Motivational Speaker Background for Kelly Swanson

She’s the female version of Mark Twain.
T. Rollins

Short Answer: My Background As a Motivational Business Speaker

  • Have been a writer my whole life – created an imaginary town (Prides Hollow) and wrote stories about the people there
  • Majored in English at Appalachian State University
  • Began telling stories as a hobby in 1990
  • Became a professional storyteller (yes, there is such a thing) in 1991
    • Worked in schools, nursing homes, churches – anybody who would pay me to tell stories
    • Continued taking courses, workshops, mentorships on writing, storytelling, comedy, etc.
  • Did 5 Contracts for Holland America Cruise Lines as an embarking entertainer in 2004
  • Opened for Loretta Lynn, and shared the stage at conferences with Vicki Lawrence, Naomi Judd, and Lisa Ling
  • Became a motivational speaker in 2004
  • Wrote “Who Hijacked My Fairy Tale?,  “Gutsy Girls Pocket Guide to Public Speaking”, “The Land of If Only”,  along with other CDs and DVDs between 2004 and present
  • Keynote speaker for International Toastmasters Convention 2016, American Payroll Association National Convention 2016, AAHAM National Convention 2016 – to name a few
  • Cast as celebrity mentor on The Fashion Hero – a reality TV show airing in 2017
  • Performs in over 60 venues a year all over the US
  • Will be hosting the fourth Story Crafting Summer Camp in 2017 where professionals gather from all over the world to study the art of story
  • Created an online Corporate Training Program that launched in 2016 called Storytelling For Engagement
  • Created an online Story Impact Academy in 2016 which currently hosts two online story crafting courses

Long Answer: How I ended up here…as a Funny Motivational Speaker

It’s the question I hear most often: How did you end up doing this?

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a motivational speaker and a comedian. I was funny because it was how I dealt with life. Learning to be funny on purpose was a challenge – and continues to be. And because I was the picked-on kid, I grew up with a heart for the people who feel left out – the ones not noticed – the ones who feel less than. In college I was the one you could count on to entertain the masses (usually with a dumb idea that sounded good at first) so acting silly on stage was not such a huge leap –  and I was always the one who attracted the stray kids who didn’t feel like they belonged. So I guess you could say that I’ve been encouraging people while making them laugh my whole life. But I didn’t go to school for this. They don’t have classes in college where you learn how to break boards with your hand and sit around cheering each other up. But I would have definitely majored in it if they did. So my path was not well thought out. Like most things in life, it was a weird twisted trail of seemingly unrelated, but now completely related, events.

I’ve always been a writer for as long as I can remember. I wrote fiction – poetry – stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things that to me seemed extraordinary, even in their simplicity. That’s where my “town” was born – and this cast of characters that have brought me such joy and truth. I didn’t have much faith in my talent – not even considering it worthy of calling a hobby. I still remember taking a course on Children’s Book Writing in college, and the teacher signing a copy of her book for me. She wrote:  “To Kelly, the girl who really believes she will write children’s books.”  Yeah, I wasn’t impressed either. So writing became something I just did for me. It brought me great joy. The idea of people actually reading it never entered the picture. Until later.

So I graduate college with an English degree, no idea what I wanted to do, and a head full of memories that would haunt me once I grew up and realized what an idiot I had been in those days. I lived my single life with reckless abandon and a job that paid the bills – just counting the minutes until my fairy tale started with the husband, the kids, the dog, and whatever else was supposed to come with that. Writing was just something I did to pass time.

And then I got this wild idea that I would get published – despite the fact that I really didn’t have anything to publish. But that didn’t stop me. I sent hundreds of letters and sample chapters and copies of the poems I had written for family memories on their birthdays to agents and publishing companies and anybody else I thought would listen. It still makes me cringe to think about it. But I was doing what so many do – thinking that my gift was supposed to follow a certain path. I write, therefore I publish, and get in the front of Barnes and Noble. The only time I ever got to the front of Barnes and Noble was when I was in line.  So I eventually accepted the idea that I would never be published. End of story.

But it wasn’t the end of the story. Just the end of the fairy tale image I had. I took a writing class for fun with a bunch of teachers who were taking it for continuing education credits. We had to read our stories to the class. They loved my stories, but even more, they loved the way I told them. Next thing you know, I’m getting hired to come to their school to tell stories to the kids. I remember having one story written on forty-seven notecards lining the floor. Which, by the way, I couldn’t see and they were useless.  I quickly realized that I didn’t like storytelling for kids. I was speaking to the teachers in the room – the adults – who picked up on the humor and messages that the kids missed.

