Trustee Spotlight: Jeanne Swanner Robertson, Elon University

By AGB    //    Volume 20,  Number 4   //    July/August 2012

Jeanne Swanner Robertson has been a professional speaker—a humorist—for 49 years. A past president of the National Speakers Association (NSA) and inductee into the Speakers Hall of Fame, she is the recipient of every top honor in her profession, including NSA’s Cavett Award and Toastmasters International’s Golden Gavel Award. As recently as three years ago, Jeanne was continuing her busy speaking schedule for corporate and association audiences. Since then, daily airing on SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s Family Comedy Channels and amassing more than 15 million hits on YouTube has led to national humor tours with shows in performing-arts centers throughout the country. A graduate of Auburn University, she is a proud supporter and trustee of Elon University.

You credit being Miss North Carolina with starting your career. What did that experience teach you?

I won the title of Miss North Carolina and Miss Congeniality in the Miss America pageant at age 19. The next 12 months, I made more than 500 “little speeches” to audiences large and small. You can’t buy that kind of opportunity. The experience was the ultimate in engaged learning, although I certainly didn’t know the term at that time. It was a tremendous chance to learn from each event and develop skills that eventually led to a career as a professional speaker. We like to encourage Elon students to seek out those kinds of active, engaged experiences in whatever field they are passionate about. Trying out new ideas, having small successes, and learning from mistakes is a great way to learn. In many ways, that describes Elon University’s approach to engaged teaching and learning.

Have you ever had to use humor to defuse a tense boardroom situation?

The secret to humor is knowing when it is appropriate to be funny and when it is not. I take my duty as a trustee very seriously and understand we hold a great deal of responsibility. At the same time, I believe that going to board meetings should be fun, not just work. People who laugh together can always find solutions together. So while I never want to waste our board’s time, I know that one way I can contribute is to keep things light at the right moments and make sure everyone has a good time and enjoys their service to the university.

Why is volunteer board work important to you?

My husband, Jerry, and I believe we are not judged by what we accomplish, but by what we give back. That’s a lesson Elon wants to instill in its students, and it’s certainly a lesson our son learned there. Service is a key part of the Elon experience. Because we live near the campus, we are able to give back not only with financial support but also with our time. This sets an example to students and others as well.

It’s also important to me as a volunteer board member to tout Elon through my work. In every speech or theater show across the country, I mention Elon. It’s a fun way to contribute, and in a small way, it gives further name recognition to the university.

What advice would you give today’s graduates?

I like to tell students that they should be on the lookout for any opportunity to develop their skills. Sometimes those chances can be unexpected, and each of us has to be ready to seize the moment and put ourselves to the test. I advise students that a sense of humor is a choice, not a given talent. We choose to laugh at ourselves and accept things about ourselves and others we can’t change. We choose to find the humor in stressful situations. It’s always more fun to choose to enjoy what we do.

You’ve said that having a sense of humor is “a strategy for success.” How so?

There is a huge difference between “being funny” and possessing a sense of humor. We all know funny individuals who, when push comes to shove, don’t have a sense of humor at all. The good news is that while comedic talent is often a natural talent, a sense of humor can most definitely be developed. Because it can be developed, I consider a sense of humor a tool that can be used to our advantage. It helps us build the kind of relationships that will pay big dividends in the future. It can be part of our strategy for success.

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