An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Consistency: I mentored a talented young speaker who was finally getting some companies to pay him to speak. When I first saw him, he was fun and articulate. I thought he had bright future. The second time I saw him, he tanked. He blamed it on the audience. The third time I saw him, he was Okay. Not bad. But not great. Afterward, he told me he was having an “off day.” I said, “Professional speakers don’t have “off days.” We are being paid to deliver a solid message every time. And the time you blamed your failure on the audience was assigning blame to the wrong people. It is not the audience’s responsibility to make you great. That’s on you.” Effective speakers take responsibility for making the speech great without excuses, every time.
At some point in our lives, many of us will have to give a talk to a large group of people. What does it take to be a highly effective public speaker? How can you improve your public speaking skills? How can you overcome a fear of speaking in public? What does it take to give a very interesting and engaging public talk? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker” we are talking to successful and effective public speakers to share insights and stories from their experience. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ross Shafer.
Ross Shafer is a former headlining standup comedian and Emmy winning talk and game show host. Ross is an in-demand Keynote speaker with 2,500 paid speeches under his belt. He was awarded the CPAE Designation from the Professional Speakers Association. Ross has written (11) books on performance, customer friction, and leadership. Ross’s latest book (2021), co-authored by Allison Dalvit, is titled: “RATTLED — Crazy A** Stories of Extreme Resilience.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Oregon and Washington State. My parents were very funny people and they entertained their friends every weekend. My dad wanted me to contribute to the family fun. So, as a 7-year-old, my parents enrolled me in accordion lessons. Countless times, my dad would wake me up at midnight to come down and have me play “Lady of Spain” for his coworkers. The instrument weighed 20 pounds more than me so by the 7th grade I had enough lawn mowing money to buy an electric guitar and form a band with three friends. The upside of “performing” so young was that I never had stage fright. That gave me an edge when I ran for Hr. High School treasurer and secretary — and later as the student body president in High School.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
After college I was determined to become a millionaire. (I had no idea how to do that). Armed with a business degree, my plan was to buy bankrupt businesses, fix them up, and sell them. I bought and sold 23 of them. It was exhausting so I sold them all and began working as an advertising director for a chain of clothing stores and went to a comedy club one night. I loved it! I had grown up in a family of funny story tellers so I could do standup comedy! I had no fear so I went to open mic nights for a few months and eventually won a major comedy competition in Seattle. That led to a career as a touring comedian with Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Eddie Rabbitt, Crystal Gayle, and Three Dog Night. Before long, I got the attention of TV producers and I created a very successful comedy show called ALMOST LIVE. Several Emmys later, I had hosted MATCH GAME for ABC, DAYS END for ABC, THE LATE SHOW ON FOX, and LOVE ME, LOVE ME NOT for USA. About a thousand shows later, the comedy boom fizzled and I found myself looking for work. I combined my two most successful skills…repairing broken businesses and standup comedy. Before long, I found plenty of work as a corporate keynote speaker.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The perks of being a highly effective public speaker is being able to travel all over the world and have your client pay for it. Not only have been paid obscene fees for my talks…but I’ve been flown first class to give speeches in Paris, France, London, England, Johannesburg, South Africa, Dharan & Riyad, Saudi Arabia, and Vienna, Austria. For me, the most surreal experience was having lunch in the Vienna, Austria Opera House where Mozart gave concerts!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I got a 60-minute speaking assignment for the Minneapolis, MN Chamber of Commerce. The job paid $1,000; which was a fortune at the time. I had been booked as the main stage attraction at The Mall of America. At that time, the MOA was the largest shopping mall in the United States. What a kickoff for my corporate speaking career! When I was led to the massive stage, I noticed that the elevated platform fifteen feet off the ground and the 100 Chamber of Commerce members were seated in metal folding chairs 40 feet away. I started to talk and realized that whatever sound squeaked from the tiny Public Address system rose to the 100 foot ceiling to be sucked into the super mall’s AC system. I was also competing with thousands of chattering shoppers choking the hallways. I heard no laughs. I saw no smiles. I did see a fair amount of Chamber members get up and leave. Even though I was dying on stage, I pretended I was charmed and thrilled to be there. When I had burned through all of my material, I said “Thank you” and left the stage. The Chamber President was furious as he caught me at the bottom of the stage stairs, “You’ve got to get back up there!” What? He informed me that my contracted 60 minutes of material had dissolved in about 24 minutes. What did I learn? Before I say, “Yes” to any gig, I need more details. How high is the ceiling? Is the sound system loud enough for the space? How close are the chairs to the stage? Are there any distractions in the room i.e., noisy shoppers fighting over sale items?
