NAIFA – SEPTEMBER MOTIVATIONAL MOMENTS
TWO THINGS THAT YOU CAN DO TO NOT JUST SURVIVE BUT THRIVE IN THE INSURANCE BUSINESS
By: Michael Aun
President, Central Florida NAIFA
Over my nearly five decades in the life insurance business, I have had the privilege of speaking at or attending literally thousands of industry meetings. Before NAIFA (National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors) existed, we were called the National Association of Life Underwriters.
A common question from newer folks who attended those meetings was “What is the key to not just surviving but thriving in the business?” I answered that query many times. For me personally, it was two things.
- JOIN YOUR PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATION
First, was to become a member of the professional association affiliated with my industry. NALU now known as NAIFA was the answer. When I joined, the first thing I did was enroll in the Life Underwriter Training Counsel Fellow program where I learned more about the life insurance industry than all other sources combined.
- JOIN TOASTMASTERS INTERNATIONAL
The second most impactful group I joined was Toastmasters International. I was first exposed to Toastmasters in 1974 when a friend and client Pat Callahan invited me to attend the 7:00 AM Toastmasters Club in Cayce, SC. Pat had just purchased a large insurance policy from me, which obligated me to come up with a legitimate excuse for not going.
When Pat subtly mentioned that he “could shop his insurance around” my response was “When and where do we meet?” I will be eternally grateful to Pat because that meeting literally changed my entire professional life.
I recall that first Toastmasters meeting like it was yesterday. Pat was doing his very first Toastmasters Manual Speech known as “The Icebreaker,” which helps the club get to know him better.
Mind you, it was my first meeting. I knew nothing about the process. Pat stood and made his presentation which ran for about 30 minutes. I had no idea that it was only supposed to go 4-6 minutes.
WHY TOASTMASTERS INTERNATIONAL IS IMPORTANT!
We all need a friendly safe zone to learn and master the skills of better communication. That is exactly why Toastmasters exists. I personally can say it has earned me literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of income by making me a better communicator and more effective listener. That’s correct- LISTENER!
The number one fear in the world today is speaking publicly. To put that in perspective, death is a distant fourth on the list. Go figure… people would rather die than give a speech and sometimes after I have addressed a group, I felt like I did die!
Most clubs have three “scheduled speakers,” each of whom has an Evaluator who follows a matrix in the Toastmasters International speech manuals. When Pat’s Evaluator stood to give him “feedback,” he tore Pat a new one for going almost 25 minutes too long.
Not knowing the rules, yours truly (like the idiot I am) stood up to challenge the Evaluator’s opinion. When I later learned about the process, I almost did not return the next week out of pure embarrassment.
It was more important for me to defend my friend. An Evaluator’s job is to give the speaker positive and negative feedback. The Evaluator becomes a mentor. A mentor will tell you two things- what you did right and what you did wrong.
The quality of Pat’s speech was not in question. The fact that he went so far overtime needed to be addressed.
That inauspicious start for me has developed into over five decades of membership in Toastmasters, first in South Carolina and later when I moved to Kissimmee, Florida in 1989.
I am often asked “Why do you still attend every week?” When I’m in my offices in St. Cloud, Florida I make it a point to show up at the Osceola Toastmasters Club 1841, mostly by Zoom nowadays because of Covid protocols.
There are a variety of reasons why people join Toastmasters. Some just want to hone their speaking skills for a particular presentation. Others face job promotions that require them to speak publicly.
Some join for the political side of the organization and want to accumulate leadership skills. Some want to earn some of the many designations from a variety of alphabet soup categories.
For me personally, public speaking became an adjunct speaking career for me. I found out that people will pay you to bring value to their organization.
One of my biggest speaking clients over the years is Milliken and Company, a Spartanburg, SC based textile firm and the greatest company on the planet in my opinion.
Milliken requires every single employee to have 40-hours of continuing education per year just to keep your job! Toastmasters was their most popular single initiative of all the Milliken C-E programs.
Me? I joined for entirely different reasons. I wasn’t interested in becoming a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) though I have fulfilled all the requirements, some of which include serving as an officer, recruiting new members, forming new clubs, and climbing the political ladder inside the organization.
I never cared about completing all the manuals just for the designations. I wanted to fulfill them for what the achievement of those challenges made of me. In fact, I don’t ever recall completing the manuals. I simply wanted to be a better speaker.
