How to Choose an Olympic Speaker

Speakers who have conquered the Olympics command attention and have relevant messages for any business

With the 2012 London Summer Olympics in full swing, more than just the results of the games are on people's minds. The athletes and their stories are subjects of endless fascination - something corporate executives should keep in mind if they want to get a message across to meeting attendees in a way attendees will focus on and think about for a long time.

"Olympians are good choices for any events that require motivational speakers," says Michael Frick, president of Speakers Platform, a Palm Springs, CA-based speakers bureau. "Olympic speakers come from a wide range of background, so, depending on their experience, they can talk on everything from diversity to business. And since most people can relate to Olympians, they are good for diverse audiences of all ages, professions, genders, and ethnicities."

On the other hand, speakers bureaus emphasize how important it is for executives and planners to remember that being the best gymnast, swimmer, runner, ice skater, or skier in the world doesn't necessarily make someone a good speaker.

"I won't sign any athletes unless they have a story and can communicate it," says Evan Morgenstein, president and CEO of PMG Sports, an Olympic athlete management firm. "It doesn't matter how good an athlete you are; if you can't communicate a message, you can't provide value to an event. Successful Olympians on the speaker circuit can execute speeches about their lives and understand that it's tying all the loose ends together for people that makes their unique yet universal messages relevant to an audience."

As challenging as the path is that an athlete takes to get to the Olympics, developing that ability as a speaker takes years. "With rare exceptions, you're not going to have a 16-year-old gymnast from the U.S. automatically become a superstar speaker," says John Truran, senior vice president of Keppler Speakers. "First of all, she's 16. What's she going to have to say to people [who are] two or three times her age making business decisions?"

One of the best former Olympians currently doing speaking engagements earned nine medals - seven of them back in 1972. When the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York hired swimmer Mark Spitz to speak at its Major Gifts Division's Headliner Series in May, the organization's goals were simple, says Daniel Flax, the group's director of financial resource development. "We select speakers we feel can motivate people, and will inspire people to increase their pledges."

Spitz was a pretty safe bet, says Flax, as they had used him as a headliner six years earlier. He is one of only two speakers they've brought back for the event, which is held two or three times a year.

"We were successful in that a number of households did increase their pledges because they wanted to hear him and what he had to say," Flax says. "They wanted to be part of the group. That's always part and parcel of why we choose anybody. Mark obviously has a household name; a number of the younger attendees really wanted to be in his company."

Spitz won seven gold medals for individual and team swimming events in the 1972 Munich Olympic games - more than anyone, ever, in any sport, which was a record he held for 36 years until Michael Phelps won eight in the 2008 Beijing games.

Of course, the fact that Spitz can speak about being a Jewish athlete didn't hurt his selection by the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York. That said, however, the former athlete's speech about pathways to success was in line with the message that the organization wanted to communicate to its potential donors says Flax.

"My presentation is not specifically related to swimming or being an athlete, but it had to do with human nature, how we react to things that happen to us, positively or negatively, and how we can turn the tide to make a positive even from a negative event," Spitz says. "If you ever heard anybody say, 'Well, I should have done this and I should have done that,' they were probably 100 percent capable of doing what they just said."

But most people are afraid to take a chance, Spitz says. They are afraid to expose themselves to the possibility of failure. Without doing that, he adds, you can't have success. "In essence, that's my message: It's okay to accept the loss and learn from it, and not worry about it. It's what [you] do the next day," he says.

With the games happening this year, any Olympian "is a nice tie-in," says Gail Davis, president of Dallas-based GDA Speakers. "But beyond that, each athlete is probably hired for a different reason. It's always interesting to me how a speaker can talk about a topic they're an expert on, and then the people in the audience can take that and apply it to specific business situations."

That is, in part, because success in athletics requires many of the same skills and the same drive as success in business. After all, there's a reason that so many business concepts draw on the language of sports - words such as teamwork, competition, goals, and, of course, winner.

