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Say Something Entertainment: Pitching For Engagement with Kevin Hekmat
Our guest is Kevin Hekmat, who is a talent manager and Founder of Say Something Entertainment, which is best known for managing internationally recognized poet, IN-Q, and New York Times bestselling author and speaker, Cal Fussman. Kevin represents artists who changed the way audiences look at their lives. Say Something is built on the idea that inspirational entertainment can bring the most powerful perspective shift, whether through live shows, keynotes, poetry or podcasts. Kevin has brought this idea to dozens of Fortune 500 companies including teams at Facebook, Google, Lululemon, Nike, General Motors and many more. Kevin, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
I always like to ask my guests to take us back to their own story of origin. You can go back as far as you want. Childhood, school or whatever where you first started saying, “I think I want to get into talent management where I want to be involved with the creative arts.” How did you get to where you are now?
I grew up in Los Angeles. It goes back to my parents. My mom is a piano teacher. She has a piano school and my dad is a dentist. I grew up playing piano and grew up doing musical theater in high school. To be honest, it was never that I was the best artist in the class, that I was a great singer. I enjoyed the arts a lot. As time progressed and I started thinking about what I wanted to do, it became a question of, “Is there something in entertainment, in that world that I can see myself doing and living?” I didn’t want to be an artist and I was looking at all the options. Growing up in LA, a lot of options, a lot of people that I grew up with are doctors, lawyers and more traditional jobs in that way. All I knew is that I didn’t want to do that. I knew from a very early age that I didn’t want to go to medical school or get a law degree. Outside of that, I was looking at the options. I was looking at music, entertainment and I traveled for several months after I graduated from college, solo backpacking through Southeast Asia to really figure out what I liked and what I enjoyed myself. Before that, I had started doing a lot of the more motivational, inspirational speaker world.Value is not something you own, it is something you bring. Click To Tweet
I was drawn to a Tony Robbins event when I was in college and that shifted my perspective. He has an incredible personality. If you go to one of his live events, outside of anything he even says, his ability to shift people’s perspectives and experience in a day or a four-day period of time is powerful. That energy he has on stage and the way he takes you on this emotional journey, a very logical journey through your own life and do what you want to do in your own life. When I went traveling, I went deeper in my own enjoyment, my own passion, one through traveling but also through meditation, through mindfulness. It was my first real dive into that world at the end of the trip. I had never meditated before, but I was curious about it and I did a ten-day silent meditation retreat. I thought it would be a fun idea, “It’ll be a great time. I’ll learn how to meditate.” Little did I know it would be one of the most intense and raw experiences of completely taking away any distractions, any stimulations that we normally have in our everyday lives with phone, music, TV, conversations with friends or strangers, going internal and sitting with your thoughts and learning how to be with your own thoughts.
When I came back completely, coincidentally that same month, I met both IN-Q and Cal completely separately. I had been to one of IN-Q shows. A friend invited me and another friend of mine named Alex Banayan, one of my closest friends growing up. I had met Cal that same month because Alex is writing a book called The Third Door and Cal started helping Alex write that book. The same month I met both of them, it took me a little longer to start working with Cal. Cal and I were friends, Cal was helping out with the book. I would see him every couple of months and I sit down for coffee or lunch with them. Hear about some of the stories that you heard on the podcast with Gorbachev and Ali. I was on the edge of my seat, “Who is this guy with these incredible stories in this incredible life experience?” He traveled for ten years earlier in his life, without a home from city to city across the world. At first, I started managing Q and that became the beginning of talent management for me.
I want to ask you about that ten-day silent retreat. Did it get easier or harder as the days went on?
I don’t know that it was a straight line in neither direction. It was more of a rollercoaster where it would get easier, harder and then all of a sudden, you’re flipped on your head. In every moment, you would have a different thought that comes up. The key thing that I remember most about that experience was that there wasn’t any distraction. You almost don’t realize not many distractions you have in your life on a normal basis, on a daily basis. In the workday, there’s every work distraction but then outside of that, even when you go home, you have whoever might be in the home with you, you have every little thing you could be doing in the house. You have your phone, you have the TV, you have food and even eating is a distraction. I use it. I know that I use it as a distraction sometimes when I’m thinking about something. In that experience, you’re forced because there are 100 people that were there and you would sit down.
