Professional Speakers Speak Out

by Rosemarie Rossetti

Sometimes we choose our careers, and at other times our careers choose us. We all make plans for our lives and then something happens along the way, causing us to take a new direction.

Such is the case with three professional speakers I interviewed recently. Kate Adamson, Sean Stephenson, Greg Smith and I gathered in our wheelchairs, shared our stories, and reflected on our lives and speaking careers in Phoenix, Ariz., at the 2004 annual convention of the National Speakers Association, the leading organization for those who speak professionally (www.nsaspeaker.org).

The four of us are among the estimated 12 wheelchair users of the 1,700 who attended this year’s NSA convention. NSA is composed of 3,650 members in 37 chapters across the United States, with affiliates in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Europe and China. NSA recognizes that there are thousands of other speakers in the country who are not members of NSA, but those of us who are members concur that active involvement has shortened our learning curve.

This trio of Adamson, Stephenson and Smith had just made a presentation–Beyond Your Limitations–discussing how their stories of triumph over tragedy bring life lessons to their audiences. Two of us acquired our disability in midlife, while two were born with their disabilities.

None of us ever thought we would be motivational speakers. In fact, the biggest fear of Americans is speaking in public. It takes lots of courage and practice. Professional speakers need to hone not only their skills to speak, but also skills to run a successful business. Speakers work on their craft to deliver their stories and content with humor, poise and polish, as well as connect with their audience.

As a result of the four of us having a disability, we have an opportunity to share with our audiences what we learn as we struggle through life and succeed with our dreams. We don’t want people to pity us, and we encourage our audiences not to dwell on their own self-pity. We recognize that change and tragedy are a part of everyone’s life.

Many times we inspire our audiences. We know this from the standing ovations, applause, written evaluations, conversations with emotional audience members after our presentations, thank-you cards and e-mails. Each person in our audience takes our message in a very personal way. They oftentimes look at their lives from a fresh perspective and restore hope for their future. We have not chosen to be speakers because of our disabilities. Each of us is compelled to the stage for one reason: To make a positive difference in the lives of our audiences.

Beyond Limitations

“Everyone has their own story that needs to be told,” says Stephenson, who was born with osteogenisis imperfecta. He suggests that to formulate your speech, you should make a list of the most painful moments in your life. Then you should look at the steps that were involved in your survival and recovery process.

These life lessons are golden to the audience. Stories must relate to individuals, yet have a universal message. Stephenson, who has had to deal with considerable pain in his life, points out that every person in the audience has pain, and he helps them see how the pain in their lives is a gift.

In the fourth grade, Stephenson was asked by his mother, “Is this [osteogenisis imperfecta] going to be a gift or a burden in your life?” At first he thought, Is this woman crazy? I knew what pain was. This was no gift! Gifts come in little packages on my birthday!

His mother’s question made him realize he had always managed to survive pain with a smile. He wondered if his purpose in life was to teach others to smile, then realized his pain is indeed a gift. Through his recovery he is able to help others recover.

He started his speaking career in high school during disabilities awareness month. Today, at 25, Stephenson is tiny in stature, but huge in presence. He feels that looking so visibly different because of his disability has becomes a gold calling card. His uniqueness is remembered and people recognize that he is dealing with a physical challenge.

He speaks primarily to college student audiences, and his mission is to help them realize their unlimited potential, achieve their dreams, and overcome any setbacks. He offers leadership and self-esteem programs. His book, How You Can Succeed! Transforming Dreams into Reality for Young Adults (available at www.SeanStephenson.com), was published in 2000. He works out of his office in LaGrange, Ill.

“There’s a market for your malady,” says Greg Smith, who was born with muscular dystrophy 40 years ago. He feels that no matter what your pain or struggle, there is an outlet for speaking services.

Smith is a speaker and the host of his own nationally syndicated radio show, The Strength Coach, which airs on the Radio America Network. For 11 years Smith hosted On A Roll–Talk Radio on Life and Disability. He is no stranger to readers of NEW MOBILITY [see “The Price of Help,” April 2004].

