Ron Culberson: "I was funny in the world of hospice care."

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Welcome to another episode of "10 Words or Less," in which I ask brief questions of interesting people and request brief answers in return. Today's offering belongs to a growing 10WOL subset in which I talk to professional speakers. This particular speaker is a recent past president of the National Speakers Association and a recipient of both its highest earned and bestowed honors. He’ll be presenting ideas and solutions to NSA’s New England Chapter on Feb. 11th, an event that is open to the public. He is the author of four books including "Do It Well Make It Fun." He’s a nationally known humorist whose clients have included the US Senate and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Hopkins and Safeway.

Ron Culberson, recipient of the National Speaker Association's highest earned and bestowed honorsName Ron Culberson
Born when and where “Abingdon, Va., in 1960, but grew up in Emory, Va., which is 10 miles up the road in the middle of nowhere.”
Was there anything unusual about the circumstances of your birth? “Yes. I came in with such force, my mother went deaf in one ear. … She had mumps.”
Wow. Did she hold it against you? “That’s a good question. I need to ask my therapist about that. I’m not sure.”

Where do you live now? “In central Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville.”
How would you describe your work? “I am primarily a keynote speaker. I talk about the balance between excellence and fun.”
What was an early influence on you outside your immediate family? “I loved watching comedians.”
What was the first time you spoke in front of an audience? “I was a natural showoff. I was in front of people all the time. But my first real performance, I would say, was in a Rotary talent show in 1978.”
You like to volunteer. What’s something you’ve learned from volunteering. “As a social worker, I used to be surrounded by people who were less fortunate than me. Because I don’t practice social work anymore, volunteering puts me in the position of, I think, humbling me to understand that I’m very blessed in what I have and that there are others less fortunate.”
A lot of people think of volunteering as, 'I’ve got to give up my time and deal with all those people.' It’s not that way with you? “It is that way with me, but I’ve embraced the concept. It’s what I do. Rather than an add-on, I see it as what I do.”
How much of being funny is innate? “I don’t know if I can put a percentage on it but I believe there are certain people who just see the world funny. That’s natural and then we build on that. Then there are people who don’t, that learn to. I was born with this gift to see the world slanted.”
Can you give me an early example of how you saw the world slanted? “A friend asked me about this recently. When I was very young, probably early high school or middle-school age, I developed a routine called the invisible wrestler. I thought it would be really funny to see one side of a wrestling match where you only saw one person.”
When is the last time you did that routine? “A long time ago. That’s actually the question my friend asked. I said, ‘Look at me. I’m 55. I’m not doing that anymore.’ ”
Name a particularly funny person that folks might not think of at first. “Mark Sanborn is hilarious. His image as a speaker and a leader is one of very profound thinking and insight. And yet, he’s the guy, if you sit next to him at a meeting, he’ll get you in trouble.”
Mark Sanborn? “Mark is a past president of the National Speakers Association. He wrote a book called “The Fred Factor” and he does a lot on leadership, customer service, that kind of thing.”
Tell me something you learned recently about being funny. “This was reinforced recently. I read Judd Apatow’s book where he interviewed comedians. The recurring theme, time and time again, is that, out of insecurity, people use humor as a way to be confident. What I learned was that oftentimes people use humor in order to take control of the situation. In other words, if I’m laughed at and I’m not in control, that’s very uncomfortable. But if I’m laughed at because I’m in control of creating laughter, I’m very much more comfortable. That was a huge insight because I’ve seen myself doing that my whole life.”
So you do have that insecurity? “Of course. I’m a social worker by training, which means that I went through a lot of introspection. I’ve been in counseling. I’ve been in therapy. I know a lot about who I am. I think most speakers have some level of insecurity. We’re getting our benefits by being in front of other people. That, to me, often comes from a lack of confidence or security and so we get reinforced in that manner.”
A takeaway that you’ll be offering at NSANE on Feb. 11 “I’m not sure everybody understands that the greatest gift that they have when speaking is the uniqueness of who they are. I think a lot of people strive to be something else — in their delivery, in their style, in their content — when, in fact, they have the magic formula in their uniqueness. Hopefully I’ll be able to flesh that out with the group.”
How about something else? I’m going to talk about the metaphorical power of storytelling and how much more content can get across through stories than through charts and graphs and Powerpoint. And then, also how humor functions very similarly if done appropriately.”
Offer us a tip of being a good MC. “MCing is an art just like anything else. It takes work and it takes effort. I think when people show up thinking they just have to read what’s given to them, they’re not really doing their due diligence. I’m going to talk about it as a purposeful way to make an event better and how you can be the glue that comes through. For instance, doing segues to tie one segment to the next in every introduction, every time you take the stage, making it fluid and fun.
Do you usually know what those segues are or do you have one in case one doesn’t occur to you? Are you counting on something that’s come up to connect that to where you’re going next? “I do both. I primarily want to do something in the moment because that’s more powerful. If I comment on something that’s just happened in a funny way, it’s way better than if it’s a prepared line. But if I don’t come up with something, I will have a prepared line ready to go so that I still have that continuity to offer.”
Has being in the speakers’ hall of fame had any concrete value for you? “It’s very hard to say. Obviously, it goes into my promotional materials. It’s something that people use in my introductions or my bios. What I don’t know is if that made any influence on their decision making. I think that with both the Certified Speaking Professional and the CPAE [acronym for the speakers’ hall of fame], both of those awards are industry awards within our own industry, the speaking profession, so they clearly mean a great deal in that organization and that industry. What it means outside of that is hard to know for me.”
Do you find that people try to be funny around you because you’re funny? “My funny friends do. I don’t think that people who don’t do this on a regular basis do that, but you get a group of humorists together and all we’re trying to do is outwit one another.”
Something about you that surprises people. “I have a Mickey Mouse tattoo.”
Where? “On my arm. My wife asked me why and I said it’s a great story. When I’m 80 and I go to the doctor, that’s going to be hilarious. Unless it looks life Goofy.”
When did you get that and why? “Twenty years ago. I just thought it would be kind of funny. It’s ironic to me that I have this sort of macho — nowadays tattoos aren’t really macho, but back in the day, 20-30 years ago, they were — and I thought it was hilarious that I got this macho tattoo that was Mickey Mouse.”
Something about people that surprises you? “I’m routinely surprised by how mean people can be on social media and in person, even, just with an aggressive kind of tone and a sort of … I don’t want to say cruelty, because that may be kind of a strong word, but just meanness.”
What can you do about that? “What I’ve chosen to do in almost all of my posts, my social media, my presentations, I try to be non-controversial and I try to be positive in the way that I present material. My feeling is that I’m putting a vibe out there that is counter to what seems to draw a lot of people in these days.”
What’s a question I should have asked you? “That’s a really good question. I think you covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. … A lot of people usually ask me how I got into the speaking business. It was because I was funny in the world of hospice care, as a social worker, and I stood out.”
You’re coming up on Feb. 10th, staying overnight in the middle of winter, and your compensation is little more than a free dinner and expenses. What’s in it for you? “That’s a good question. I don’t do this for any benefit because speakers are not my audience. I don’t sell to them, I don’t gain monetarily from speakers. But they are my colleagues and so, if I have something that’s of value that I can provide in this capacity, it kind of falls back into that volunteer mentality that I have. It’s an opportunity to do something, hopefully, worthwhile.”


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