To Be the Best
Olympic athletes "have competed in front of billions of people under the most intense pressure," says Morgenstein, whose firm represents Spitz. "That puts them at ease during times of stress. When you're dealing with corporate leaders, corporate executives, and sales groups, you have to overcome obstacles to accomplish goals in sales and marketing. An Olympic athlete at the highest level can convey those messages."

That's why the Managed Care Risk Association (MCRA) hired gymnast Mitch Gaylord - a 1984 gold medal winner with the first perfect score of any male American gymnast - to keynote its annual conference in Washington, D.C., next month. The group is made up of insurers, underwriters, brokers, and cost-containment providers in the reinsurance business.

"We want someone who will get the attendees' attention, get them excited, and energize them," says Chuck Newton, an MCRA board member and senior vice president at Stuart, FL-based Evergreen Re, a reinsurance firm. "Until four or five years ago, we always had someone from our industry give the keynote, but we moved away from that to get a more general-interest type of speaker. Since this is an Olympic year, we thought it would be good to have an Olympian."

The board looked at a number of Olympians before settling on Gaylord. In part, this is because his accomplishments fit the attendees' profile, and, in part, because one of his presentations, called "Raising the Bar," matched the board's goals for the conference. This speech focuses on inspiring individuals and corporations to focus and commit to the pursuit of excellence with a greater desire, determination, and dedication.

"In the Olympics, Gaylord performed at a very high level to become the best at what he does," Newton explains. "We are a competitive group. We compete with each other aggressively, and his persona matched the spirit of our event. This is one event when we get together as an industry and talk about the issues we have in common."

Choosing the Best
While Olympians can offer valuable insight into universal themes like setting goals and achieving them, competing in the Olympics is a uniquely high-profile act of preparation and execution. "They've represented all of us in a diligent way," says Morgenstein, "and that's something that means a lot to everyone who watches an Olympian speak."

As an example, Gail Davis points to gymnast Peter Vidmar, who at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles won a gold medal with a perfect 10 on the pommel horse (the event came after Gaylord's, so Vidmar wasn't the first to get a perfect score). His second gold medal was earned as captain of the men's gymnastic team that upset defending champion China that same year.

One of Davis' clients hired Vidmar because he "liked his talk about how, in competition at that level, the difference between a gold, a silver, and a bronze is sometimes 0.0025," she says. "It's just miniscule, but it's the difference in standing on the podium or not. Vidmar's presentation, 'Sales Margins of Victory: There's No Silver in Sales,' takes it one step further. When you're competing for a piece of business, the only one who gets it is the gold medal winner. Then, he has a great presentation on teamwork, and getting your team to the podium."

Vidmar, whose speeches include a live demonstration on the pommel horse, also has achievements beyond his personal athletics that let him address management issues with authority. He currently is chairman of the board of USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, and has served on the President's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports, the executive board of the United States Olympic Committee, and as a gymnastics commentator for CBS Sports and ESPN.

Accomplishment is another strong point for executives and planners considering an Olympian, says Morgenstein, whose firm represents a number of top-level Olympians such as swimmer Janet Evans, decathlete Bruce Jenner, track-and-field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, swimmer Dara Torres, and diver Greg Louganis, among others.

Indeed, there are enough top Olympians who are good speakers to meet the needs of any company, Morgenstein adds.

"If you are the best in your category, if you're an industry leader, how do you maintain that?" he asks. "I've got clients that are the best in the world and [hire Olympians who] can speak to that. If, on the other hand, you're second, third, fifth, 10th in position behind other companies, and you're not clear about how you're going to achieve an increase in market share or revenue, or whatever the goal or objective is, you want the athlete who came out of nowhere, who surprised everyone, to talk about how you do just that." SM

Here are a dozen Olympic athletes recommended by speakers bureaus as having inspiring stories, good speaking skills, and the ability to help companies and organizations achieve their goals.

