think there’s two things at play. One is, what does the content I create lead to? So if you have a niche topic, and it’s a small topic, but it’s going to really deeply help a small group of people that equates to a certain amount of money and a certain amount of events, and that’s not a bad thing. I heard this woman speak. She lost her partner in a flood and it was tragic and it was about trauma and there’s not going to be 100 companies that book that talk. But she really helped a large group of people in a trauma setting. But you wouldn’t say, “I’ve got this trauma talk. I’d like to do it at your sales kickoff.”

They’d be like, “No, thank you. That is not what we want.” We live in Nashville. There’s musicians who are like, I love playing 1840s accordion music in a modern style. Awesome. If that fills you up, awesome. But you wouldn’t go, “I’m furious. I’m not playing Bridgestone Arena. How come Taylor Swift is getting all these breaks?” She plays pop music, dude, it’s different. She’s on a different path. So I think that’s one thing. 

The second thing is I like to think about it in terms of “good, better, best.” So give yourself three ranges. So it’d be good if I got to this. It’d be better if I got to this. It would be the best if I got to this. So maybe my goal is to do four paid speaking events this year. Awesome. That’d be good. But it’d be even better if I did six. All right, great. Maybe you’ll land on six. Maybe some things will turn out and it’d be best if I did eight. So now you’ve got a range and it’s not just perfectionistic like I have to accomplish this exact thing or I’m a failure. You’ve got a little bit of a range.

I think being honest about where your path leads because the industry will tell you, a speakers bureau will tell you, the opportunities are telling you and then going, okay, here’s good, better, best, so that I have something to aim for. That’s not just singular.

Grant Baldwin

Okay, let’s shift gears for a second here. One of the things that you’ve done really, really well over the years of your career, is marrying how books fit into your speeches. And so how do you think about the blending of those two? Because sometimes there are some speakers whose books are a big part of their world. Other times they’re just like, I don’t want to write. I don’t want to mess with any of that. All I want to do is speak. Or sometimes people may have a book, but it’s kind of a separate topic or maybe a fiction topic, independent of what it is that they may speak about. How do you think about how books and speaking blend together for you?

What’s the mix of books and speaking for you?

Jon Acuff

Well, I always tell speakers that having cornerstone content, like a book, can make it easier for bureaus to book you. A book serves as a helpful tool to showcase what you talk about and adds a level of expertise, reassuring companies. However, I learned from experience with my book called Do Over, which focused on job transition, that not every topic is suitable for every audience. It was about my personal experience with job transition, and it wouldn’t make sense for me to speak about that at a corporate event.

So when I worked on my next book, I changed my approach. I asked myself, “How can I create content that would serve a corporate audience?” Instead of just thinking about my own life experiences, I considered how the content could be valuable to teams at companies like Ace Hardware or Microsoft. By doing this, I made sure to create content that would resonate with the audience I wanted to reach.

I continued this approach with my subsequent books, Finish, Soundtracks, and All It Takes is a Goal. For instance, with Soundtracks, I identified specific parts of the book that were applicable to a corporate setting and focused on those during my keynote presentations. Then, I left the remaining content for readers to enjoy in the book.

It’s crucial to strike a balance between a keynote presentation and the book’s content. Some concepts might be too complex for a keynote, and in those cases, I ensure that the book provides a more in-depth understanding. I aim to write the book with the audience in mind, making it easy for event planners or company representatives to recognize the value it brings to their teams.

Grant Baldwin

That makes a lot of sense. So, are you ever testing material during your presentations that might end up in a future book or vice versa?

Does stage content end up in books?

Jon Acuff

Absolutely! When I give a presentation and notice a particular idea or topic that resonates strongly with the audience, but it’s not yet in a book, I take note of it. I can see the audience leaning in and getting excited about it. That gives me a hint that there might be something there worth exploring further. For example, even though I have a book due in September, I’ve already started discussing content that might be part of my book a year after that.

Grant Baldwin

That’s a smart approach. It allows you to refine your content and ensure it truly connects with your audience.

Jon Acuff

Exactly. I believe that by testing material during presentations, I can refine and fine-tune it based on real-time feedback. It’s all about making sure my content serves and adds value to the corporate setting.

Grant Baldwin 

Whenever you are giving a presentation, are you ever testing material that would end up in a book or vice versa?

Jon Acuff 

One hundred percent, dude. If I’m at an event and I share an idea from a stage that’s not in a book, and it really gets a response and the client brings it up later and I can really see the audience lean in, I’m like, “Oh, there might be something there.” I’ve got a book due in the fall, in September, but I’ve got another book a year after, and I’ve already started to talk about that content. I want the book to be the final thing, not the first thing. Books are good when you’ve got good stories, good interactions, you’ve tested the material, and then you finally put it in a book.