His radio show speaks primarily to the disability community about the disability rights movement. He wants to bring the truth about disability experiences, struggles, pride and culture to the masses. He also speaks on how to build inner strength for peak performance to corporations and associations (www.TheStrengthCoach.com). He is based in Ocean Springs, Miss.

Early in Smith’s sales career at a radio station, he was asked to speak. During his involvement in the disability rights movement, he heard that just because you are disabled, then you are often considered as an inspiration to others. People told him that there’s something wrong with being an inspiration just because you have a disability. But he believes that if people think he inspires them–great!

In 1995, Kate Adamson, at age 33, had a double brainstem stroke, leaving her with locked-in syndrome. She was totally paralyzed. Now she has regained movement on her right side and lives in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Eight months after her release from the hospital, she started a stroke support group. Her experience with her stroke taught her that she could do anything she put her mind to. She never thought about being a speaker until she was asked to speak by the American Stroke Association. Her first speech at a house painter convention paid $500. She spoke about playing the hand you were dealt. Her speaking business grew from this point on. She never expected to get paid to speak, but she has a message and a compelling story to share.

Kate teaches others through her inspirational keynotes to overcome any situation and how to move forward with any challenge by continually focusing on what you can do. Her areas of expertise include: setting goals, triumphing over adversity and communicating with patients.

She wrote about this experience in Kate’s Journey: Triumph Over Adversity. (www.KatesJourney.com) The turning point in her career was going to her first national NSA convention. She has learned about the business of speaking from her peers in NSA.

My Story

As one of Adamson’s peers, I learned about NSA before my spinal cord injury. When I joined NSA in 1996, I was on the faculty at The Ohio State University, where I had been teaching courses in public speaking and teaching methodology for 11 years. In 1997, I left the university and started my full-time speaking and training business in Columbus, Ohio. I delivered presentation skill and train-the-trainer seminars, and coached speakers. (www.RosemarieSpeaks.com)

On June 13, 1998, while riding my bicycle on a beautiful Saturday afternoon on a bike trail, I was crushed by a three-ton tree that fell on me. At age 44, my life and business were suddenly transformed.

My fellow NSA speaker friends came to visit me in the hospital and one friend suggested that I use a tape recorder to journal my recovery. They knew that my words would have meaning to future audiences, and highly encouraged me to share my motivational story and life lessons I was learning during my recovery. From my hospital bed, I began to record my thoughts and experiences and continued journaling for the next two years. I addressed my first audience as a motivational speaker in December 1998.

In the fall of 1999, I began writing about my life lessons in my memoir. In December 1999, I began writing a monthly syndicated column. Today there are 53,000 readers each month. My book, Take Back Your Life! Regaining Your Footing After Life Throws You a Curve, a collection of 20 of my articles, was published last year.

In my speaking business, I conduct presentations that bring out the best in people to help them achieve goals and take charge of their lives. I demonstrate how to live with conviction, use fear as a fuel, remain strong in pursuit of goals, overcome obstacles and cope with change.

After hearing my five core rules to live by, audiences are more likely to have hope and happiness restored in their lives and be able to face obstacles with more courage and resolve. Often, audience members approach me after a speech and share their positive experiences of how they were able to apply my life lessons immediately in their lives. They come away with the realization that they can view their adversities as opportunities.

I speak to groups of all ages and sizes, from elementary school children to senior citizens; classrooms to convention halls. Corporations and associations utilize my expertise during meetings and conventions.

In March, I was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Ohio 2004. (www.Ms.WheelchairAmerica.org ) This opportunity has provided me many unique speaking opportunities as an advocate for people with disabilities. I have been raising awareness of the needs and achievements of people with disabilities, striving to remove architectural and attitudinal barriers.

As professional speakers we offer advice to others who want to start a speaking business. Stephenson cautions that you should have your living expenses covered by other sources of income. It takes a while to prove yourself to corporate America. Don’t count on an instantaneous windfall.

It has taken all of us several years to grow our businesses. We have diversified our businesses with multiple program offerings and markets. We also have additional sources of revenue, including consulting, training, personal coaching, and selling books, audiotapes, videotapes and e-books.

The speaking profession is not just a job for us. It truly is where we want to be.

Reprinted with permission from December 2004 New Mobility