When I say “Toastmasters changed my life” I offer the proof in this article. In 1977, I was told that each member of the club had to participate in the club’s speech contest. Not knowing any better, I did as I was told and was voted as the winner of the Club Speech contest.
When I won the club competition, the powers that be said I had to go to the next level. No problem, contrarian as I am, I did what I was told and proceeded to win the Area Contest.
Again, the folks in charge said I had to now represent the Area at the District Competition. I asked the people in charge: “When does all this stop?” I’ll never forget the Chief Judge’s response… “Don’t worry, this is probably the last rung of the ladder you’ll have to climb.”
As fate would have it, I did win the District Competition, which was the equivalent of the state championship. Then the guys running the show told me I had to show up in Jekyll Island, Georgia to compete in the Southeastern Regional Competition and I would need a whole new speech.
After winning that contest and I advanced to the International Speech Contest Finals in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I competed against eight other representatives from the nine region Toastmasters International speaking world.
THE THRILL OF VICTORY AND THE AGONY OF DEFEAT
Since then, I have long been a proponent of Toastmasters. When I competed for the World Championship of Public Speaking in 1977 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada two interesting things happened.
First, I was told I had won and second, I was told I had been disqualified because I went eight seconds over my allotted time limit. I was stunned!
When you are disqualified from a competition, the judges came to me to show me their ballots (as they are obligated to do), which indicated I was the winner. The bad news, they told me “You have regrettably gone overtime and therefor are disqualified.”
In Toastmasters, you can be disqualified in two ways in the International Speech Contests. One is for originality and the other is either exceeding or not fulfilling the time requirements of seven minutes and thirty seconds.
When competing on the International Level, you are required to send in copies of all previous speeches, none of which you can duplicate. The originality of your material is also researched to make sure the speech is all yours.
I was so sure I was within my time limit. However, I received a standing ovation right in the middle of the speech. It that lasted eight seconds, which was exactly the amount of time that I went over.
I will not lie to you. That was one of the most disappointing days of my life and yet was clearly the most valuable. I could handle the possibility that the other eight speakers were all better than I was. I could handle them beating me; I couldn’t handle me beating myself.
When you do something imprudent like being disqualified, that calls for a pity party in pity city. My chosen venue was the Toronto International Airport.
Let me set the scene for you. There I am, sitting on my pity-pot (my suitcase), feeling sorry for myself… as my plane taxied off without me. It was then that I realized I wasn’t going to be winning that year.
One year later, I went through the entire process all over again, winning the Club, the Area, the District, and the Regional competitions once again, all with new speeches. All previous speeches had to be submitted, to prove you did not duplicate any material.
There are nine Regions in the Toastmasters International Speaking World and nearly 350,000 paid members worldwide in some 16,000 clubs.
In 1978, the Toastmasters International Convention went back to Canada for the second year in a row, this time to Vancouver, British Columbia. It was the same drill all over again but the problem for me is I couldn’t duplicate my speeches from a year earlier.
Rules prohibited speakers from replicating any previous speeches. When I competed in Toronto the year before, one of the great all-time Toastmasters Fred Winiki used an earlier speech he had done years prior. He had made it to the International Finals 21 different times. He was told that he was disqualified for using a speech he had used in years prior.
I had already made the mistake of going overtime and I was darn sure I wouldn’t be disqualified for repeating a speech. The hard part of that is I did not have this untapped reservoir of information. I had used up all my good stuff in 1977. I had nothing left for Vancouver in 1978. My speaking material was watered down.
To be honest, my mind was not exactly where it should have been. My wife Christine had just given birth to our twin sons Cory and Jason only one week prior. I questioned whether I could even attend. The good news is she delivered early, allowing me to sneak off while grandmothers and aunts fussed over the gruesome twosome.
Having competed the year before, I knew the drill. I prayed that I’d be the last speaker in the competition which would allow me to be the most recent in their minds.
ALL I WANT OUT OF LIFE IS AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE
I was searching for the unfair advantage. Just before the competition, I asked the late Toastmasters International Executive Director Terry McCann if there was a rule against moving around on the stage.
He said no but quickly added he had never seen a speaker move around with a lavaliere microphone. I got lucky and drew the last speaking slot, which was the “unfair advantage.” The movement was the key. I found my way to be different, to be odd, to be memorable.
