Lessons Learned from Losing

TILogoI competed in the Toastmasters International District 27 Humorous Speech Contest finals last week. The audience loved my speech. The judges didn’t.

I didn’t even place.

To get to the finals, I had to win at the club, area, and division levels. I actually didn’t win at the club level. I didn’t lose either. I just had no competition. But I did win the area and division contests. I was a champ! In the two weeks between the division contest and the finals at the district level, 2013 Humorous Speech Champion Arti Kumari coached me on staging techniques. I presented my speech and received feedback on it at five different Toastmasters clubs. I rehearsed every day.

Three and half years ago you would not have found me on stage giving a coherent speech. My professional career included being a speechwriter, but I didn’t deliver them. I joined Toastmasters International in March of 2012 to overcome America’s No. 1 fear—public speaking before launching my entrepreneurial career. After losing in my first club-level speech competition that first year, fellow Toastmaster Cris Birch told me: “You write a good speech. Now you have to learn how to deliver one.”

Public speaking is an art and a craft, much like writing or any other creative process. You get better by doing. You lose your edge when you don’t. Most Toastmasters clubs near me meet once or twice a month for 60 to 90 minutes. The first club I joined meets every week for two hours. I didn’t plan it that way. But I needed to find a club close to home that met on Saturdays. GUTS (Get Up to Speak) fit that bill.

When I was called up to do my first one- to two-minute impromptu speech called Table Topics, I said a few words, mumbled, “My brain just froze,” and stumbled to my seat, my entire body shaking and my head pulsating as if it was about to explode. I think I managed to get through my first prepared speech OK, but that’s because I read it. The first time I delivered a prepared speech without notes, I mumbled, “My brain just froze” a minute or two into the speech. But I stood my ground and managed to finish. I sat down, my body shaking and my head pulsating.

Why do I keep going back? Because of the evaluations. Every speech is evaluated by a fellow Toastmaster. You’re told what went well and given suggestions “to make it even better.” Why do I keep going back? Because polished speakers like Distinguished Toastmaster Paul White told me of their first horrifying experiences. Why did I join two other clubs? Because I’m a glutton for punishment. Failure is an option. But it’s OK to fail at Toastmasters. I now give presentations to outside groups. I try them out at Toastmasters first. The feedback always makes them better. I’d rather fail at Toastmasters than on the road.

Before this contest season, I had never placed higher than second place at the club level. I managed to compete in an area contest last year—but only because the first-place GUTS winner couldn’t make it. I came in second.

This year I made it to the finals after accepting two first-place trophies. I failed to achieve glory at district, but I didn’t fail to become a more polished speaker. I’ve learned how to deliver a good speech, Cris. Thank you and all my fellow Toastmasters for your support along the way. I’m already writing a speech for the next competition. I may not win. But I most certainly will not lose.

Here’s the speech:

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

’Tis the Season to Draw Oxford Commas on Starbucks Cups

I was going to write about Starbucks cups this week, but it’s not controversial enough. Instead, I bring you another rant on the Oxford comma.

Comma being held with fingertips against a blue sky with light wispy cloudsPerhaps you still are unaware of the Great Oxford Comma Controversy. Among grammar geeks, the Oxford comma divide is only overshadowed by arguments over the dreaded semicolon. Think Capitol Hill Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are pro-Oxford comma. Democrats believe it should be aborted. That’s the divide here.

At this point, you may be scratching your head, saying, “What’s an Oxford comma?” You’ve seen it; you probably even have an opinion on it. You’ve just never heard it named before. So let’s define it:

In a series of three or more listed items, the Oxford comma is used before the word “and,” “or,” or another conjunction. In the sentence, “He was tall, muscular, and a musician,” we have the Oxford comma between “muscular” and “and.” Without the Oxford comma, you would write it “tall, muscular and a musician.”

Who the heck cares, right?

Well, in certain instances, the Oxford comma does makes a difference. Take the sentence: “I was at the show with my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.”

I know, right? That would be one ugly kid!

But if you insert the Oxford comma after Clinton—which he would thoroughly enjoy, by the way—then the emphasis changes. “I was at the show with my parents, Bill Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey.” Four people, not two.

