When I tell people that one of the things I teach is public speaking, the first thing they typically ask is why. Most of the time, they really mean that they wonder why someone would get interested in that particular topic. So as I explain that I actually get a rush from doing something that most people avoid like the plague, the questions become more serious and I’m asked what interested me in public speaking to begin with and how I got to where I am today.
As a kid, I always enjoyed making people smile and I still feel the same way today. In fact, I’ll often go out of my way to get a laugh out of someone, even if I have to make myself look foolish in the process. When I was in my pre-teen years, I had dreamed of becoming an actor. I tried to convince my parents to move across the country to California so I could become one. That didn’t quite work out so I found other outlets for my creativity. In high school, it was sports.
I joined my high school’s soccer team my freshman year as I enjoyed the sport and inherited my grandfather’s love for it — he had a special radio that he used so he could follow his favorite teams back in Italy. I wasn’t very good, but I was entertaining. My coach used to joke that I’d run all over the field like a crazy person and we’d all have a good laugh about it. It was fun. Then I discovered wrestling.
I had followed what used to be the WWF since I was in sixth grade and was a hardcore fan of professional wrestling. I even dreamed once of it as a career, but felt I was too small (I was six feet tall and 146 pounds when I graduated from high school). Had I been a little heavier, I would have pursued it. The legendary Walter “Killer” Kowalski lived in my town and operated a wrestling school nearby. My mom ran into him at the post office once and got me the number for his school. But again, given that the heaviest I’ve ever been was 197 pounds, I’d still be tiny among the likes of Hulk Hogan, The Rock and The Ultimate Warrior.
But I loved high school wrestling — I did it all four years. I still have a clipping from an article from my local newspaper about how the report felt that one my matches was the most exciting of the night. It inspired me to be as much an entertainer as I was an athlete. Now, I didn’t ham it up that much or do anything wild like today’s professional wrestlers do, but I definitely worked the crowd. My signature move was the headlock throw, and I’d often give a sign before I did it — I’d quickly run my flat hand across my throat as if I were about to finish off my opponent. Also, following my coach’s advice, I’d try to psych out my opponents during any breaks in the action.
When the referee blew the whistle, I’d jump up and run to the middle of the circle. If I were on the mat, I’d flip up and then run to the center and then jump down making a big thud. My parents would tell me that a lot of the other parents told them I was always fun to watch. I’m not sure if they were just saying that to encourage me, but I took it to heart. And I felt like it was my job to entertain as well as win.
Later on when I got to college, I finally overcame the fear of public speaking I developed in high school and started enjoying presenting. I worked my way through graduate school as an instructor and loved it. I had more classes than anyone else in my department and I didn’t mind because for the first time in my life, I felt like I was doing something important. These kids, most of whom were only three to four years younger than me, were more than just students. I felt responsible for them — that if I didn’t give it my best, they would suffer. In addition to the class material, we had open and honest talks about anything that was on their minds. Some of them would stop by the lab I held office hours in or my on campus apartment, just to chat. At the time, I thought I was just making money to pay for my classes, but in reality, I was shaping my future.
After graduation, I decided to combine my background in technology with my passion for writing and create an online entertainment company. The concept was simple: I’d write and produce shows, and they’d be broadcast online. They would be free to watch, ads both within the shows and around the player would generate revenue for the business. Hence JVF Entertainment was born, but unfortunately, never got anywhere thanks to the dot com crash of 2000. I finally gave up on it after a number of personal and professional challenges hit me during the first couple years of the new millennium.
But then I took the Dale Carnegie Course in 2002 and that changed everything. After conquering my public speaking fears for a second time, I actually got a rush from giving speeches. I joined Toastmasters on 9/11/2002 with the intention of becoming a motivational speaker. I loved speaking at Toastmasters and spoke at every single meeting I attended. One of my friends from my club pointed out during an evaluation about how I feed off of the crowd. It reminded me of when I wrestled, I loved the crowd reaction and would ratchet up the showmanship to get more of it. Unfortunately, during my first couple years of Toastmasters I was met with even bigger personal and professional challenges — a common theme in my life — so I ended up quitting.
Finally, I got my life back in order and put myself on the path that got me to where I was today. I rejoined Toastmasters eighteen months after quitting and started following my dream of being a motivational speaker. I attended meetings for the local chapter of the National Speakers Association and had a goal to join them within six months. I spoke to any group that was looking for a speaker and I was willing to speak on any topic of their choosing. Additionally, I joined an advanced Toastmasters club to really hone my skills as a speaker.
Then I started to realize something: I didn’t want to become like most motivational speakers. I felt like many just talked out of their rear ends and provided little value. Even those that allegedly “taught” something within their speeches seemed like they were teaching people the wrong thing. So then I thought it would be cool to teach a class in Public Speaking so I signed up to teach one at one of the biggest adult education programs in my area.
Armed with an outline I called a leader’s guide and a bunch of crazy ideas, I taught my first class in 2007. It was a huge eye opener and one of my most favorite successes. I had a fantastic group of people, some that became good friends and many others that I still keep in touch with. I used this blog to test out the material for the class and write about my experiences teaching. If you want a good laugh, check out some of my earliest entries — I had no clue what I was doing.
The take away I got from that first class is that liked to entertain people, but I also liked to help people. Since dealing with one’s fear of public speaking is a tricky subject, I had to keep the mood of the class light. So I’d rattle off jokes and make funny comments while sharing the actual course material and it worked. When I had people tell me that I changed their lives, it touched me. The hugs at the end of a course that I get from grateful people are some of the best hugs in the world and it made me rethink my strategy. I could either become a speaker and make money by blowing hot air or I could become a trainer and develop courses to help people overcome some of the same challenges I’ve dealt with through the years.
Fast forward to 2010 and I now have eleven courses that I offer. Two are public speaking but I also offer things like job interviewing, social media, negotiations and blogging. Hundreds of people have taken my courses, thousands have seen me speak. I have a trainer that has offered my courses on my behalf. I have products and offer coaching. I’ve even offered many of these courses privately to companies and organizations.
I quit Toastmasters because my courses conflicted with meetings. I qualified for membership in the NSA in 2008 but didn’t have the time to attend meetings, so I never joined. While I’m not a national celebrity, I run into people I’ve met through my courses and speaking every week. It’s a nice feeling to hear about what’s going on in their lives and to learn which lessons they’ve benefited most from. To me, there’s no better feeling than knowing that I’ve helped someone. So the short answer to this question is that it took me twenty years to realize that the thing I enjoy most is to help people and make them happy. And speaking is a great way to do this, and it can pay the bills too.