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My 13 most memorable speaking gigs

Unforgettable experiences from a motivational speaker’s 25-year career

I have been a motivational speaker for more than 25 years. Each of the 1000 keynotes and 2 TEDx speeches was special. Either because of the location (Qatar, South Africa, Lithuania, New York, in a zoo, in a money museum) or because of the special connection I had with the audience (entrepreneurs, travellers, professional women, veiled or not). I treasure the messages people sent me afterwards; how my story changed their lives and motivated them to quit their jobs, become entrepreneurs or make another important life decision after hearing my talk.

Some events stood out. In this blog, I’ll share some of my most memorable events, bloopers, and some tips for speakers at the end.

1. Redefining success at Nyenrode Business University

My business university, Nyenrode, was inviting alumni to give a speech to their international MBA students about what success means. Most of my predecessors appeared in the college hall wearing three-piece suits, looking rich and successful. I decided my story needed to be different. So, I appeared in a tracksuit.

I asked my audience of young MBA students, “What does success mean? Is it more money? A big title? A luxury car? Or is it something else?” I shared that my success as a location independent entrepreneur is measured in freedom. I travel, decide where I want to work, with whom, and when, and I choose what I want to wear. I don’t need to look successful or rich to show that I am successful. By appearing in a tracksuit, I offered the students a different perspective on what they should aim for and emphasized the importance of being authentic.

2. Getting paid in tickets for a team-building event in South Africa for KLM EMEA

I was invited by KLM EMEA to organize a team-building event in South Africa for their management team from the EMEA region. The day was filled with various activities, and I had a fantastic time contributing in multiple ways. I gave a presentation, and a workshop, and led energizing sessions to keep everyone engaged.

The highlight of the event was that my payment came in the form of airline tickets, and a special frequent flyer status, a unique privilege for a digital nomad.

3. Navigating unexpected disruptions during a TEDx talk in Curaçao

As a speaker, having high-quality videos of your events is crucial. I had many videos from Dutch events, but when I was invited to give a TEDx talk in Curaçao, in the Dutch Caribbean, I was thrilled to finally get a professional video of an English-speaking event. I put in extra effort, delivered my story, and the audience was enthusiastic. However, halfway through my speech, fireworks started going off outside. And not just any fireworks—these were loud, booming explosions.

The audience began looking around, visibly irritated, and my story was interrupted. I decided to make the best of the situation and integrated the sound of the fireworks into my speech. I acknowledged the noise, made it part of my narrative, and managed to regain the audience’s attention. But the fireworks continued, forcing me to switch between my original story and improvisation multiple times.

By the end of the speech, I realized that while the talk itself had been successful, the video might have been ruined due to the background noise. The sound technicians confirmed that the fireworks were quite intrusive, but they promised to try and filter out the noise. Eventually, they succeeded, but the video still showed the audience looking distracted as if my story wasn’t engaging.

Interestingly, despite the challenges, I received positive feedback. People commented that anyone else would have stopped, but as the “no excuses lady,” I had integrated the disruption into my presentation. They were inspired to see life’s interruptions not as obstacles but as opportunities to adapt and make the best of the situation.

4. Not being able to ‘read’ the audience in Qatar

A women’s organization in Qatar invited me to give a lecture to professional women in Doha. They also wanted to order my ‘Live your dream!’ books, so I managed to get them printed and delivered to Qatar at the last minute. The event was held in one of the most beautiful hotels, in a grand ballroom. As I stood on stage, I faced an audience of 300 women, all elegantly dressed, but veiled, so their faces were not visible.

When I began my talk, which usually elicits enthusiastic responses, there was no reaction from the audience. I tried all the tricks I had learned over my two decades as a speaker, but still, there was no response. Some women were on their phones, chatting with each other, or staring blankly ahead. For the first time in my career, I thought my motivational speech had failed.

After my speech, I walked to the coffee table feeling a bit dejected. Suddenly, a line of women formed, each wanting to speak with me. They asked me to sign their books and expressed their enthusiasm. They held my hand, invited me to their homes, and shared their personal stories.

I learned that women in Qatar don’t show their enthusiasm in a group setting. Despite my initial impressions, the event was a great success. I was even interviewed for a local newspaper. In the end, it turned out to be a wonderful experience, but I only realized it after stepping off the stage.