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Nobody succeeds alone. As the opening act I was exposed to accomplished headliners. These pros could see I was working hard and was curious about their “journey.” Early on, I got a lot of encouragement from a comedy team of Mack Dryden and Jamie Alcroft. Seattle comedians Mike Neun and George Miller were mentors who guided me to my first network TV appearance. Once I was on the casino circuit, Jay Leno became a pal and his friendship made big time standup success accessible for me. When I got into the professional speaking business, a very successful Dallas based humorist named Joe Griffith taught me what specific marketing tools I needed to crack the corporate market. (join the National Speakers Sssociation and have a hilarious cassette tape).
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Yes, if you want to become a successful public speaker, be bold. Be willing to write original material you a corporation would like to hear. I say “corporate” because business organizations will pay for a public speaker if you are amazing. What do you talk about? Write about your own experiences but focus on a topic that will help them either make more money or save money. Then, ask your local service clubs if you can give your speech (for free) to the Jaycees, Kiwanis Clubs, The Elks, clubs, the Shriners, the Moose Lodge, or any church that offers business classes. Offer to speak at a Community College business class. Here’s the hard part. You will have to give 90–100 speeches for free before anyone will pay you. Why so many? You have to get good. You have to practice your stage presence. You have to practice the structure of your speech. You have to be able to intelligently field questions from the audience. How will you know you are ready to charge money for your talk? When someone comes up to you after a speech and says, “My group would really enjoy your message. What do you charge?”
What drives you to get up every day and give your talks? What is the main empowering message that you aim to share with the world?
In the beginning my motivation was “Can I make enough money at public speaking to replace the income from my “day job.” After I was able to achieve that I began to ask myself, “Nobody wants to hear another public speaker…unless I can add value to their day or to their life.” It is a privilege to be paid to speak to an audience and I take that responsibility seriously. My life has been a roller coaster. I’ve been rich. I’ve been dead broke. I’ve been rich again. So my principle message is about resilience and how to get back up again after life has crushed you.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
Myself and my co-author, Allison Dalvit, just finished my 11th book: “RATTLED — Crazy A** Stories of Extreme Resilience to Help You go from Shook To Solid.” This is the book we always wanted to write for our five children. RATTLED is a jagged tour of our lives…the tragedies….the triumphs…and how we got back up when our collective asses got kicked hard. Every writer who has made a living ‘writing on assignment’ has always wanted to finally sit down a write a tale they think needs to be written…without worrying if it will be a commercial success or not. For us, this was an 19-month project we did during the Covid lockdown. We are extraordinarily happy with how it turned out.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Every new comedian or struggling Public Speaker experiments with their on stage persona or “character.” They see someone successful and think they must model that person’s charisma or style. If you do, you will never be successful borrowing someone else’s persona — and you will always feel like a fraud. When you are onstage, be the same person you are offstage. Audiences are very savvy and they want 100% authenticity from you.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker?”
1. Confidence: When I first went to comedy clubs, I was curious to see why some comedians snagged the headliner spot (highest paid) while others were stuck for years as “opening acts.” Confidence was the differentiator. I admired how comedians like Kip Adotta, Steve Bluestein, and Franklin Ajaye took full command of their material. That confidence put their audience at ease. When I went onstage, my (practiced) confidence made me look like I’d been doing standup comedy for years. It took awhile for my material to be as strong as my confidence but you get the idea. Unless you are raining buckets of flop sweat, as an aspiring public speaker, you should remember your nervousness is most likely invisible to an audience. Act confident. Practice your material so you can deliver it flawlessly. Appear to know what you are doing…even if you are still learning.