Jim Craig
The goalie of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that defeated Russia's essentially professional team in the "Miracle on Ice," a victory ESPN called one of the great sports moments of the 20th century, Jim Craig is president of Gold Medal Strategies, a Boston-based motivational speaking and sales training company and the author of Gold Medal Strategies: Business Lessons from America's Miracle Team.

Goals he can help achieve: Beating long odds; teaching teamwork; reaching goals through commitment, preparation, purpose, and effort.
Fee Range: $20,000 - $30,000

Dominique Dawes
A three-time Olympian and member of the "Magnificent Seven" U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team in 1996, Dominique Dawes has taken the lessons she learned under legendary coach Bela Karolyi and passed them on to the young women she coaches. Her focus on achieving great things emphasizes the importance of character, perseverance, and reaching goals. Appointed co-chair of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition by President Barack Obama, she also works on healthy lifestyle issues.

Goals she can help achieve: motivation; leadership; wellness; teamwork.

Fee: $10,000 - $15,000

Janet Evans

Despite her small stature and unorthodox stroke, three-time Olympian Janet Evans won the the 400- , 800- , and 1,500-meter freestyle competitions in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, beating her own world-record 400-meter time by a staggering 1.6 seconds in a sport usually decided by tenths or even hundredths of a second. A practiced and in-demand presenter, her motivational speaking career started at age 16, and speech topics include "Leadership Through Goal Attainment" and "What to Do When You Are Number One."

Goals she can help achieve: motivation; inspiration; leadership; team building; wellness and fitness; getting on top and staying there.

Fee: $15,000 - $20,000

Mitch Gaylord

Mitch Gaylord led the U. S. Olympic gymnastics team to its gold medal victory in 1984, becoming the first American gymnast to score a perfect 10. He was subsequently appointed to the President's Council for Physical Fitness by two presidents. He was a broadcaster for Fox Sports during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and today runs a fitness company.

Goals he can help achieve: self-motivation; inspiration; competition; dedication and achievement; teamwork.

Fee: $5,000 - $10,000

Bruce Jenner
One of the country's most famous Olympic athletes, Bruce Jenner broke the world record by scoring 8,634 points in the decathlon at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, winning fame and a Wheaties cereal box cover for seven years. An actor and commentator for NBC, ABC, and Fox sports in later years, Jenner is now a reality TV star with his wife, Kris - who also manages the reality careers of her daughters, the Kardashians. His speaking topic, "Finding the Champion Within," is based on his book of the same name.

Goals he can help achieve: motivation, inspiration; achieving goals; reaching your peak performance.

Fee: $25,000 - $30,000

Cullen Jones

For an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, Cullen Jones' introduction to his sport was far from auspicious. At age five, his parents took him to a water park where he nearly drowned. Twenty years later he won the gold (at the 2008 Beijing Olympics), only the second African-American to win a swimming gold medal. In addition to this work, Jones has also become a spokesman for USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash Program - the largest swim instruction/drowning prevention program for minorities in the world.

Goals he can help achieve: self-motivation; inspiration; overcoming your fears to achieve success; corporate social responsibility; diversity.

Fees: $10,000 - $20,000

Greg Louganis

A three-time Olympian with four gold medals in diving, Greg Louganis has faced and overcome huge obstacles both in and out of the pool. Asthmatic and dyslexic as a child, Louganis nonetheless became one of the country's greatest divers, winning gold medals in both the springboard and platform events in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics - something no American had done since 1928. He repeated the feat in Seoul, in 1988, despite suffering a concussion in a qualifying round when his head hit the board. What fans did not know at the time was that he was also HIV-positive, something he acknowledged in 1995.

Goals he can help achieve: motivation; achieving peak performance; inspiration; overcoming adversity; diversity.

