The Art of Speaking  

Great story, wrong hero

Audiences are getting tired of My Struggle and Your Lesson talks 
(This article appeared in Toastmaster magazine)

By Jack Vincent 

So you’re preparing for an important presentation or pitch, and you’ve crafted a great story. But do you have the wrong hero?

Here’s why it’s more compelling — and valuable — to position yourself not as the hero in the story, but as the mentor.

Several years ago, I was coaching the CEO of a startup who was preparing a pitch to a prospective client. He also planned to use much of the material for that in his upcoming talk at an important industry conference. He had several anecdotes and stories, all of them powerful in their own right.

When he began his third story my discomfort became ­noticeable.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“You’re not going to like this,” I replied. “All your stories are about you.”

“Hey! You’re the guy who says that emotions sell,” he said. “This stuff comes from deep within. What better way to tell an emotional story than to tell my story?”

“You want to give the most compelling presentation you can, right? Ultimately, you want to sell.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Stay with stories,” I said, “but tell someone else’s story! When it comes to conference speeches, audiences today are getting tired of the My Struggle and Your Lesson talks.

"This will sound brutal, and I’m not singling you out but, rather, an entire army of presenters and vendors out there today. It’s all becoming a bit narcissistic.”

“But I want to show the audience that I’m battle-tested. What better way to show my expertise than to show them I’ve been through this too?”

“Do you want your prospects to see you as likable and emotionally vulnerable … or professional and commercially valuable?”


“A knee surgeon may have never had knee surgery. Does that make the guy with the bad knee the expert? Which one of the two would you wish to give you advice on your knee, or even ­operate on it?”

You are not the hero. Your customer is.

The best salespeople know this. So do the best writers throughout history. They know what makes a great hero … and what makes a compelling and valuable mentor.

In storytelling, heroes are not who many of us, exposed to pop culture, think they are. They are not the ones who have all the answers and solutions. They are not the ones who rescue cats from trees.

Over the centuries, in great literature and in great storytelling, timelessly and universally, heroes struggle. They don’t have all the answers, and they crave love and guidance. No struggle, no story. And the more compelling the struggle, the more compelling the story.

Harry Potter is a classic example. One of the great lines in this enormously popular book and movie series comes when Professor Dumbledore tells Harry, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Harry is the hero. And Harry was, at this point in the story, struggling with a decision, a choice. Your prospective clients have a choice too: to go with the competition, make no decision at all or choose you.

Now you have a choice.

When you prepare your next pitch or conference presentation or club speech around a story, do you want to be the hero or the expert? Before you answer that, also consider this: Do you want to captivate your audience and be seen as valuable?

If you stand up in front of a few hundred people, and essentially say, “I’m going to tell you about my struggle and what you can learn from this,” isn’t it possible that a third of the audience will switch off and another third will think, Here we go again. Another touchy-feely, vulnerable narcissist.

If that happens, then a mere third of the audience will still be with you, but it might not even be the top third of your target audience.

Cynical? Perhaps I am. But I’ve sat in audiences — surrounded by other audience members — and this is the reality. Sure, some will smile endearingly. But don’t limit your observation to the supporters.

Some will quietly look at their mobile device. Some will quietly leave the room. Some will look around hoping others will join them in the Here we go again roll of the eyes.

So, yeah! Give me a struggle. Just make sure it’s somebody else’s.

Crafting a speech, and certainly opening a speech, around your “glorious struggle” really puts you in danger of positioning yourself as self-absorbed. If, however, you build your pitch around someone else’s struggle, it will position you as someone who has, at the very least, done some good research or, even better, as a professional who has helped heroes through their struggles to succeed.

Whether you’re making a presentation at a conference or a pitch to a prospective client, sometimes you’ll have an audience with whom you haven’t yet worked, so your story relates to the listeners in general — but it’s specifically about a past customer you helped. You’re using their story as a case study, an example.

The story is about the audience or prospective client in the sense that they are in this same situation, yet it happened to someone else. The bigger point, of course, is that it’s not about you, the presenter.

The mentor is also a great salesperson.

The mentor doesn’t tell the hero too much too soon. The mentor, or one of his tribe, entices the hero to cross the threshold, then persuades the hero to walk through the fire.

The mentor can’t accomplish the mission alone, usually because they don’t have the power or the ability. Clients do have the power and ability, but they lack the knowledge and wisdom.

The mentor often helps the hero — the client — discover three things:

  • That no one else can accomplish the mission, only the hero is capable.
  • If the hero decides not to do it, the world will go to hell in a hand basket and evil will rule.
  • The hero doesn’t have to go it alone — they can rely on a ­trusted adviser.

This is very persuasive.

So be the mentor and make a customer your hero.

There are two benefits to playing the role of the mentor — when done tactfully, of course.

