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About Utah: Provo man is toast of Toastmasters

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PROVO — When Rich Hopkins was 12 years old he stood in front of his seventh-grade class to give a report on Abraham Lincoln, took one look at the crowd, burst into tears and fled from the room.

It was a weird introduction to what he wanted to do when he grew up.

Not cry in front of people.

Speak in front of them.

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Hopkins, 39, is living proof that figuring life out is trial and error and then trial again. What he was sure he didn't want to do that day he fled from class is now all he wants to do.

In March, he quit his job as a newspaper ad salesman, his last remaining tentacle to a steady paycheck, and hung up his shingle as "professional speaker and speaking coach."

For him, walk the walk means talk the talk.

He'd been thinking about making a full-time living as a speaker for the past few years, ever since he joined Toastmasters, an international organization that is a combination social club/speaker's circuit. With thousands of clubs around the globe, Toastmasters is dedicated to producing better communicators and stronger leaders. In the process, it does the world a service by grooming people who can deliver a speech without inducing sleep.

Seven years ago, soon after Hopkins joined the Salt Lake City Metro Toastmasters Club, he got a taste of what it's like to stand up and speak and have the other people in the room cry — and laugh.

"I found out I was naturally pretty good at speaking," he recalls.

That led him into the annual Toastmasters speaking competition, where he discovered that the judges think he is pretty good, too.

Five times he's made it all the way to the region finals, and in 2006 he won region and placed third in the world.

This year, he hopes to do even better. Tomorrow night, he will be one of eight qualifiers to compete in the region tournament in Seattle. The winner will go to the world championship in August in Calgary, where 10 finalists, representing some 30,000 original entrants, will compete.

Hopkins is scared and excited at the same time.

"I have a chance to be the best in the world at something," he muses. "How many people can say that?"

If he doesn't win, it won't be from lack of practice. Ever since he went to self-employment in March it's been yak-yak-yak. Rich's wife, Kristi, and their six kids wouldn't know what to think if they didn't hear Dad in his bedroom office, working on his game.

For Hopkins, it hardly seems like work. "I'm doing what I love," he says. "This is what floats my boat — although I would never use that in my speeches. I try to avoid cliches."

So far, he's made as much as $2,000 for a speech.

But he acknowledges such pay is "peanuts" in a profession where top speakers routinely command $10,000-plus per speech.

"I'm not a rich man; I'm no Tony Robbins," he says, looking around at his modest home in west Provo.

"But I've found what I want to do. I want to speak, well, and I want to help others speak well."

A rich man, in any language.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.