Award-winning humorist Jeanne Robertson discovered her passion for professional speaking on a pageant stage 56 years ago.
Pageants first drew Robertson to the world of professional speaking. When she was a junior at Auburn University, she entered her local hometown pageant. She won, and went on to become Miss North Carolina 1963. Robertson won the Miss Congeniality award at Miss America that year.
Standing at 6’2”, Robertson remains the tallest contestant to compete in the Miss America pageant.
From pageants to Conventions
Pageant title holders were required to drop out of college or take a sabbatical from their job and travel for one year to make appearances. The title holder would have to speak at each appearance, which was practically every day.
“It took me about a week to figure out if I said something funny, people really laughed,” Robertson said in an interview with Whatzup.
Making more than 500 speeches in 12 months, the reputation started to spread that Robertson had a knack for making people laugh.
Following her year as Miss North Carolina, she went back to Auburn University, graduated, and started teaching. Simultaneously, she spoke at four state conventions, and her speaking career started to take off.
“I just hit the ground running and I started speaking at conventions,” Robertson said. “I really embraced it. I wrote my own material, and I was just funny.”
After teaching for nine years and speaking every weekend, she decided it was time to give something up. Speaking outweighed teaching, so she went into that full-time.
Robertson has been heavily involved with the National Speakers Association throughout her entire career. She was the organization’s president from 1985-86 and has won numerous awards from the association.
From being active in the National Speakers Association, she knows most speakers in the country and has had countless opportunities to learn from them.
“It’s just like any other profession,” Robertson said. “By networking and knowing other people, you get valuable information and ideas.”
Unexpected Name Recognition
Though humor is Robertson’s strength, she never considered herself a comedian or performed in comedy clubs. She was entrenched quickly into the convention market.
About 10 years ago, people approached Robertson and told her they thought she had enough name recognition that she could sell tickets.
This was a shock for Robertson, as she said professional convention keynote speakers don’t sell tickets. They just get booked and arrive at the convention.
“We tell young speakers all the time, if you think these thousands of people have come to the convention because you’re speaking opposite 20 other people, you’re wrong,” Robertson said. “You’re a convention speaker, and I was always proud of that and did well at it.”
She did agree to sell tickets for a Dallas event, and it sold out in two weeks.
“I had a tiny bit of name recognition,” Robertson said.
The material Robertson delivers is suitable for everyone. She prides herself on having a clean act. Though she said she loves comedy clubs, that is not her style. Robertson said her fans don’t want to hear the language others would in a comedy club.
“I don’t tell jokes, I tell what I see,” Robertson said. “Make it funny, and if it needs it, exaggerate a bit. Basically, it’s just stuff that happens.”
Passing on Family Stories
As each decade went on in her life, Robertson’s material changed. In her 60s, she embraced the internet.
“Not all of it,” Robertson said. “I’m not on Twitter, but I’m where my fans are: YouTube, Facebook, and SiriusXM.”
Because of being on platforms such as YouTube and SiriusXM Radio, Robertson said she attracts a younger audience.
“It’s good to look out in the audience and see every race, every age, every religion all laughing at the same thing, and nobody’s offended,” Robertson said.
When people make eye contact and they’re laughing at the same thing, a bond develops, according to Robertson.
Many listeners have come up to Robertson after her show and expressed their desire to do what she does. Her response is that all she does is tell her family stories. She just takes them to the stage.
“If you don’t pass on your family stories, you take them with you,” Robertson said. “It doesn’t have to be on stage, just record it when you’re all having fun one night and pass them on.”
For now, Robertson is staying busy with speaking and continuing to follow her dream. However, she said that once she can’t do the job to the extent she has been, she’d rather not do it at all.
“I’ll quit when the time is right and do something else,” Robertson said. “I could clean this house.”
On Jan. 26, Robertson will bring her humor to the Niswonger Center.
“I want people to sit there in Van Wert and say, ‘She must’ve been a fly on our wall,’” Robertson said.
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