Speaking Of Professional Speakers

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - August 15, 2007
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Living in Hawaii, most of us probably spend more time on commercial airplanes than the average Mainlander, so we know the routine well. We board the plane, find our seat, perhaps say a polite hello to the person sitting next to us, stow our overheads and underseats, and settle in.

Sometime in the early hours of the flight - if not immediately - a conversation sort of sneaks onto the scene with the exchange of some pleasantries: “Are you going home or going to visit?” “Business or pleasure?” And inevitably, “Well, what do you do?”

My response to the latter usually depends upon how much sleep I’m counting on getting after an 0-dark-30 wakeup to make the flight, or maybe how gregarious I’m feeling. I can say, “Oh, I’m a retired naval officer,” and let it go at that, or I might mistakenly add, “but I have a second career as a professional speaker.”


The joke among professional speakers is that the person replies, “Really? You don’t look like a professional speaker.” And of course the glib reply is, “Well, I’m not speaking today!”

When you stop to think about it, how many times have you actually met a professional speaker on an airplane - or anywhere? There aren’t a lot of us around, and not much is known about us. In fact, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a professional speaker until I became one; or I should say until I evolved into one. And when I first started speaking after returning from Vietnam 34 years ago I met very few fellow speakers who had actually decided to do it professionally. Most had evolved from corporate training positions in sales or customer service and then decided to share their expertise with a broader audience - usually for more money than they had been making as a trainer.

In my case, while I was still an active naval officer I simply responded to people’s curiosity about the POW experience, accepting invitations to speak to Rotary and other service clubs, churches, schools and hundreds of military units.

I soon realized that having survived seven years in a communist prison under some pretty harsh conditions, and having seen our enemy at the time up close and personal, I had earned the credibility to say things about America, leadership, patriotism, faith and spiritual values that weren’t politically correct, but which I felt needed to be said.

And lucky for me, corporate America must have felt the same way, because I soon went from Rotary and Kiwanis to IBM and General Motors.


Times have changed, however, and now corporate meetings - usually held in posh locations with their entertainment, education and inspirational speakers - have become executive leader-ship’s way of saying thank you to their people for their dedication, loyalty and hard work. It has become a billion-dollar industry. In fact, youngsters in college can now major in professional speaking from the outset, or in corporate meeting planning. There are premier professional bodies such as National Speakers Association (NSA) and, for the people who hire the speakers and plan the meetings, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), or Meeting Professionals International (MPI) - organizations dedicated to high standards of excellence in all aspects of the industry.

But those of us who have been speaking for a couple of decades realize that one thing hasn’t changed: Successful speakers still speak from the heart.

“So, what do you speak about?” “Well, I’m usually billed as a motivational or inspirational speaker.”

“Huh! What qualifies you to speak on that?”

And that’s usually when I wish I’d just left it at “retired naval officer.”

three star

And speaking of inspirational speakers, Hawaii has none better than Senior Pastor Wayne Cordeiro of New Hope Christian Fellowship. In his weekly television program Connecting Point, Pastor Wayne is a master of the interview. Not to be missed in the near future are his interviews on KHON-2 at 9 p.m. Aug. 23 with Newt Gingrich, Sept.6 with Sean Hannity and Sept. 20 with Oliver North.

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