I think books are thin and not helpful when you go, “I hope this idea works. I had it in my office. I’ve never shown it to the light of day. I’ve never tested it with real audiences,” because they’ll immediately poke holes in it. And so, yeah, I’m now kind of saying, “Okay, this was helpful. It’s worth a book.” The book is the final thing. I’m still talking about Finish. And Finish came out six years ago. The book lives for a long time, so I want to make the ideas as good as they can be inside the book.

Grant Baldwin 

You mentioned two different analogies that describe how content is presented in books and speeches. One analogy is that of a band releasing an album and then touring with it, while the other is that of a comedian touring and testing material before releasing a special. It seems like you follow a hybrid approach. You test a percentage of the material during your speeches, but once the book is released, you focus entirely on that content. Could you elaborate on this process?

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Jon’s approach to stage content and book writing.

Jon Acuff 

Yes, it’s a bit of a hybrid approach. I do test a portion of the material during my speeches, maybe around 10% to 20% of the book’s ideas. However, once the book is available, I shift to talking about it 100% during my keynote presentations. The testing phase helps me fine-tune the content and see how the audience responds to specific ideas. Then, when the book is out, I want to be fully prepared to discuss it thoroughly during my presentations. The goal is to have the audience engaged and curious about the book, so they would want to know more and feel served by the content I present.

Grant Baldwin

That makes sense. It’s essential to have enough material available once the book is released, so the audience can continue their engagement with your ideas. Do you find that you have separate keynotes for each of your books, or do you adapt them based on the current book you’re promoting?

Jon Acuff

I have separate keynotes for each of my books. For instance, I have one focused on handling change based on my book, Do Over. Then, I have keynotes centered around Finish, Soundtracks, and now All It Takes Is A Goal. However, I can also mix in some elements from other books if they fit the moment or if the content complements the main focus. So, if a client asks for multiple speeches, I can give them individual talks, but I may blend elements if it suits the occasion and helps them get the most out of my presentations.

Grant Baldwin

When you’re presenting on stage, how do you decide which material makes it into the book?

Jon Acuff

If I find that certain ideas or stories consistently resonate with the audience and receive positive responses during my presentations, I consider including them in the book. It’s essential to ensure that the material translates well from the stage to the written form. Some content may work great on stage due to my personality and delivery style, but it might not translate as effectively to written text. So, I focus on selecting the most impactful and applicable material that will benefit readers and make sure it fits seamlessly into the book’s structure.

Grant Baldwin

That’s a smart approach. Condensing and refining content for the book ensures that it’s engaging and impactful for readers. On the topic of writing, you mentioned that you write out your speeches in full and even have them transcribed. For speakers looking to turn their speech content into a book, what advice would you give them?

Jon Acuff

If you already have written out speeches, that’s a great starting point. You can begin by chunking the main points into chapters and then developing them further. Another approach is to get audio recordings of your speeches and have them transcribed. This can help you see how the content could be structured as chapters in a book. Don’t start from scratch; utilize the content you already have and expand upon it to create chapters, conclusions, and introductions. If you’re unsure of how to proceed, I recommend checking out Jeff Goins, who specializes in helping people with the book-writing process.

Grant Baldwin 

That’s great advice. Utilizing existing content can save a lot of time and serve as a strong foundation for the book. On a related note, we’ve discussed the option of using a ghostwriter. For some speakers who are not passionate about writing or don’t have the time, having a ghostwriter can be a viable option. What are your thoughts on ghostwriting?

What about ghostwriting?

Jon Acuff 

I fully support ghostwriting. Many successful books have been ghostwritten, and it doesn’t diminish the value or authenticity of the author’s message. Just like how Phil Knight had a ghostwriter for Shoe Dog, it doesn’t make him any less of a successful CEO of Nike. The most important thing is delivering valuable content to the audience. If writing is not your strong suit or passion, don’t hesitate to collaborate with a ghostwriter who can help you craft a compelling book that reflects your ideas and expertise. It’s all about creating a book that serves your audience and adds value to their lives.

Grant Baldwin

Absolutely, focusing on delivering valuable content is key. Let’s talk about your new book, All It Takes is a Goal. Could you tell us more about the book and the benefits of preordering it?

What’s Jon’s new book?

Jon Acuff 

All It Takes is a Goal is a book that delves into tapping into one’s full potential. The idea came to me while I was taking my daughter to college, reflecting on my college experience, and feeling a sense of regret for not fully embracing my potential during that time. The book offers practical and tactical strategies for setting and achieving goals, ensuring readers can tap into their untapped potential. Preordering the book comes with fantastic bonuses, including a free audiobook, posters, and a signed bookplate. The audiobook includes additional bonus stories, and it’s an energetic, humorous performance that will make your listening experience enjoyable. So, if you want to unlock your potential and receive valuable bonuses, be sure to preorder All It Takes is a Goal at


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