by Wiley Brooks

RossShafer photo

Ross Shafer was a local kid who became a sought-after celebrity. Then he took a sharp left turn and remade himself into one of the top keynote speakers in the world. Now based in Colorado, Shafer gives 70 to 80 speeches each year, earning $20,000 or more plus costs each time. The man knows how to give a good talk.

When he graduated from the University of Puget Sound, he wanted to someday be a mogul. He dallied in being a small business person. He bought and sold small bankrupt companies and even founded a stereo and pet store in Puyallup. That last one took a sense of humor. In fact, it might have led to his inner-comic emerging on a stage.

His start as a stand-up comedian, though, didn’t go well.

“I entered a couple of competitions, but failed miserably,” Shafer said in an interview for this blog. Then he did something that would change his fortunes and his life forever. A former college linebacker, he hired a coach.

“There is a guy down in San Francisco named Jim Richardson who is a comic coach,” Shafer said. “The first thing he had me do was transcribe my act, then edit the hell out of it. He gave me a metric. I had to have six laughs a minute for 20 minutes and each laugh had to last at least three seconds.”

Shafer says it changed the way he looked at words. He had six seconds to tell a joke, pause three seconds for the laughter, then another joke, then another. Brevity required short words in tight sentences.

“I had to take the fluff out and get to the point,” Shafer said. But when he did, the change was immediate. He won the next contest, then the next. With each win, his stage got bigger and bigger. Soon, he was in Los Angeles where he replaced Joan Rivers as the host of The Late Show on Fox. He later co-hosted the ABC network show Days End with none other than Matt Lauer.

While he still relies on laughter, he’s now dishing out nuggets of wisdom to audiences around the world. His recent gigs have included top Hilton Hotels execs meeting in Vienna, Austria, or 26,000 Amway dealers gathered in Boston, or to a pow-wow of AT&T’s top 20 female leaders in Dallas. Brands we all know well fill his client list.

Shafer begins a speech by dictating it to his computer, which gives him a transcript. Then it’s time to tackle the real work.

“I start by looking for where I’ve duplicated my thoughts,” he said. “I can cut a lot. And I do.”

Next, he takes what he calls the emotional pass where he zeroes in on his word choices. “I’m always looking to replace words with ones that carry more emotion,” he said.

As an example, Shafer said his first draft might say, “I know you are busy.” He’ll change it to, “I know you feel slammed.” Same content, but with more powerful words. “Word choices are important,” he said. “I work to find shorter ones that carry emotion. Short words keep people riveted to what I’m saying.”

Shafer says Twitter has forced him to think more about being quotable. “I want to give them tight chunks, 140 characters or less, that they can tweet out while I’m talking,” he said. He works hard to hone those lines and sprinkle them throughout his talk. It’s hard to stuff big words into 140-character tweets.

His is a good lesson for leaders. You inspire by giving people phrases that connect with them emotionally yet are lean enough to be easy to quote. And it doesn’t hurt if you can generate a laugh or two along the way.