It was at one of these school gigs that I met a professional storyteller named Cynthia Brown. Yes, there is such a thing as a professional storyteller. Turns out there are a lot of them – and this opened up a door to a magical world – a place I really felt I belonged. I met more storytellers, attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and was hooked. I fell head over heels in love with the art of storytelling. And we’ve been in love ever since.

Somewhere along this path of me learning how to tell stories on stage, I met my husband. He was the first one to tell me I had a gift – that I could do something others could not. He showed me what I could not see in myself. And he still does to this day. (Though I’m not always happy to hear it.) So I give him the credit for this becoming more than a hobby. And together we set out (he’s always been a partner in this from the beginning) to make a business out of this.

Turns out that being a professional storyteller is tough – especially if you want to make it your livelihood – especially if you want to go outside the normal channels and find adult audiences who will pay you to come tell stories.  But we did everything we knew to do – website, business cards, phone calls, postcards, anything to get my name out there. My husband has a Master’s Degree in business. So he knows a few things. We followed this path for years – with lots of ups and downs – learning as we went – getting better – improving our marketing materials – getting more polished on stage. These were the years I learned my art and my craft – though I don’t believe you ever stop learning.

And then one day I met a speaker – this really tall, elegant lady – named Jeanne Robertson. She was speaking at an event where I was performing. She saw my show and came up to me to chat. She told me to join NSA (National Speakers Association) and became my first mentor in the speaking business. She showed me that I could take what I do in the world of storytelling, and take it into the world of speaking. She was truly a godsend and continues to be a treasured friend.

So around 2004 we began the process of reinventing – of turning this storytelling career into a speaking business. NSA taught me the business of speaking – and continues to teach me. There is still so much to learn – and so many areas where I need work.  It was also in 2004 when my son was born, and we decided it was time for me to quit working at my father’s company and to make this a fulltime job. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Now it seems crazy. But sometimes you need to be a little crazy to put the fire under you to succeed. I’m not sure I would have worked as hard if I had been comfortable.

It was a long, tough, exciting, rejection-filled road. And there were many moments when I truly wondered whether this was going to work. But I never gave up. That was not an option. I believed in those who told me I had a gift. I believed in the dream. I just wasn’t sure what shape it was going to take. To be truthful, I’m still not sure.

I also made one really big mistake. I took the characters, the town I had created, and all the wonderful delicious things that made me different as a storyteller, and I buried them. I looked around and decided it didn’t fit. I decided to blend.  I set out to become another funny motivational speaker and pattern myself after the others. I chose a spot in the chorus line instead of the spotlight. And I truly believe that this cost me years of time, energy, and money. If I had just stayed true to myself and what made me different. But that’s okay. I learned a valuable lesson. And I’m back now. The characters have come back to life. And that has become the core of my message as a motivational speaker. Turns out I’m not the only one trying to blend in. And success today goes to those with the courage to come out of their comfort zone and step into the spotlight. So it’s all good. It gives me credibility to speak on the subject. I lived it.

I would say that it took about seven years for my career to take off. Seven years of gradually getting better and getting booked more. Seven long years. And then when the economy started to take a downward turn, my career started to take an upward turn. The years of working at my craft had made me better on stage. The years of working for chicken anywhere I could find someone to have me, started sprouting seeds. Business led to better business. Opportunities got bigger and so did my audiences. I had built a name and a reputation for myself. My fan base was growing. I met speakers in NSA who became lifelong friends – like family to me- and we continue to hold each other up. And our years of extensive online article writing, video publishing, blogging, and social media brought us to the first page of Google. And that was when the dream began to come true in ways I’m not sure I had imagined. The internet changed everything for me. It allowed me to show the world that I am here. It allowed me an infinite number of ways to tell my stories. It allowed me to build a fan base and stay in touch with people all over the world. It leveled the playing field.

I still have places I want to go – a vision that seems just beyond my reach. And I’m sure that my career will take twists and turns that I won’t see coming. There will be good days and bad days. And rejection will always be a big part of my life. But I love what I do. I truly do. I can’t imagine not doing it. I will not give up on this dream. Now I have several books, CDs, DVDs, workbooks, children books. And still I’m not in the front of Barnes and Noble unless I’m standing in line. And I could care less.

So that’s my journey – the short version. At least up until this point. The rest is still under construction.