That’s why Oxford zealots, which include the founder of the Oxford comma—the Oxford University Press—insist on using it in any list of three or more. Others say it’s unnecessary except to make the ambiguous clear. By the way, Oxford comma detractors include Oxford University, of which Oxford University Press is a part. In fact, in all of Great Britain, only the Oxford University Press insists on using the Oxford comma.


Green commas drawn on a Starbucks cupHere in the United States, however, we’re absolutely puritanical about using it. The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual all insist on using the Oxford comma. It’s the communistic U.S. media that drops it: The Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Economist, for example.

Personally, I’m among those who don’t care if you use it or not. I’m an Oxford comma agnostic. When writing for the media, I don’t use it. When writing for anyone else, I generally do. The only caveat here is that in any particular piece of writing, use it or don’t use it consistently. Don’t mix and match. Pick a side and stick to your guns, even if you have to switch sides later. This country was founded on the principle that I’m right and you’re wrong. Honor that principle and be consistent in the use of a British comma that most of Britain doesn’t use.

That’s my humble opinion and I’m sticking to it. Now excuse me while I draw Christmas commas on my Starbucks cup.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

A 6,000-mile First Step to Saving Veterans from Suicide

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is widely quoted as saying.

Foundation executives Summer Watson and Shelia Kirkbride pose outside American Legion Post 1 in Denver, Colorado, with two members of the post.

Warrior Research Foundation executives Summer Watson, far left, and Shelia Kirkbride, far right, visited American Legion Post 1 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Warrior Research Foundation.)

What if your first step is a 6,000-mile cross-country round trip to meet with military, veterans, and their families to put faces on the suicide epidemic?

That’s the philosophy behind the Drive for Life Veteran Suicide Awareness Campaign recently kicked off by Warrior Research Foundation executives Shelia Kirkbride and Summer Watson. The duo drove from their base outside the nation’s capital to San Francisco and back on a 10-day whirlwind tour of bases and veteran halls. Along the way, they met with those who wore the uniform and their families and talked about their needs and opportunities. (Full disclosure: the foundation is a client, though they are not paying me to write this column.)

Shelia and Summer returned on Monday energized to keep the drive alive.

“Just making those connections along the way was very uplifting,” Summer said.

Summer described the people they met on the road as “very embracing.” There will be follow-ups, not only with those met on the road, but with people who commented on the foundation’s Facebook posts from towns and cities along the way, and more local warriors and their families.

As reflected in its name, Warrior Research Foundation is a research organization. Its mission is to understand problems faced by our military and veterans through quantitative and qualitative analysis and find solutions to those problems. The Drive for Life campaign is an attempt to put a qualitative face on the numbers.

The numbers are staggering. One in two veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars say they know a fellow service member who attempted or committed suicide, a Washington Post-Kaiser Health poll found. In addition, a recent study published in the Psychiatric Services Journal indicates a small number of studies—limited to veterans who used services provided by the Veterans Health Administration—observed a 42 to 66 percent increase in the risk of suicide between 2000 and 2007, compared with the general U.S. population. This study also found that between the years of 2000 and 2010, the female veteran suicide rate increased 40 percent.

Help is certainly needed. Thankfully, there are those willing to take the journey.

Michael Pritchard faces camera with Shelia Kirkbride and Summer Watson opposite, as they sit around an outside table discussing veterans issues.

Warrior Research Foundation executives Shelia Kirkbride and Summer Watson met with stand-up comedian, keynote speaker, and youth motivator Michael Pritchard, who is lending his name and energy to the project. (Photo courtesy of Warrior Research Foundation.)

In San Francisco, Shelia and Summer met with stand-up comedian, keynote speaker, and youth motivator Michael Pritchard, who is lending his name and energy to the project. Photographer and documentary filmmaker Steve Gatlin filmed Michael’s discussion with Shelia and Summer, as well as other meetings the foundation executives had around the Bay Area. Look for a Drive for Life promotional video coming soon to a computer near you.

Shelia and Summer have completed the first step of the journey. A very big first step. They are committed to seeing the journey through.

“If anyone asks if we’d go across the country for our veterans, we can say we did,” Shelia told Summer on the final leg of the trip.

“We’ll go as far as we need to go to help our military, veterans, and their families,” Summer added.

Wednesday is Veterans Day. Celebrate it in part by familiarizing yourself with the Warrior Research Foundation’s focus on helping our veterans obtain the services they need. Then, take the next step and make a donation if you can. And, by all means, like the Warrior Research Foundation Facebook page.