It was a very intense experience too. You’re waking up at 4:00 AM, you’re meditating for nine hours a day, you’re getting four hours of teachings on meditation a day and they would ask you to sit down for two hours to meditate. I had never meditated. I couldn’t meditate more than twenty minutes and a thought would come in my head. I would try and avoid on a daily basis in my own life, maybe a memory, someone that I was angry at. I realized that typically I would maybe listen to music and I forget about it. I’ll talk to a friend and I forget about it. I would push that thing down and I’m sitting there for two hours, for ten days and that thought is not going to leave your head until you make peace with it. It won’t leave your mind until you figure out some way to make peace with that.
They ruminate or they hide, they pop back up. This could be thoughts of anger, thoughts of grief even. The reason I am so curious about your experience with silence, the old way of selling was asking someone to buy something and then whoever speaks first loses. It became this will of silence and that doesn’t work anymore. People are aware of it and people can feel it. It’s this horrible old school way of trying to sell. The concept of getting comfortable with silence has helped me get people to get more sales. If you ask someone if they want to buy a house for example and you’ve got all this internal dialogue going on like you were referencing of, “I need this commission. If I have to show this person one more house, I’m going to lose my mind.” You say something because that’s so anxiety-provoking to have all those thoughts going on. You’re not used to it.
You say, “If I throw the refrigerator in, would you buy it then?” You’ve missed the moment for people to say yes or no. What I work with people on is saying when you quiet the thoughts in your head either through meditation or going on to something like you did for ten days without speaking, you become comfortable with the silence in the room. That is so key, whether you’re performing in poetry, music or speaking, is getting comfortable with those pauses. You as a talent manager, your ability to be comfortable with silence has probably helped you when you were pitching IN-Q and Cal to people, when you tell them how much their fee is or whatever the issue might be. It’s not a battle of wills of who’s going to speak next but it becomes your ability to be comfortable with that silence. Sometimes you don’t know what they’re going to say next, whether it’s an objection or a yes but if you are uncomfortable waiting then you lose out.Let go of being right-collaborate. Click To Tweet
It’s definitely true and I thought that consciously when you’re pitching and I may be pitching IN-Q or Cal or anyone for engagement with the company. That silence is very important because both sides naturally, you’re going to feel something and the other side is going to feel something. After you say it, it’s so easy to try and follow it up with reasoning or something that explains why you have to be silent.
I’m also fascinated by the combination of a piano teacher because I took piano lessons when I was a kid and a dentist. At one time I thought I wanted to be a dentist. I am going to give you my observations but have the unique inside track because you lived in that world. What they have in common is that clearly piano and music in general is about melody, sound and eliciting feelings based on what the music is doing. The dentistry is an art form. The dentists that I’ve met and have been patient of take such pride in their work and think of themselves as a craftsman. Almost like a person who’s a musician composing a song, those are my teeth and then to have those people create a son like you, who then brings that out into the world. I wanted to get your take on if I’m close to your childhood or the takeaways that you learned from your parents.
It’s funny because dentists are normally thought of as not creative people. When you think about what they’re doing, they are working on the thing that is right at the center of your face. Everyone sees this thing and they’re the ones that are making a beautiful. I love that perspective of they’re artists as much as a piano teacher. My mom was definitely the more creative one between the two of them, but I definitely picked that up from both of them. Another thought, jumping back to the silence. It’s sparked an idea, a thought that I actually don’t think about. I love that comparison you made between the meditation and silence there into the work. Not only does it come in pitching, but it also comes in pitching ideas.
As a manager, a lot of the time it’s focused around bringing ideas, whether it’s to the client or whether it might be another client that I’m working with. It could be a company, it could be creative and it could be an artist that we’re working with to create something. A lot of the time it takes giving your idea and putting your perspective in there but then not trying to convince anyone of that, not trying to sway anyone in your direction. It’s trying to understand what they want, what their vision is, giving your opinion in your idea but then letting it sit in silence. Creatives often have to think about what they want, what they envisioned and that idea has to be there.
If you come up with the idea and you try to sell it and push it on somebody, nine times out of ten it’s not going to work. However, if you have collaborative conversations and brainstorm without an attachment to any one outcome, what I’m hearing you say is that allows the decision maker to take ownership of the idea, pick a direction and see you as a collaborator. When that happens, then your clients are definitely the solution to execute that idea.
