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“Find a passion and learn all that you can about it.”

Nicole (Rash) Cook is the founder of Royal Transformations, a company designed to help young women become more successful in pageants and in life.  Nicole is a 27-year-old model, actress, spokesperson, and is the current Ms. America 2012. Having gone from a small town girl in Indiana to multi-pageant winner, Nicole is on a mission to help young women realize their dreams and be proud of their valuable pageantry experience.  She welcomes anyone to reach out to her @BecomeRoyalT.

MO: Can you tell us more about your personal background and what has led you to a speaking career?

Nicole: It was an interesting evolution of things that lead me to public speaking, and it actually all stemmed from being shy and having a fear of public speaking. When I was younger, I never would have thought about getting up in front of people or sharing my talents. I was too embarrassed, didn’t have the confidence, or didn’t think that people would care. Luckily, my mother and grandmother recognized this irrational fear early, and they got me involved in activities to help me overcome them.

Getting into modeling was somewhat of an accident. I went with my sister to her modeling job, and when one child who was supposed to appear in the ad didn’t show up, I suddenly was put in front of the camera. I was only 3 years old at the time, and being in front of a camera was scary at first. Luckily my outgoing older sibling was there to guide me. This helped me begin to be more comfortable in front of people (though I wasn’t speaking in front of them yet).

Then, my grandmother decided that perhaps pageants would be a fun and productive activity to supplement my modeling career. I did a few as a child, but then moved on to be involved in sports, theater, choir, and other clubs and charities. Theater and choir really helped me acquire team-building skills, voice control and projection, and develop different vocal tones.

After high school, I traveled to South America for a year-long exchange student program. I became fluent in Spanish, which helped to further develop my overall vocabulary and communication skills. I not only had to learn the language, but I also had to overcome my fear of sounding ignorant or pronouncing words the wrong way to practice the language, make friends, get to know my host family, and navigate around the new city.

After returning from South America for the second time, I became involved in pageants again. I learned about the Miss America organization through a friend and was intrigued by the scholarship opportunities as well as the service-oriented platform. My first try wasn’t bad because I had experience in modeling and was used to being on stage, but I still struggled with the interview portion and on-stage questions. The more pageants I did, the more I became comfortable with these portions of the competition.

Eventually, I was crowned Miss Indiana, and this gave me the opportunity to speak at countless events for people of all ages about organizations and causes that I’m passionate about. I spoke mostly about the importance of foreign languages in schools and encouraged children to stay smoke and tobacco free. I also spoke about other areas of interest for organizations such as The Elks, Rotary clubs, Kiwanis, March of Dimes, Children’s Miracle Network, and many more. I think the final piece of the puzzle that led me to overcome my fear of public speaking completely was the fact that I was able to speak about something I was truly passionate about. I think that when you have knowledge and enthusiasm towards a subject, you’re much less likely to be afraid to speak about it.

MO: When you speak to an audience, what are you hoping they take away from your keynote? What do you hope to inspire the audience to do or think?

Nicole: When I speak to an audience of any age, I am looking to inform, educate, and inspire. I want the audience to walk away feeling like they learned something, that the time they took out of their busy lives was worthwhile, and that they too want to pursue something they’re passionate about or become more involved in a cause they’re interested in. I want people to feel like they are important, that they matter, that they’re not just another mindless person in this world of billions. They can do something to change the world and have a positive impact on people’s lives. I truly believe that the more people you can reach with your message, the greater impact you can have on not just them, but others too. It’s like the domino effect; tell one person about something and they may share it with someone else who will share it with someone else and so on.

My speaking engagements focus on the positive impact of smoke-free environments in workplaces, bars, restaurants, and other public areas. I also talk about the importance of encouraging kids to remain smoke and tobacco free, encouraging them to make good choices, and inspiring them to set goals for themselves. Finally, I talk about female entrepreneurship and the life skills that can be learned through pageants.