5. The flashy speaker rejection

Once, I received a call from a speakers bureau. They told me they had proposed me to a bank for an event they were organizing, seeking an inspirational speaker. The bank had reviewed my website and decided they didn’t want me because they found me “too flashy”. 😉

That says a lot about the banks during that time…

6. A business class ‘taxi service’ for KLM’s platinum for-life event

I was once again invited by KLM to speak at their Platinum for Life event, celebrating passengers who had maintained the highest platinum status for ten years and were now awarded this privileged position for life. Given the importance of these special customers, KLM organized an extraordinary event at their home base Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Two airplanes were taken out of service and placed in a hangar with the best catering and music. Attendees could tour the planes, dress in pilot uniforms, and take photos. Naturally, they needed an inspiring speaker with a passion for travel, so they reached out to me.

I was thrilled and honoured to accept, but when I heard the date, I was shocked. I was scheduled to be on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, hosting my sister and a friend. I explained this to KLM, saying I would love to come but it was complicated as I was in Curaçao. They responded with the legendary words, “But we have planes.”

Within 24 hours, I was flown back and forth in KLM Business Class. My status was so special that the flight attendants and even the pilots kept asking who I was and what my role was within KLM. They could see from the passenger list that it was something unique. I enjoyed the luxurious journey, delivered my speech at the event, and met some incredible people, including KLM’s directors from the Netherlands and France.

After the event, I was flown back to Curaçao, again in Business Class, so I could continue to spend time with my family. This made the experience even more memorable.

7. Sharing the stage with the Dutch Iceman

During an event for Experis in the Netherlands, featuring many exceptional and well-known speakers, my turn came right after the Dutch Iceman, Wim Hof. His stunt involved sitting in a glass cage filled with ice blocks, wearing nothing but a pair of swimming trunks. He planned to stay in that freezing condition throughout the event, only to be interviewed at the end.

As he settled into his icy seat, I began my speech about turning obstacles into opportunities and adopting a “no excuses” mindset. All the while, there was a man in swimming trunks sitting on ice right next to me. This unusual setup added a unique and memorable element to my talk, giving the event a very special touch. You can view my (Dutch) presentation here.

8. The challenge of moderating an event without being able to understand the speakers

In addition to being a keynote speaker, I often take on roles as a moderator or event host. One day, I was invited to chair a charity event featuring several Indian projects competing for awards. I was assured that every Indian representative spoke good English and had been briefed to deliver a one-minute pitch about their project. I had also requested to meet each participant personally before the event began, but time was tight. I was told not to worry; the participants were well-prepared and instructed to give concise elevator pitches.

So, we went straight to the stage. The first Indian representative stepped up and began speaking. I had to adjust to his Indian accent and thought, “Is this English or not?” I couldn’t understand a word, except for “cow.” The audience looked at me expectantly, so I said, “Thank you. Your project is about cows.” The representative nodded approvingly but did not offer any additional information, so I moved on to the next participant, hoping to get more content from them.

To my horror, I couldn’t understand the second person either. Again, the only word I caught was “cow.” With everyone looking at me, I said, “Ah, so your project is also about cows. What is the difference between your project and the first one?” The response was equally unintelligible, and I had to improvise a story from the little I grasped.

This pattern continued with ten participants. I could only catch a single word from each, and my brain worked overtime to create a coherent narrative. By the end, I was so exhausted that I could barely stand. After the event, people came up to me and praised my ability to translate and make sense of the presentations. They admitted they hadn’t understood a word but felt they grasped the projects thanks to my interpretations.

To this day, I have no idea if my interpretations were accurate. But at least the event was a success!

9. Correcting misconceptions about digital nomads for the Curaçao government

The government of Curaçao, Dutch Caribbean, invited me to give a presentation about life as a digital nomad and location-independent entrepreneur. They were considering issuing a visa for digital nomads to attract more of them to the island. However, their assumption was completely off. They believed digital nomads spend a lot of money, and they had calculated potential earnings that would have made the island much richer.

I saw it as my duty not to tell them what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. My presentation explained that a digital nomad visa wouldn’t necessarily bring in high-spending visitors but could provide great exposure for the island. I emphasized that digital nomads are drawn not by visas but by good infrastructure, safety, reliable internet, and enjoyable experiences.

The focus of my speech was on these critical aspects, and it resonated well. The Prime Minister personally thanked me for the insights I provided.

10. The surprise call from a bank

For 25 years, I’ve been getting speaking engagements through word-of-mouth and referrals. I’m always prepared for people to reach out with questions about possible new and exciting events. But sometimes, I get surprised, and my reactions aren’t always perfect.

One time, I received a call from an employee of a bank who asked if she was speaking with Esther Jacobs. It sounded like a sales call, so I gave my usual response: “I’m not a customer of yours, and if you’re trying to sell me something, this will be a very short conversation.” There was silence on the other end of the line.

Then, the woman stammered, “But ehhh, we actually wanted to hire you for a lecture.”