You can’t be focused on being right. You have to be focused on collaborating and working together to find the solution. If you have that, then you allow the person to actually come up with the idea that resonates with them and that’s going to be the best solution.
Tell me a story of both IN-Q and Cal, one of your favorite stories of an event or an outcome that happened after someone hired IN-Q.
It was a very interesting moment. IN-Q was performing at a WeWork event and he performed at a global summit. It was 6,000 people in the Microsoft Theater in Downtown LA. A month before that, he was at a smaller event and it was 50 people across North America. We were sitting in a room and he was performing for dinner and he was doing this piece called Home. The first line is, “I want to buy a house where I can make memories in every room.” It’s a beautiful piece about having a family and having a house that’s more about what you put into the house in terms of your energy and who you are and the people as opposed to the physical objects. Value isn’t a thing you own, it’s the thing that you bring.
Value is not something you own. It’s something you bring.
We were sitting there and 50 people are sitting at three tables. IN-Q’s doing this piece and we’re all listening. He finishes it and the guy across from me turns to me and I told him beforehand that I was his manager. Five minutes during our conversation right after IN-Q finished performing, everyone’s like, “That was amazing. I loved that.” This guy turns to me and goes, “How many times have you heard that?” I said, “Between hearing it live, hearing it on video and recordings that we’ve done, I would say maybe 100 times, probably more than 100 to be honest.” He goes, “I looked at you while he was performing. I was watching you. You were smiling as if you were listening to that poem for the first time.” It gave me a perspective on that experience that I didn’t have, which was so beautiful. I didn’t realize that I had that perspective. It was beautiful because it is how I feel every time I hear him, I am hearing it for the first time and I’m hearing new things every time, the hundredth time I’ve heard of one poem.
That’s art. We are different when we look at it and all the energy that goes around it is part of that.
They’re different when you hear it. Every moment that you hear someone say something, it can be the same thing over and over. In your life, you’re having different things going on. You’re having a different experience.If you are uncomfortable with waiting, then you lose out. Click To Tweet
That explains your success because people respond to people who are authentic and passionate. You can’t fake that and you are clearly authentic and passionate. That’s why you’re so successful. Am I still as passionate and authentic about what I’m pitching? If I’ve said it 100 times as it was the first time, knowing if you trust what you’re doing and you have a purpose behind it that keeps you alive and going, I would think.
That definitely is part of the journey. It’s figuring out how you can get excited about it because sometimes you forget. Sometimes I’ll go a month, two months, three months without seeing Cal, IN-Q perform live because I’m in the office in LA and they’re traveling and performing. Sometimes you do get separated from the art. You get separated from what you’re selling and that becomes something where I have to go back to why do I love it? What do I love about it? When I see it live again, for me that’s the clearest dive back into the arts and why I love it so much. You do have to constantly go back to why you feel connected. If you ever don’t, you have to look at that, look at the experience, look what’s going on in your life and look at the art and say, “What am I connected to in that?” Every time I go back to the art, I find that I go deeper into it.
When I hear actors talking about doing the same performance on Broadway for years at a time, they always have to find some nuance or it’s the audience response that energizes them to make it fresh for them. That’s part of being fully present and fully alive, which goes back to one of the takeaways you get from going on a ten-day silent meditation.
When you’re listening to the art, it’s that presence. When you’re trying to help someone understand how powerful it is and how it can really make a huge difference in their event or their experience, it’s the presence of understanding and listening. I learned that presence in that retreat. I’ve learned that presence from Cal. He’s incredibly present. That’s the thing I’ll always say is Cal, when he is talking to you, you feel like you are the only person in the room. Especially when you’re saying something that intrigued him, his jaw drops and his eyes open wide. He is enthralled. There have been times where he’ll finish speaking and we will be leaving and we have a flight to catch. We have somewhere to go and I used to drag him. He’s already done an hour of Q&A afterwards, off stage talking to people, answering questions and I’m pulling him away saying, “Cal, we’ve got to go.”
My experience of him is this bottomless curiosity for life and people’s stories. That’s what made him such a good journalist. He’s taking that same passion and tells the stories of everyone from Gorbachev to George Clooney in a way that makes everyone else curious to know what’s going to happen. What’s your goal next?