To those who wore the uniform, we thank you for your service.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

How to Sell to the Unnamed Generation

A diverse collection of kids in costume trick or treatingHalloween is tomorrow, and the newest generation of witches and goblins will knock on your door in the time-honored tradition of begging for treats.

They are not the much-maligned Millennials. That generation – one that outnumbers the beloved Baby Boomers – is already in adulthood. In fact, the newest generation has yet to earn a name. But they could turn out to outnumber even the Millennials and be even more diverse.

Is it too soon for businesses and marketers to try to define them? That’s like asking if it’s it too early for political pundits to predict the winners and losers in the 2016 presidential race. Or sports junkies to predict the Super Bowl winner. Remember, most sports pundits picked the Washington Nationals to win the World Series this year. It’s a time-honored tradition.

But we need some data to make a determination. Perusing the top toys for 2015 isn’t much of a clue. The top four toys for 2015 as named by The Street are all tied to a movie that has not even been released yet, Star Wars Episode VII. Number five is based on a popular kid’s show I never heard of because my kids are dreaded Millennials.

I remember Boomer toys being tied to the newfangled three-channel television phenomena, and my daughters’ top picks were tied to movies and TV too. So no clues there. Kids are kids.

Perhaps some clues can be drawn from names already suggested for the up and coming generation. Digital Natives? Generation Like? Selfie Generation? Rainbow Generation? Homelanders? The 9/11 Generation?

None of them ring to me, perhaps because the post-Millennial generation remains a consortium of unformed minds. So let’s let them have their childhood, secure in the knowledge that older generation parents and grandparents will fork over the dough for the little rug rats’ movie- and television-related merchandise.

Besides, we’re still attempting to figure out the Millennials. One obnoxious generation at a time.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

A Symbiotic Clientele Begins with Your Core Message

Do you want clients who you enjoy working with and with whom you do your best work? If so, then understanding your core message is vital.

Five apples on a counter, the fourth one eaten down to the core

Apples are healthy. But if you don’t eat down to the core, it’s just pretty fruit on the shelf.

It’s an essential element in any marketing plan and should be your first step in developing a plan.

Marketers often don’t focus on a client’s core message. They beat around the bush asking questions like: What are you selling? Who are your potential buyers? What needs do you fill? What emotional gratification are you providing?

Those are external messages. That’s what you are going to do for your clients. Important questions to be sure. But the core message I want you to envision is internal. It’s YOUR purpose. It’s how YOU impact the world around you. It’s YOUR mission, the reason YOU are here on earth. It’s why YOU chose the business you chose – or possibly – why the business or profession chose you.

You may be asking: Why should I selfishly focus on myself rather than on my clients’ needs? Because the two are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, symbiotic. If you truly wish to service your clients with all you have, you must know where you are coming from, from within, from your heart and your soul. That’s how you make connections, true connections, that lead you to a mutual business high.

As Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, noted, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.”

Regardless of your religious beliefs, most of us concede humans are connected on some spiritual level. Making symbiotic connections bring happiness to both sides. Making a living is simply a byproduct. A prosperous byproduct.

In Book Yourself Solid, business coach Michael Port touches on the concept of a core message by urging business people to write a “Why You Do It” statement.

Potential clients, he writes, “will want to know if they can connect with you on an emotional, philosophical, or even spiritual level. They’ll want to know if they can connect with your ‘why you do it’ statement—the reason you do what you do, what you stand for. The reason you get up every day to do the work that you do. Those who resonate with your ‘why you do it’ statement will feel it on a deep level and be strongly, almost magically, attracted to you.”

Now, who doesn’t want clients magically attracted to them?

I first stumbled on the idea of a core message as an intricate part of a marketing plan when I read professional speaker and comedian Judy Carter’s book, The Message of You. Here’s how Carter describes The Message of You:

“The Message of You is a distillation of all of your experiences, both personal and professional, that have formed the narrative or meaning of your life.”

But, Carter warns, you cannot do it alone.

“The wrinkle is, the Message of You is usually not obvious. Most of the time, the meaning of our lives is invisible to us. We can’t be objective about our own journey. We can’t see how our life influences others. We are so busy living we don’t take note of the steps we took to find success. Yet, these are the very things that make people want to listen and know more about us.”

