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Gina London: How disabled skier soared to heights in sport and speaking


Bonnie St John competing at the 1984 Winter Paralympics

Bonnie St John competing at the 1984 Winter Paralympics

Bonnie St John competing at the 1984 Winter Paralympics

Having one leg didn't stop Bonnie St John from being a champion. She became the first African-American to win medals in Paralympic Alpine skiing, and she's a full-time speaker commanding between $15,000-$25,000 (€13,000 to €21,560) per gig.

This may seem like a straight-forward statement to you, until you realise that Bonnie won her bronze and silver medals way back in 1984.

How has this woman stayed at the top of her game? And, for purposes of this column and my on-going commitment to helping you improve your own game, what can we all learn from her? I'm about to share her speaking secrets, so get ready.

First, let me set the scene. I was fortunate to hear Bonnie tell her story in person this past week as I attended a four-day leadership conference in Orlando hosted by the inimitable John C Maxwell organisation.

People from all over the globe were in attendance, eager to apply the valuable lessons in integrity, influence and professional development from the variety of speakers to their lives and the lives of others.

(By the way, I was also fortunate to meet some wonderful people from Ireland who happened to be there too. Tip of The Communicator cap to Joanne, Noel, Valerie, Lorraine, Mick and Sonya "with a Y".)

Now back to Bonnie. As I alluded, for more than 20 years she has been one of the most sought-after speakers represented by the prestigious Washington Speakers Bureau.

It's been a source of envy for some of her peers. For instance, Bonnie related how an Olympic (not Paralympic) medal winner, who had won four gold medals but was not earning Bonnie's fees for speaking engagements once turned to her in frustration and complained: "I should be making more than you."

Bonnie explained that what sets her apart from her gold-medal-winning Olympic colleague - and perhaps from many other speakers as well - is how she steadfastly stays focused on "providing a real value to support the goals of the customer". Here's how:

1 Speak to 'real' participants before

Bonnie stated, and I certainly agree from my own experience, that it's quite typical to have your interactions limited to organisers before any speaking event.

From the PR official to the coordinating executive in charge, most speakers usually have minimal access to an audience before they take to the stage.

"If you only talk to management, you will sound like management," Bonnie cautioned.

That's why she makes it a rule to ask to talk to a few non-management employees well in advance.

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"I want to know how my topic lands in their life. If I'm talking about teamwork, how does it work or not work in their organisation? As a speaker, really ask yourself, 'How do I best sell my value? How do I understand their problem?'."

2 Change and evolve your stories

As humans, we're constantly meeting new people and having new experiences. Incorporate them into your presentation. You can grow in your speaking forever. If you're not growing, you'll stop being as meaningful.

Even your "old chestnuts" can be modified. Bonnie shared how the harrowing story she often tells of having to use weights to toughen her "stump" to prepare it for the prosthesis has evolved over the years.

It once centred on her own pain and persistence, but has since been shifted to instead focus on the kind and encouraging role of her physical therapy nurse.

Bonnie described her collection of stories as a 'pantry'. She mixes and matches to suit the different types of audiences before her. Each one receives a unique blend of her pantry ingredients. For us gathered at the World Center Marriott Conference, she exclaimed: "I had so much fun making this meal for you."

3 Remind people they're heroes

In addition to having her leg amputated at the age of five due to a rare birth defect, Bonnie was also sexually abused by her stepfather for years. Despite these staggering odds against her, she never gave up.

"Who decides my worth? It's me," she declared. It's a message she tries to deliver to everyone.

Bonnie has also written several self-development books to support and motivate. These help her remain current and relevant to new audiences. "I'm a self-made celebrity, she jokingly bragged. "Being a celebrity means I go to events and let people celebrate me. But I also celebrate them. I don't want to show-off, I want to connect."

One of the most impacting moments she said she experienced was after addressing a homeless shelter. A very large (and according to Bonnie, a rather "smelly") resident came up and gave her a hug. "You're just like me," the man proclaimed.

"You know you're connecting, when something like that happens," Bonnie recalled.

"I remind people that they're everyday heroes. We all have our giants to face, but you can stand up to what you fear. No matter how bad your life is, you can fight for positivity. You can be a warrior."

Each of you has an area in which you can help someone by sharing your story.

Like Bonnie, you can make a difference for people. Remember, who decides your future and your impact? You.

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