There are several things within what we’re building with IN-Q and Cal. I looked a lot at why I was drawn to both IN-Q and Cal. Early on, I was managing IN-Q about a year and a half or two years and then I started managing Cal. When I first started managing Cal, people would ask me, “You represent a poet. Do you represent writers?” Typically, you have a manager that represents actors. They represent screenwriters, musicians, comedians. There’s a lane for everything and people would look at me in this complete confusion of who do you represent?
Actors and performers have a talent manager mapping out their career. They have an agent that negotiates their contracts.
I started going around and people start asking me, “Who do you represent? What’s the common thread between IN-Q and Cal, are they writers?” I said, “What it is more than anything? When you see them, whether IN-Q’s poetry or Cal’s storytelling, they both make you think about your own life in a different way.” They challenge you to think about whether it’s your personal life, your work, your social life, your relationships. Both of their art acts as a mirror in a lot of ways and they both allow you to think about that but not only that, they also entertain. Once you are watching IN-Q’s performance or you’re seeing Cal’s speak, you’re not only inspired to think about your own life in a different, but you’re also entertained.
You’re laughing, you’re crying, you’re going through that journey. It’s the balance of those two things that is more powerful than anything. If it’s the balance of making you think about your own life, acting as that mirror but then also entertaining, making someone laugh and making someone enjoy that experience. If I look forward, it’s creating that experience for more people, allowing more people to have that experience. Most people live double lives. During the day they listen to podcasts, they’re watching YouTube videos, listening to TED Talks.If you come up with the idea and try to sell it by pushing it on somebody, nine times out of ten it is not going to work. Click To Tweet
Most people are enjoying them and then they go home. They go out at night on a Friday or Saturday night with a friend on a date, with their wife, husband, whatever that may be and then they lose that. They lose the part of themselves they love so much, the inspiration because they’re going out to comedy. They’re going out to a bar or they’re going out to dinner. How do you bring an experience together where you can fuse the two things? IN-Q does that so well. When you go to one of his shows, it’s that kind of experience. Cal at 8:00 AM at a corporate event will give you that experience where you go in and all of a sudden not only are you learning, not only are you entertained but you are laughing, crying, you’re feeling every emotion. Every person in that room, you feel closer with because you went through that experience and you feel like you’ve shared that experience together.
That is one of the key objectives almost every speaking engagement that I’ve been. Not only do we want you to inspire them, inform them, give them some new tools but the whole experience is supposed to bond them better together. These are siloed departments and people that don’t see each other that often. They’ve all been brought together for a two-day summit. If your experience of speaking can make them feel bonded together and they can start referencing a story you did, a joke or whatever it is, then you are delivering on the overall connection. People have to feel connected to the people on their team, even if they’re not physically seeing them every day in order to feel part of something beyond what their little job is or big job. If you only feel like you’re an island, then you don’t feel any sense of connection to the purpose of why you’re working and then you burn out really fast. The outcomes of having people think about their lives in a different way impact the bottom line. Is there any last thought, book or quotes you want to leave us with?
What I found more than anything is that the art sells itself. Whether the art is a painting, whether it’s poetry, whether it’s a speaker on stage, whether it’s a podcast or whatever it might be, the art will sell itself if someone experiences it and they are shifted by it. That’s what I try and do more than anything. It’s to allow someone to experience the art. I’m sure you’ve experienced this in your speaking. When someone sees you live, that is the best experience they could ever have. You are probably one of the best people at pitching and selling but if they see you live, they have that experience themselves. When they see you take a group of people through an experience, they’re learning. They’re having takeaways, they’re standing up and clapping, that’s going to be the best sales pitch you could ever have. I try and do that as much as I can and put the art out there. Allow people to experience that art because that’s what’s going to get them bought in more than anything else.The art will sell itself if someone experiences and are shifted by it. Click To Tweet
The more people realize the value of this face-to-face connection, whether it’s one-on-one or you’re speaking in front of 6,000 people, it’s still that intense need to be present and in that moment so that you can have an experience. Otherwise, as you said, you’re in your head and distracted about a bunch of things and we wonder why we’re not having more joy in our life. That’s the reason, we’re not in the moment. Kevin, thank you so much for sharing your wonderful journey and these two amazing artists that you’re representing, IN-Q and Cal Fussman. The world is going to be a better place and I can’t wait to see what you do with them.
Thank you so much for having me, I appreciate it. It’s been a fun conversation.
- Kevin Hekmat – LinkedIn
- Say Something Entertainment
- The Third Door
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