Life is a series of happy accidents. I had been thinking about how to incorporate core messages into small business marketing plans when a business colleague fortuitously asked me to help her find her core message.

I diligently drew up a five-week plan of probing questions designed to draw out her core message. I sent her the first week’s questions and we met a week later. We reviewed her answers and talked. I asked a lot more questions based on her written answers and her in-person answers. I told her I would send her the next list of questions.

Instead, I threw out next four lesson plans. They were no longer relevant. The questions I needed to ask came from analyzing the answers I already had received. My reporter training kicked in. If this led to that, what led to this in the first place? How did that impact you physically and emotionally? Did you laugh or become sick to your stomach? Why?

Here are the first four questions I asked my colleague and subsequent clients and that you should explore with a trusted guide to get you started on your discovery:

1) What is your soapbox—the thing that you just can’t shut up about that comes up over and over again? Ask three friends or family members what they think it is.

2) What do you believe in that you think everyone else should believe too?

3) If you could make one significant change in the world, what would it be?

4) In 20 words or less, summarize your core message.

Summarizing your core message is asked at the end of every session. Finding your core message is a process. One discovery leads to the next. Write and revise. No. 1 is an eye-opener for most. If you do nothing else from this exercise, ask three friends or family members what it is you can’t shut up about and what comes up over and over again.

Then ask yourself why. It can be intimidating, to be sure, but as poet May Sarton said, “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”

Dare to be yourself by discovering your core message. Doing so will allow you to find symbiotic clients. Your work will always be enjoyable, and profitable.


Related content:

8 Tips to Attract and Educate Potential Clients with a Blog

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

Drop the Drawbridge and Join the Social Media Crusade

Vikings raiding a castle get a Facebook friend request from inside the castleIf you still stand rigid among those who believe there should be a moat between your business and social media, perhaps the newest Pew Research Center report on Social Media Usage will help you drop the drawbridge.

In just 10 years, American adults have stormed the social media castle, catapulting from 7 percent in 2005 to 65 percent on social media today. It remains true, not surprisingly, that our newest adults still rule the cyber kingdom, with 90 percent of those aged 18 to 29 engaged across social media platforms. But don’t neglect the gummers. Thirty-five percent of 65 and older Americans now joust with social media, up from 2 percent in 2005. And, 51 percent of pre-gummers—those 50 to 64—now play with their social media marbles, compared to 5 percent a mere decade ago.

Businesses that hesitate to venture into the social media adventure risk limiting their possibilities to conquer and expand.

Chart showing increase in social media by year over the past decade.

Social Networking Use Has Shot Up in Past Decade

Social media is an adventure of untamed possibilities. Social media ROI, or return on investment, is still difficult to fathom. But anecdotally, we know it’s working. A Social Media Examiner report found that 92 percent of brands report results from a social media presence and half of those that have ridden social media for at least three years credit their crusade with increased sales and revenue.

Chart showing increase in social media use by year and age group since 2005

Young Adults Still Are the Most Likely to Use Social Media

Let’s revisit a couple of those numbers to make the perspective clear. In 10 years, social media use by American adults catapulted from 7 percent to 65 percent. Half of all brands that have been riding social media for at least three years credit their crusade with increased sales and revenue.

What those two stats tell us is that social media use will continue it’s nearly vertical climb, but it takes time to see an ROI through social media. The longer you take to put yourself out there, the farther you will fall behind brands already riding the stallion.

Chart showing those who earn more are more active on social media

Those in Higher Income Households Lead the Way

But, you may be saying to yourself, only half of brands with a long-term presence on social media (three years is a Hundred Year War in Internet time) are seeing increased sales and revenue. I don’t like those odds and it only bolsters the argument that my guild doesn’t belong at the fair.

My rebuttal to that argument is that the other half of brands are doing it wrong. A study by HubSpot, a company that specializes in inbound marketing software, found that brands that merely mounted the social media tree and sat there overlooking Sherwood Forest saw little to no benefit. However, those that were relevant, engaging, and helpful—Robin Hood and his Merry Men—saw revenue grow.