2. Structure: As a young comedian I was hired as the opening act for deep-voiced singer Lou Rawls. One night he came into my dressing room to give me some advice. Lou said, “You have some funny stuff but you need some structure, man. Your funniest bits are in the middle and your act gets weaker at the end. If you want people to remember you, you have to have an unforgettable closer. Like me, I build the show backwards. I want an encore so I end my act with my strongest, tightest material. But man, I also want the audience to like me right away so I start my show with my 2nd strongest material. That way, I’ve got them on my side up front and I can do whatever I want in the middle; knowing I will always close the show with something big.” Today, in my speeches, I am always careful to make sure my closing words are quotable…hopefully unforgettable.
3. Credibility: When I first started speak to business audiences, I would set up a premise and then shape my opinion to either agree or disagree with the premise. One time, I told a group of fitness club owners, “If you want to be successful, you must back up your lies with the truth. Say “YES!” to everything and then figure out how to pull it off later.” I thought it was a clever and challenging idea. But in the Q & A portion of the speech, audience members wanted to know more. What proof did I have to back up that claim? I learned immediately that if I was going to make an audacious statement like that I needed to back it up with evidence, facts, and research. If you don’t, you risk your precious credibility. After that, I still used that challenging premise but I included case studies of why it worked and how to use it effectively.
4. Consistency: I mentored a talented young speaker who was finally getting some companies to pay him to speak. When I first saw him, he was fun and articulate. I thought he had bright future. The second time I saw him, he tanked. He blamed it on the audience. The third time I saw him, he was Okay. Not bad. But not great. Afterward, he told me he was having an “off day.” I said, “Professional speakers don’t have “off days.” We are being paid to deliver a solid message every time. And the time you blamed your failure on the audience was assigning blame to the wrong people. It is not the audience’s responsibility to make you great. That’s on you.” Effective speakers take responsibility for making the speech great without excuses, every time.
5. Humility: I knew a car salesman who had such a heartfelt rags-to-riches story that a major Hollywood star played him in what would become a hit movie. That kind of exposure transformed this sales guy into highly demanded public speaker. Audiences everywhere were excited to meet the real-life version of the man they admired in the movie. The problem was this guy was an insufferable jerk to everyone he met. He felt so entitlement that when I met him, he thought he was too important to be talking to a group of garden tool manufacturers. His sour reputation went viral and within months, his speaking career had fizzled. If you are being paid a lot of money to simply talk to people, you are one of the luckiest people on the planet. My humble advice is to be nice to everybody, all of the time. Realize that a large public audience also has the ability to talk…about you.
As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?
Everyone — even experienced public speakers get nervous. Johnny Carson, a man who hosted the Tonight Show for 30 years, was a tennis player whose resting heart rate was 65 beats per minute. One night Johnny’s doctor took his heartrate fifteen seconds before Johnny went through his very familiar stage curtain. His heart raced at 145 beats per minute. Here’s the lesson. Johnny’s nervousness was invisible. Nobody saw anything but a cool, collected Johnny Carson. People don’t notice your nerves either. Secondly, memorize the first five words you intend to say. Just five words. Once you start talking, you’ll realize you can continue the rest of your talk.
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
This was a question my coauthor and I thought about a lot when writing RATTLED. It was cathartic writing gut wrenching stories we had locked away for decades. We would like to start a movement where OTHER PEOPLE would have a place to tell THEIR stories of triumph over tragedy — a series of RATTLED books for teens, grandparents, couples, etc. We don’t want other people’s life lessons to be lost to their own families. There is a legacy in every family. A legacy that would inspire children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to know how their ancestors lived, loved, worked, and survived.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens! David Letterman. For years, Dave and I corresponded and I visited him at his house (with our mutual comedian friend George Miller). After all this time, I would like to talk to him again.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
Ross Shafer INSTAGRAM: RossShafer
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Ross Shafer On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.