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As a speaker in a world filled with thousands of professional speakers, Jeanne Robertson stands above the crowd. As a wife and mother who combine a happy home life with a successful career Jeanne Robertson rises above many working women. As a humorist who packs a potent message into a down-to-earth style, Jeanne Robertson towers over the rest. Finally, because Jeanne Robertson also happens to stand -- not "five-foot-two, with eyes of blue" but "six-foot-two, with a size eleven shoe" -- Jeanne Robertson is, in fact, a very big lady in every sense of the word.
It hasn't always been so -- the six-foot-two part -- only since she was thirteen in the little North Carolina town of Graham, when and where she would have been voted most likely to make the girls' basketball team (or maybe even the boys'), and least likely to be a contestant in the Miss America Pageant. She did make the girls' team -- averaging over thirty points per game her junior and senior years -- but she also went to Atlantic City in the mid-sixties as Miss North Carolina. Thus far Jeanne is still the tallest contestant to ever compete in the Miss America Pageant, which makes her, as she puts it, "also the tallest contestant to ever lose in the Miss America Pageant."
It was her participation in and perhaps even her losing of the Miss America title that turned Jeanne's life into a succession of events which led her to be one of the funniest, busiest and most popular professional speakers in America today. Because she was asked to speak every day as Miss North Carolina, Jeanne traveled her native state for one year speaking at pageants and addressing civic clubs and corporations. Hers was never the routine speech. "it didn't take me long to figure out people were tired of hearing the titleholders say, 'It's so nice to be here.' People responded to humor, and I found that I could say funny things:' says Jeanne. And as she told her funny stories, she found that people seem to more easily identify with someone who did not win the title of Miss America than with those who had been so honored.
It seemed, however, that they could identify with Miss Congeniality, a title Jeanne won on the local level and in Atlantic City, and a distinction she jokingly claims was given to the contestant "least likely to win the title of Miss America." In truth, the title fits very well, Easy-going and friendly, she has the rare quality to make people feel comfortable around her whether she is speaking to thousands from a stage or sitting across the living room in a small group.
It is that warmth that people felt as she traveled her state. The more she talked and "said funny things:' the more people listened and laughed, and the wider her fame spread. At that time she had no dream of becoming a professional speaker, but suddenly, she was. When her year as Miss North Carolina was over, she found that people were willing to pay her to come and address their groups and conventions and were loving every laughing minute of it. They wanted Jeanne -- not just a Miss North Carolina -- and they wanted her because she made them laugh.
At that point, Jeanne still viewed speaking as a way to make a little money while continuing her education. She received her degree at Auburn University and taught physical education in high school and college, a career she enjoyed for nine years. But throughout those years of teaching and coaching basketball, the requests continued to pour in for her to speak. In 1976, she stopped teaching and entered professional speaking full time.
Her rise in the speaking profession was nothing short of phenomenal. Working ten months, she quickly averaged over a hundred speeches a year for meeting planners all over the country. Speakers were also quick to recognize Jeanne's talent. She is one of a small number of women who have received the National Speakers Association CPAE Speakers Hall of Fame Award, the highest award given by that association for speaking excellence. Some of the other recipients include President Ronald Reagan, Norman Vincent Peale, Cavett Robert, Art Linkletter and Earl Nightingale.
In December of 1984, the Nightingale-Conant Corporation, the world's largest producer of audiocassette programs, introduced its first humor albums with presentations by twelve nationally-known humorists. Jeanne was the only woman to be featured.
In 1986, Toastmasters in North Carolina presented her with their Communication and Leadership Award, given annually to a non-Toastmaster for outstanding achievements and contributions to communications excellence.
In 1985-86, she served as President of the National Speakers Association, which now numbers over 3800 members. In 1989, she was presented with the association's Cavett Award, which is NSA's most cherished honor. "The Cavett" is awarded annually to one member whose accomplishments, integrity and reputation are a credit to NSA and the speaking profession, Jeanne was the first woman to receive the honor.
In 1998, Toastmasters International named Jeanne the recipient of its Golden Gavel Award, given annually to one individual for accomplishments in leadership and communication. Past recipients include Lowell Thomas, Walter Cronkite, Earl Nightingale, Art Linkletter, Dr.Joyce Brothers, Tom Peters, Dr. Ken Blanchard and Mark Russell.
Jeanne is also an author. Along with humorists Doc Blakely, Joe Griffith, and Robert Henry, she coauthored How the Platform Professionals Keep 'Em Laughin, (Rich Publishing, 1987) which was written to help the non-professional speaker put humor into presentations. Jeanne is the author of Humor: The Magic of Genie (Rich Publishing, 1990) in which she relates uproarious tales that provide step-by-step direction for developing a sense of humor. In her book Mayberry Humor Across the USA (Rich Publishing, 1995) she illustrates that Mayberry-type humor is still prevalent. Her latest book, Don't Let the Funny Stuff Get Away (Rich Publishing, 1998), provides a systematic approach to gathering speech material from everyday experiences.
Jeanne is primarily a convention speaker. This role calls for a humorist rather than a "stand-up comedienne." A meeting planner usually invites a speaker for a specific purpose and the audience is most often very attentive. In contrast, a night club group is distracted and seldom gives full attention. An entertainer in that situation often resorts to a few vulgar stories or four-letter words to gain the attention of the patrons and get a few laughs. "A professional speaker," Jeanne contends, "doesn't need to resort to that type of material. It is totally inappropriate in convention and corporate situations."
A professional humorist is expected to do more than make people laugh. Convention audiences enjoy laughing but they also want to be informed or motivated. Jeanne does so through humor and although she doesn't hit her audience over the head with a sermon, she does use humor to illustrate very definite points. As audiences are holding their sides and wiping tears from their faces, Jeanne makes her message clear. While emphasizing the importance of having a sense of humor, she stresses that "telling funny stories doesn't give a person a sense of humor. A real sense of humor means being able to accept things you can't change and laugh at yourself, and being able to laugh at day-to-day situations which are often anything but funny when they happen."
One thing that Jeanne could change but she has chosen not to is her Southern accent. It is as sweet as honeysuckle in spring, and she wraps it around her audiences like the scent of a magnolia tree in full bloom. The fact is, she has developed it to an even finer degree after, as she puts it with a smile, "I found out people will pay to hear So-uth-ern." (Pronounced with several syllables, of course).
This outstanding professional has been able to combine a successful career with a harmonious home life, and Jeanne is quick to point out that family support has made it possible. She says, "My six-foot-six husband, and our six-foot-eight son Beaver help me write my humorous material and give me encouragement and cooperation which make it possible for me to pursue the career I have chosen." She goes to great lengths to book speeches around family priorities. Those priorities now include a grandchild.
At six-foot-two, Jeanne Robertson is still the "biggest loser" to ever participate in the Miss America Pageant. But that is not the case to those who know her either as a speaker, humorist, author, motivator, entrepreneur, wife, mother or friend. Those individuals -- together with the thousands who hear her speak every year -- know she is a "BIGWINNER."