Fee: $15,000 - $20,000

John Naber

America's most highly decorated Olympian at the 1976 Games in Montreal, Naber earned four gold medals in swimming. In 1984, he carried the Olympic flag into the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Games. A top speaker for more than a quarter of a century, Naber's speeches are full of stories of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary goals. His topics include character-driven accomplishment, in which he looks at way to achieve success without sacrificing ethics; motivating your team and yourself; keeping promises you made to yourself; and reaching gold-medal performance.

Goals he can help achieve: self-motivation and motivating others; achieving goals; inspiration; success without sacrificing ethics.

Fees: $10,000 - $20,000

Vince Poscente
A Canadian speed skier in the 1992 Winter Olympics, Vince Poscente is a member of the National Speakers Association as well as the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers Hall of Fame. But his athletic prowess is only part of the insight Poscente has to offer corporate groups. With a masters degree in organizational management, Poscente is also author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Age of Speed: Learning to Thrive in Our More-Faster-Now World.

His speeches focus on proven strategies for attaining and sustaining peak performance at the individual as well as the corporate levels, combining leadership insights from his business career along with lessons learned from his Olympic career.

Goals he can help achieve: motivation; inspiration; sales; speed of execution; leadership strategies; aligning the organization with leadership goals; outperforming the competition; setting and achieving goals.

Fee: $25,000 - $30,000

Tal Stokes

Most Olympians on the speakers' circuit have won the gold, or at least medaled. Dudley "Tal" Stokes is not one of them.

But he did serve as captain of the Jamaican bobsled team for Olympics from 1988 to 2000. This included the Lillehammer, Norway games in 1994, where the team placed a surprising 14th, ahead of the USA, Russia, Australia, and France, among others - a story of tenacity and perseverance that served as the basis for the hit 1994 film Cool Runnings.

Now coach of the Jamaican team, as well as managing director of Jamaican tour provider Helitours Limited and a pilot in the Jamaican Defense Forces, Stokes speaks on teamwork, management, and motivation. Another topic he addresses is ethics, based on his own struggle over whether to extend his own Olympic career with performance enhancing drugs (he didn't).

Goals he can help achieve: management and coaching; team building; motivating and inspiring underdogs; overcoming ethical dilemmas.

Fee Range: $5,000 - $10,000

Dara Torres

One of the most popular Olympian speakers, swimmer Dara Torres competed in five consecutive Olympic games. This year, at 45, she tried out for the U.S. team in the 50-meter freestyle event, narrowly missing a spot on what would have been her sixth Olympics. A 12-time medalist, she has appeared as a commentator on Fox News, ESPN, and the Discovery Channel.

Torres was named one of the Top Female Athletes of the decade by Sports Illustrated and was the first actual athlete to appear in its swimsuit issue. She is a national spokesperson for McDonald's, as well as the best-selling author of Age is Just a Number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Stage in Your Life and Gold Medal Fitness: A Revolutionary 5-Week Program.

Goals she can help achieve: reaching goals; overcoming long odds; overcoming skeptics to achieve success; wellness and fitness; maintaining a positive attitude in any circumstance; achieving goals at any stage of your career; women's empowerment.

Fee: $40,000 - $50,000

Peter Vidmar

Currently chairman of the board of USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, Peter Vidmar won a gold medal with a perfect 10 on the pommel horse in the 1984 Olympic Games, making him the highest- scoring gymnast in American history. He won another as captain of the men's gymnastic team that upset the defending champion, China, that year, as well as silver in the individual all-around competition.

As a speaker at hundreds of corporate and association events for more than 20 years, Vidmar focuses on the three components of a perfect score - risk, originality, and virtuosity - demonstrating them on a pommel horse and discussing how they apply to business and life. He has served on the President's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports, the Executive Board of the United States Olympic Committee, and as a gymnastics commentator for CBS Sports and ESPN.

Goals he can help you achieve: management and team building; achieving goals through hard work; leading high achievers; taking and managing risk.

Fee Range: $10,000 - $15,000