Pie chart showing that 73% are more likely to buy from a brand that responds on social media

Are You More Likely to Buy from a Brand that Responds on Social Media

The reason, according to HubSpot, is because so few brands respond on social media. In fact, HubSpot found that 24 percent of social media users don’t even expect brands to respond to a social media query, complaint, or compliment. When brands do respond—and it’s from a chivalrous human, not an automated knight—consumers and potential consumers raise their mead in toast.

Despite the amazing Pew Research numbers, becoming engaged in social media is still very much a gatehouse activity. Only a few brands are doing it well. You can too. There is no big secret to it. Get in there and be chivalrous. Be social on social media and you will be rewarded handsomely by the Knights of the Round Table. And most importantly, you’ll be in the 21st century and I won’t feel the need to write in medieval terms.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

8 Tips to Attract and Educate Potential Clients with a Blog

“When people ask you a question, you should blog about that.”

I gave that advice to a business colleague last week. She had asked about best blogging practices. And, because she asked, I give you this blog today.

Partial gray keyboard with green If you run a business or organization, your blog’s purpose should be to educate your audience. Your audience, hopefully, are your clients and potential clients. (You probably have a sprinkling of family members and friends in the mix too. That’s OK. They’re your biggest, if rather snarky, fans.)

Following are some best practices to boost your chances of attracting potential clients to your blog. Aside from answering frequently asked questions, you need to structure your blog so it is enticing and can be found by search engines.

The headline

The headline may be the last thing you write, but it’s the first thing your audience sees. It has to be engaging. Use action verbs. Use numbers when appropriate (it gives the headline specificity). Be creative without being misleading. Always include key words in the headline.

Also, keep the headline to 60 characters or fewer. That’s the maximum Google will display in search results. You don’t want your audience guessing what the rest of the headline is. If they have to guess, they’ll move on. We want things easy when we’re searching. Make it easy for your audience.

Look at my headline. Engaging is in the eyes of the beholder, so you can decide its engagement level. But action verb? Check. Number used? Check. Key words? Check. Sixty or fewer characters? Check.

Key words

The key words from your headline also should pop up in the first few paragraphs of your blog. That’s part of SEO, or search engine optimization. Google and other search engines change their SEO parameters often, but repetitive key words remain a staple. What are my key words? “Clients.” “Potential clients.” “Educate.” “Attract” and its variant “attracting.” And, of course, “blog.” (I just repeated them again, didn’t I? I’m such a genius.)

Your blog platform no doubt also has a tag feature. In the not so distant past, key words sufficed here as well. Today’s best practices call for key phrases instead. Ask yourself, if I were a potential client, what would I type into a search engine to find this blog? Don’t use insider lingo. Use the language the potential client would use. Think of it from different angles. Look at my key word phrases under the headline. Do they work for you?

Categories are important too, but those are broader classifications. I think of categories as a library identification system, where similar blogs can be found in one place. Tags, on the other hand, are the library search terms.

Include at least one visual

You must have at least one graphic, photo, or video embedded in your blog—something that grabs your potential reader immediately. We’re drawn to visuals. Text alone is immediately recognized as boring. Even if it’s the best prose on the planet, it has less chance of being read without a visual.

Link to others

Never steal—or plagiarize—someone else’s work. In fact, if in your research you find some great advice, not only give the originator credit, but link to it as well. It raises you in the eyes of your readers as someone who collaborates well with others. (My mother once gave me a T-shirt for Christmas that stated, “Doesn’t play well with others.” Which is why you don’t see any links in this blog.)

Push it out on social media

Photo of hand holding smart phone with social media icons flowing from it into a puffy clouded skyOnce you publish your amazing blog, you aren’t done. Push it out on social media—more than once. I publish my blog on Thursdays, and push it out on social media on Thursdays and Tuesdays. I often get higher hits on Tuesdays.

So why don’t I just publish on Tuesdays? Because I received lower overall hits when I published on Tuesdays and did a second push on Thursdays rather than publishing on Thursdays and doing a second push on Tuesdays. You will want to play with your timing too.

Link to it in your newsletter

Include links to your blogs in your newsletters. And, when someone asks you a question on the topic, you can refer them to the blog post rather than spending a half-hour or so explaining.

Your call to action

One last tip: Include a call to action whenever possible to further engage your audience. Here’s mine: What question on communication best practices would you like answered? Let me know in the comments section or email me your questions. I love to share (though I will never share your information without your permission).

See, Mom? I do play well with others.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.


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