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Motivational Speaker


If the podium is calling your name, you should get to know Josh Shipp, a one-man school in the art and business of motivational speaking.

The Main Stage Josh Shipp addresses the 2010 convention of the Future Farmers of America, a gathering so large, he gave his keynote address in three sessions.

The Main Stage Josh Shipp addresses the 2010 convention of the Future Farmers of America, a gathering so large, he gave his keynote address in three sessions.

What It Takes Shipp has recently taken on two charges, Kantis Simmons (left) and Brooks Gibbs. He is helping them perfect their craft and book gigs. In return, they pay him 30 percent of their speaking fees.

What It Takes Shipp has recently taken on two charges, Kantis Simmons (left) and Brooks Gibbs. He is helping them perfect their craft and book gigs. In return, they pay him 30 percent of their speaking fees.

Connecting Shipp meets his fans at the Future Farmers of America convention. He also signs books.

Connecting Shipp meets his fans at the Future Farmers of America convention. He also signs books.

I am sitting in an Anaheim, California, hotel room with three motivational speakers, thinking for the first time in my life that coffee is superfluous. Kantis Simmons is practicing the close of his speech, and he is so in the moment that the air around him seems to vibrate. He feigns sobbing. He claps. He smacks his fist into his palm. Watching him from 4 feet away is like sharing a pup tent with a faith healer.

Simmons is relating the story of his birth. CliffsNotes version: Dad rushes to the hospital after learning that his new son has arrived in the world with just seven fingers. His mother is crying, "happy tears and sad tears..." -- here Simmons slides into a throaty falsetto as he mimics his mother delivering the devastating news. Now he is his father, voice deep and solicitous: " Sweetheart. Honey Lump. Calm down. Even though our baby boy is missing some of his fingers, he will still [beat] be [beat] great. And, young people, whatever you are going through, I want you to remember the words of my father. You will still [beat] be [beat] great."

From the sofa, Josh Shipp -- the motivational sensei who is host of this mentoring session -- nods approvingly. At 29, Shipp could pass for 18: his face dusted with pale freckles, his hair like that of a classroom guinea pig whose fur kids keep ruffling. That youthfulness, coupled with a noncloying inspirational message and ADD scattershot humor, accounts for his appeal to the high school and young-adult audiences who have made him a $5,000-a-booking act. "Badass," says Shipp, to Simmonss evident gratification.

"For that greatness to grow, for me, I had to become my own personal cheerleader," Simmons continues. "I would look in the mirror and say, Kantis, you can be whatever you want to be... "

"Oh, God, NO!" Shipp is yelling and laughing, halfway off the couch. "Why are you still talking? That was money! Wrap it up! Wrap it up! Get offstage!"

Even I could have advised Simmons to get while the getting was good. And until recently, I knew nothing about motivational speaking. A serial avoider of keynotes, I had assumed all motivational speakers were former astronauts, Olympians, or Everest scalers enjoying lucrative postcareers, distilling their capital-A achievements into model attitudes and behaviors. Or they were gurus like Anthony Robbins, with big smiles, bushy eyebrows, and best-selling programs for self-reinvention. Like many others, I took my cues from pop culture, which treats the profession with condescension-laced amusement. In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney played a motivational-speaker-as-emotional-cripple. In an episode of the British version of The Office, Ricky Gervais played a motivational-speaker-as-tin-eared-buffoon. ("If Ive got one leg, at least I havent got two legs missing. And if Ive lost both legs and both arms, just go, at least Im not dead. Though I would rather be dead in that situation.")

Who knew that motivational speaking could be a career choice -- let alone a profitable business? Turns out, it is both. Close to half of the 3,400 members of the National Speakers Association -- all of whom book at least 20 paid gigs a year -- earn their livelihoods from presentations that are at least partly motivational. (Many mix inspiration with educational and industry-specific material.) Slightly more than half have at least one employee. Aspiring speakers are entering the field earlier than ever, no longer treating the profession as a third or fourth act after years spent amassing expertise and life experiences. "Today, Generation Y is coming right out of college saying, I want to be a professional speaker, " says Stacy Tetschner, CEO of the NSA.

For successful speakers, the financial rewards can be significant. In a 2007 survey, NSA members reported average gross revenue of $177,000 for speaking and product sales -- chiefly books and CDs.