When speaking about the importance of smoke-free environments, I don’t expect to change a smoker’s mind right away. I try to help them realize that smoking affects everyone around them. I take an aggressive approach to my speaking because I feel really strongly about this topic. I have had three family members die from smoking-related diseases, and I want to share my personal experience in the hopes of inspiring change in others.

When speaking to kids about remaining smoke and tobacco free, making good choices, and setting goals for themselves, I also share personal stories and try to relate to them in the best way possible. I talk on their level, and I don’t try to act as if I’m above them. I reference issues that I know they face and reveal my own struggles when I was their age. I share my personal story about losing family members to smoking. I disclose some facts and statistics with them, but I mostly try to relate those facts to a personal story to make it more relevant. I think this is most effective because it helps them understand and feel the impact of their decisions. I also try to teach them to make good decisions in every facet of their lives, not just related to smoking, and set goals to keep them on track.

One of my favorite topics, of course, is speaking about pageants and how they can inspire young girls and help them grow into strong, capable women. I am my own personal example in this regard, because pageants have really molded me to become a leader and have brought me opportunities to become a public speaker. Through my experiences as Miss Ball State University, Miss Indiana, 1st runner up to Miss America, and Ms. America 2012, I was invited to speak at countless events for numerous different causes, become the corporate spokesperson for several fortune 500 companies, and even start my own business.

I have been the spokesperson for Porsche, Chrysler, and the Lincoln division of Ford through a pageant contact. I’ve accomplished this because of my speaking abilities, my poise, grace, and my ability to relate to people, draw them into what I’m talking about, and make each person feel special. I’ve also learned to think on my feet. These are all skills that I learned through competing in pageants and there are countless more.

Pageants taught me many important life skills and helped me develop qualities that are attractive in the job market. It would have taken me much longer to learn these anywhere else. When I speak about pageants and how they can help other young women become more successful in life, I am truly speaking from experience. I want young girls and even more mature women to consider competing in pageants because of what it can teach people of all ages. There is so much you can do and accomplish through being a titleholder. Plus, I think it is important to dispel the negative myths or rumors about pageants. If approached in the correct way, pageants can be very helpful for women in accomplishing their goals.

MO: Since you have a background in pageants you have already had a lot of public speaking experience, what advice can you give to other women who may want to start a career in speaking?

Nicole: Getting involved in activities that help build your confidence for speaking in front of people is the best way to start. Start small, practice in everyday life, and choose a topic you’re passionate about. By becoming involved in pageants, theater, clubs, charities, and even sports, I was able to become more comfortable being in front of people, speaking about a variety of topics, and relating to an audience in many different ways. Starting with a small audience allows you to make errors, learn from your mistakes, and master the skills of communicating to a group.

I also recommend practicing good use of vocabulary, sentence structure, tone of voice, and minimizing the use of slang, harmful words, or filler words (such as “like,” “um,” or “uh”) during everyday conversations. I had my friends and family help me by making an annoying sound every time I said something I shouldn’t. Depending on your voice, topic, and audience, the appropriate vocabulary may differ, but practice makes perfect.

Find a passion and learn all that you can about it. It is important to know all sides of your topic so that you are open-minded about new ideas, and you can answer questions or address any concerns towards your opinions. It is always good to stay relevant by keeping current on news, knowledge, and statistics surrounding your topic. Most importantly, never give up. Nobody is perfect the first time around, and you’ll get better and learn more each time you do it. You can even learn from others by attending other seminars and listening to more experienced or accomplished keynote speakers. Set small goals for yourself along the way, and reward yourself as you reach those goals. Keep a larger goal in mind for the future. This will help you to keep on track, stay positive, and feel like you are accomplishing your ultimate goal.

MO: How do you believe that pageants have prepared you to be a keynote speaker?