11. Not being able to invoice a speech for the tax office after being kicked out of the country

After I was expelled from the Netherlands for travelling too much, according to the law, a host of problems followed. I was deregistered, I no longer existed in the system, I lost my insurance, my bank account was closed, and my phone contract was terminated. There was only one organization that insisted I was still a Dutch citizen – the tax office.

While this battle was ongoing, the tax office asked if I could give an inspirational speech about my experience. I was stunned; weren’t they the ones making my life difficult? But I was told it was a different department. So, I stood on stage in front of the IT department of the tax office and delivered my speech.

Afterwards, I sent an invoice, but since my company had been deregistered from the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, it came from a hastily established new company in the British Virgin Islands. Still using my own name, fully transparent, but as expected, I received a call from the administration department. They said it was a bit tricky because the Chamber of Commerce number in the British Virgin Islands is much longer than in the Netherlands, and their system couldn’t process the invoice.

After half an hour of discussion, the lady on the phone told me she had found a solution. She simply omitted the last few digits of the number so the invoice would fit into their system. And thus, I got paid.

12. Full circle: a book presentation at the town hall of the city that did not want me

The municipality of Amstelveen had deregistered me against my will, causing me to lose all my rights and putting me in a bizarre position where I officially no longer existed. I had tried everything to get re-registered but to no avail. There were even parliamentary questions about my case, and the government decided that the law wasn’t intended for people like me, but that the municipality had applied it correctly.

After years of struggling with this, I found my new role as a global citizen and began helping others find more freedom. When I was ready to present the book about my experiences, ‘Handboek voor Wereldburgers‘ (Handbook for Global Citizens) I thought it would be fitting to close the circle by launching it at the Amstelveen town hall, where it all began with the refusal to renew my passport.

It was meant as a peace offering, but the mayor ignored the emails and letters I sent. Eventually, I tried an open letter on the internet. The mayor responded, somewhat annoyed, asking why I had to make it public. But then they reluctantly agreed, saying, “Okay, we can’t refuse this. You can do the book presentation at our town hall, but you’ll have to pay for the coffee…”

In the end, the book presentation was a great success. Coincidentally, there was a new mayor that week—a woman who had read my book the night before. She was deeply embarrassed about what had happened. While I wanted to keep the event light and joyful, she spent the whole time apologizing to her colleagues and the situation.

Ultimately, I didn’t receive a bill for the coffee.

13. Returning to the stage for a final ‘No Excuses Show’

For years, I was a regular guest speaker at the Stand-Up Inspiration Event in a small theatre in Amsterdam. People were invited to the stage to share their stories, and I always had something to tell. It was a fantastic opportunity to interact with the audience and other speakers. These stories were also recorded, so I have several videos on YouTube showcasing different angles not necessarily dictated by a client, company, or organization—just fun stories to tell.

As I plan for my retirement, I’ve decided to do this one more time. I want to create my own stage and share what I want. That’s why, on my 55th birthday, June 28, 2025, I will host my own (Dutch) theatre show: The No Excuses Theater Show for an audience of 1000 people. This one-time performance will feature everything I’ve shared on stage over the years, along with untold stories, behind-the-scenes moments, and the life lessons I’ve learned. It’s for anyone who wants to inject a little more No Excuses energy into their life.

‘Become a better speaker’ most recent blogs

My 13 most memorable speaking gigs

I have been a motivational speaker for more than 25 years. Each of the 1000 keynotes and 2 TEDx speeches was special. Either because of the location (Qatar, South Africa, Lithuania, New York, in a zoo, in the money museum during my collection of €16 of foreign coins for charity) or because of the special connection I had with the audience (entrepreneurs, travellers, professional women, veiled or not). I treasure the messages people sent me afterwards; how my story changed their lives and motivated them to quit their jobs, become entrepreneurs or make another important life decision after hearing my talk. Some events stood out. In this blog, I share some of my most memorable events, bloopers, and some tips for speakers at the end.

Are you using your ‘shop window’ the right way?

Net als veel andere creatievelingen deed en doe ik heel veel verschillende dingen. Ik vind dat leuk, ik ben er goed in en ik help er anderen mee. Maar steeds vaker kreeg ik de vraag: “Wat DOE je nu eigenlijk?” Er stond zoveel op mijn website, dat bezoekers door de bomen het bos niet meer zagen.

Baby Bathwater unconference

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater…” Sure, it’s expensive, but it’s also the most exclusive ‘unconference’ I have ever heard of. $10,000 gets you 4 days on a private island in Croatia, with 200 incredibly sharp and accomplished people, who have left their ego’s at home

2024-06-16T10:16:59+02:00
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