  • You won’t run the risk of two-thirds of the audience emotionally checking out of your talk early on. A story of someone else’s struggle, on the other hand, doesn’t make the presenter seem self-important, and it is insightful.
  • You will be seen as valuable. As always, be careful not to sell from the stage. Don’t talk about your value but, indeed, show it. Weave your value statement into your story. That’s the craft of great business storytelling.

Albert Einstein said, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather to become a man of value.”

When people see you as the mentor, they see your value. And they more often buy from you.

Jack Vincent, a member of Toastmasters Zug in ­Switzerland, is a sales consultant and the author of A Sale Is A Love Affair — Seduce, Engage & Win Customers’ Hearts. Read his blog at www.JackVincent.com.


A champ at listening

Wade Peterson did a mini fist pump as he walked onto the stage to accept the award as the best listener in Southern B.C.

He had just won the Toastmasters District 21 — which includes 152 clubs on Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the southern Interior — evaluation contest in Surrey.

“Hearing my name called as the winner was the highlight of my Toastmasters career,” said Paterson, social media/communications coordinator with Re/Max of Western Canada.

“In the year-and-a-half I've been with the Kelowna AM Toastmasters club, I've felt as though I've gained a lot of confidence speaking in front of crowds.

“It was an incredible feeling to win an award at the District level, knowing the level of speaking talent that surrounded me in that room.”

He joined the Kelowna club, which meets Thursday at 6:45 a.m. at the Royal Anne Hotel, because his job requires him to give presentations to 60-70 people.

“Although I was confident in my abilities, I'd get incredibly nervous before every speaking opportunity, and I wanted to reduce that stress," he said.

“I felt I was a good speaker, but I want to go from good to great."

Most people who have heard him speak marvel at his ability as a speaker, but his ability to listen isn’t as obvious – until he evaluates a speech.

When he joined Toastmasters he didn’t realize how good he would become at listening, which has enhanced his work and his life — “something my girlfriend probably appreciates.”

Unlike giving a speech, which can be practised again and again, evaluators can only practise generally while honing their listening and evaluation skills.

In an evaluation contest, listening, the ability to pick out nuances that most people miss, is crucial. Contestants then have five minutes to spin a coherent three-minute story that teaches the speaker and the audience.

“The test speaker, Rob Evans, is an elite speaker, so it was difficult to find areas where he could improve because there were no glaring weaknesses.

 “Rob's body language was incredibly effective and engaged the audience, he injected humour in all the right places and his speech was expertly organized.

“I acknowledged all these strengths, and gave minor suggestions for improvement, such as: using more variety in word choice and standing closer to the front of the stage to create a deeper connection with the audience.”

Paterson arrived at the Surrey competition on a high note, after winning a soccer game the night before.

“I play for the Kelowna Red Devils (Men's 3B Kelowna Men's Soccer League). I play striker.”

He rode that winning high all the way to the district championship.

“I truly felt that I had given it my best effort. I would have been proud of my performance whether or not I won the contest.

“The one thing I was nervous about was that I never looked at the timing lights. Before they announced the winner, they explained at least one contestant had been disqualified for going over time. I was pretty nervous that it could have been me.”

It is only the second time in 10 years that an Okanagan Toastmaster has won at the district level.

Two years ago, Jennifer Mlazgar of Penticton, won at impromptu speaking, called table topics in Toastmasters. Contestants are read a question twice and they have a few seconds to compose an inspiring, coherent two-minute story that has a beginning, middle and an end.

That sounds quite logical, but it is difficult to accomplish with accompanying body language, gestures and vocal variety.

Ross Freake is president of Kelowna AM Toastmasters.

Talking up a challenge

I was visiting Toastmasters to see if I wanted to join, when mention was made of a speaking competition. I always protest when people say I am competitive, but I guess I can understand why I give that impression.

Hearing the word competition hooked me into Toastmasters, even though I had no idea what competing entailed. Two months after handing over my cheque to become a member, I won my first contest.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Toastmasters, members write, practise and present what are known as manual speeches. Each one has a different focus like vocal variety, persuasion, or body language.

All are designed to improve your speaking skills.

Toastmasters teaches you not only to speak more effectively, but also how to weave information into a clear and concise presentation. Most speeches are five to seven minutes, so there is no time to ramble.

In a competition, you use the same basic speech each time you go forward to the next level. This is the only time you get the opportunity to improve and hone the same speech.

It is fascinating to see how a speech given at the club level of competition, morphs each time it is delivered, in order to make it stronger.

There are a few different contests in Toastmasters, but I like to compete in the only one that continues all the way to the International level. Anyone who competes in the International final will have already been in five previous competitions.

I have been a Toastmaster for a little over two years, and this month marks my third year as an International Speech contestant and the second time competing at the district, or fourth level.

The winner is picked by a panel of judges, which means the result is subjective. Everyone in the audience has their own opinion of who should win, and because the standard of speeches is so high, almost anyone who gets on the stage – COULD win.

If you worry too much about whether the judges get it right, you may not enjoy the experience if you aren’t the one they choose. I approach each competition as an opportunity to enjoy a new experience, and hone my skills.