Nicole: Pageants prepared me to be a keynote speaker in so many ways. While the interviews and on-stage question portion of the actual competitions helped me tremendously, my appearances as a titleholder, learning to handle criticism and rejection, and training on how to come across as inviting, knowledgeable, and relatable were extremely important. Speakers need to understand the importance of verbal and nonverbal communication, and they should know how to read their audience appropriately.

As a state titleholder, I earned the opportunity to work with some great communicators and speaking coaches who taught me how to conquer my fears about speaking and interviews, how best convey my voice, think on my feet, and how to be concise and to the point while still seeming warm and inviting. I had to research various topics and issues, make notes on news stories and magazine articles, keep track of statistics, and make sure my information was current in order to prepare for interviews. I also had to fully understand all sides of an issue so that I knew how to speak on it properly no matter what the circumstances were.

Also, the title didn’t come without criticism — warranted or unwarranted. I learned how to handle both, make the proper adjustments, and respond appropriately to criticism without causing more turmoil.

Through pageants, I learned how to present myself in the best way before I even opened my mouth. Posture, body language, facial expressions, wardrobe, hair, and make-up all make an impact on the audience’s view of you. I learned how to use my hands to emphasize the various points and topics. I became aware of how to attract, rather than detract, attention to what I was saying.

In addition, I learned how to read my audience and speak appropriately to them. For example, I wouldn’t speak to alumni at my alma mater the same way that I would speak to 3rd graders, whether it is the same topic or not. But sometimes people make this fatal mistake. You can simplify a topic to the point that it becomes boring, or you can go into too much depth on a subject, which will end up confusing your listeners. Either way, you must be able to adjust your tone, content, and speaking style based on whom you are speaking to. As a titleholder, I was sent to speak in front of audiences of all different ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Finally, being a titleholder is like being in a business, and you learn the various components and responsibilities that a business entails. This includes working with your directors and a team of people who are helping you prepare for a competition. You also have a lot of responsibilities as a titleholder. You must communicate effectively and in a timely manner, make decisions on which appearances to take, be able to prioritize, have good time management skills, be punctual, and speak effectively over the phone and via email. You must also keep track of expenses and accounts. The various appearances help to improve your writing skills because you have to write your own speeches, blog posts, and answers to interviews.

Being in pageants and becoming a titleholder was like an intense year-long public speaking boot camp, but public speaking isn’t the only profession that could benefit from these skills. I think that having pageants on your resume should be seen as a bonus for all employers because of the crucial skills that you learn from competing and being a titleholder. These make any former participant a well-rounded and versatile employee. Not to mention, you’re more likely to get the job if you can give a phenomenal interview.

MO: Who is your ideal audience to speak to? Why is this your ideal audience?

Nicole: I don’t have a particular “ideal audience” because I feel that my message can benefit all people, and because of the skills I learned through pageants I am able to adjust my topics to be appropriate for any audience. I think the sign of a great speaker is someone who can relate to anyone, speak to anyone, and inspire anyone. If you have to speak to the same core audience in order to get your message across, then perhaps you’re not portraying it correctly. I want to reach as many people as possible, so I want to get in front of as many different audiences as possible.

MO: What do you enjoy about speaking? How does this career keep you motivated and inspired?

Nicole: Speaking is enjoyable because it is rewarding in so many ways. I love the feeling that I get when I realize that I’ve reached someone in a way that no one else has been able to. I always say that even though I have spoken to thousands of students about not smoking, if I only prevented one child from picking up cigarettes, it is worth it to me. Speaking isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality — improving the quality of life of others and in turn, improving your own. There is no better natural high than the one you get when you feel like you’ve helped someone. This is what keeps me motivated and inspired.

When people know your true intentions and see that they are pure, they open up to you and share things that you never thought they would. This information is empowering, and it helps you realize that what you are doing is worthwhile and important. Ideas and information are powerful — more powerful than any material object — so when you can help people mold their ideas and become more educated about topics that are important to you, your inspiration is limitless.

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