Although I would love to win, I am there for the experience more than the trophy. The only person I compete against is myself. If I can sit down with the knowledge that I have done my very best, I am happy. I don’t have to win to feel like a winner.

Although I didn’t win a trophy last weekend in Surrey at the fourth level, I was pleased with my efforts. I managed not to get disqualified for being over my time limit, like I did last year, and I feel that I did my best.

If you are a Toastmaster who has never competed, I would highly recommend the experience.

I went into this year’s competition knowing that I wouldn’t compete again, at least not for a few years.

We have many incredible speakers in the Kelowna AM club, and I am happy to pass on the torch of competition to someone new. With the District 21 conference next year being in Kelowna, I will certainly be there to cheer them on.

Reen Rose, an educator, speaker and author, is the treasurer of the Kelowna AM Toastmaster. Her weekly column, The Happiness Connection, appears Sunday.


Talking on the edge

Reen Rose and Wade Paterson have something to prove this weekend.

The two Kelowna AM Toastmasters are division champions who won the right to compete at the district level in Surrey — Rose in the international speech contest and Paterson in the evaluation contest.

Last year, when competing at the district level, Rose was disqualified because she went over time in her seven-minute speech.

“This is the only Toastmasters contest that continues all the way to the international level. The international convention is in Vancouver this year, so getting to that stage would be an even more incredible experience than usual."

This will be Paterson’s first time on the district stage, but he’s carrying the banner of his mentor, Brad Smart, who was second in the district evaluation contest last year.

Rose and Paterson won the right to represent the Okanagan/West Kootenays at the division championships earlier this month in Penticton.

The international was the first of the two competitions and even before she knew she had won, Rose knew she had won.

Not the title or the trophy. It would be hours before she learned the outcome of the contest, but she savoured personal victory as she left the stage at Okanagan College.

“When I finished my speech, I said to my husband, 'That is the best I could do, so I've won regardless of whether I place in the competition or not.'

“That was the first time I felt really satisfied after giving a speech in a contest,” said Rose, a member of the Kelowna AM Toastmasters Club, which meets Thursday at the Royal Anne Hotel at 6:45 a.m.

“Speech competitions are about competing against myself,” Rose said. “If I am stronger than other people in the contest, then I get to go on, but the process is a learning opportunity for me, more than a need to win. Any contest that is in the hands of judges can have any outcome.”

She based her speech on an incident that happened at a coffee shop where she complimented Sue Skinner, a fellow Toastmaster, on her necklace. Skinner immediately removed the necklace and gave it to Rose.

“The incident had a profound effect on me because I was uncomfortable accepting the necklace, but I love it and wear it often.

“When I was trying to decide what to use as the basis of my speech, I was wearing the necklace. I started thinking about how I came to own it, and the rest is history.”

Her club also made a little history later that day when Wade Peterson, also a member of AM Toastmasters, won the evaluation contest.

Toastmasters hold four competitions a year and AM Toastmasters won all at the division level.

But unlike Rose, Paterson didn’t have the luxury of preparing. In the evaluation competition, contestants listen to a seven-minute speech and had five minutes to prepare an evaluation that would inspire and motivate the speaker, but also teach her how the speech could be better.

It was Paterson's first time competing at the division level. He won the area humour contest in the fall, but, because of a scheduling conflict, couldn’t continue.

He made up for it this year with an inspiring yet insightful analysis of a speech by Sabrina Ogrodiuk of the Penticton Speakers Club.

"I was really happy with my evaluation,” Paterson said. “I genuinely felt as though I gave it my best shot."

Paterson said he was nervous before the competition, but a lucky draw helped him relax.

"All the evaluators draw numbers to determine the order they will present in. I prefer to go later, so I was relieved when I drew the final spot."

Although all evaluators are required to hand over their notes after five minutes, going last meant Paterson had extra time to think about what he was going to say, and practice in the hallway.

"When I walked into the room to give my evaluation, I had already gone through it about three times in my head, so I was feeling fairly confident."

O’Christy Wiley of the Penticton Toastmasters Club, which meets at the Shatford Centre Tuesday at 6 p.m., was second in the International speech contest.

“Every time I stand up and speak I am still terrified, I still feel nauseous and my knees are knocking, but now I have the ability to steady my voice, to breathe and to maintain an outward calm that hides the inside panic attack,” said Wiley, who started Toastmasters a year ago and was in her first division competition. 

“Every time I attend a meeting, I am accomplishing my goals, I am stretching my limitations and increasing my skills.”

Mary Anthes of Westside Toastmasters was second in the evaluation contest. Westside Toastmasters meet at 860 Anders Rd. Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Ross Freake is president of Kelowna AM Toastmasters.

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About the Author

The mission of a Toastmaster Club is to provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment that offers every member the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.

There are eight Toastmasters clubs in the Central Okanagan.

For more information and/or to find a club near you, check http://www.toastmasters.org.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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