Since that competition, many speakers competing race around the stage like they are on fire. If I were competing today, I would do the opposite of what others do. Some have intentionally tripped and fell. Most generally jump around all over the place like they were playing in a tennis match. Frankly, it is distracting.
Long story short, I won the competition because I found a way to be “odd” or “different” from the other contestants. When I accepted the trophy, I told the 2,500 people present that day, “You must go through Toronto to get to Vancouver.” You must absorb defeat to appreciate victory.
THE BASIC STRUCTURE OF A TOASTMASTERS MEETING
The basic structure of a Toastmasters meeting gives all participants a great chance to get involved. We start with and Inspiration and Pledge. That participant also acts as the official timer for the various speakers in the meeting.
The Toastmaster of the Day acts as the Master of Ceremonies. We kick off with the Word of the Week. That individual gives us a new or unusual word with a definition. They then use it in a sample sentence.
They also keep score on all who use the word. If you fail to use the word, you put a quarter in the kitty to pay for coffee and miscellaneous expenses. If you complain, you get the privilege of putting in two quarters.
Next, we have a brief two-minute presentation by the Tips Master, whose job it is to focus on a specific area like gestures, eye contact, body language and any other area he or she wishes to address.
The formal speeches follow, usually two and sometimes three. These speeches normally run 5-7 minutes, some longer, depending on the specific Pathway Project on which the speaker is focusing.
These participants follow the Toastmasters Manuals, which includes several speeches concentrating on everything from gestures, to voice modulation, eye contact, body language and so on.
Once that manual is complete you move to Advanced Manuals that focus on motivation, storytelling, humor, and other advanced speaking skills. In today’s Covid environment, that now includes remote learning tools like Zoom, WebEx, Teams, Skype, Duo calls and others.
As these manuals are completed you earn various designations. The timer keeps score on whether someone violates their time allotment.
VIRTUAL PRESENTATIONS ARE HERE TO STAY
So much of today’s business environment is constructed around virtual presentations and interactions. Becoming an expert in communicating the various medium becomes imperative and is not an option.
After the formal speeches, we move to Table Topics. The Table Topics Master gives each person who does not have a major role on the program a chance to speak extemporaneously for up to two minutes on a subject the present you. Timing and voting follow.
Our club 1841 in Kissimmee, Florida generally takes a five-minute coffee break at that point. When the program resumes, the Master Evaluator introduces the assigned Evaluators each of whom give an evaluation of their respective speaker.
Evaluators look for the good, the bad and the things one can improve. Occasionally, we do group evaluations to give the entire group a chance to comment on the speaker’s performance. Timing and voting on evaluators follow.
The Master Evaluator, a/k/a General Evaluator, gives their input on the entire meeting, paying close attention to timing and feedback on the meeting in general.
The Grammarian and Ah-Counter then reports on the faux pas, gaffes, blunders, mistakes, and errors that we use when we speak. These could include (but are not limited to) the Ah’s, the Uhm’s, the You-Knows, the double clutches and so forth. Anything that distracts from the presentation, including off-color language, is noted so we can improve on those areas.
When the voting is complete, the Best Speaker, Best Evaluator and Best Table Topic winners are announced and presented with ribbons honoring their success. We close with the Joke Master who provides some brief humor to close our meeting.
Generally, I choose not to be scheduled but simply take notes on each participant and email those notes to everyone. This gives me a unique opportunity to study other’s styles and content and I improve my listening skills.
HIP POCKET SPEECHES
Occasionally, I will fill in extemporaneously for speakers if there are no-shows. We call these off-the-cuff presentations a “hip pocket” speech and they are designed as spur of the moment.
I coined a term for a special session I call “Pro-Con,” where the club comes up with a controversial topic like abortion. I speak three minutes in favor of the topic and three minutes opposed. I will then answer audience questions for three minutes. If I’ve done my job correctly, you won’t know where I stand on the topic.
Another exercise I like to do is a sample press conference where I field questions from club members about a variety of topics from sales, management, leadership, customer service, communication, change… you name it.
What makes this session special for me is each club member gives me a word that I must work into my speech along the way. It is posted on a flip chart or a board so I can make sure I integrate them into my presentation. It tests your extemporaneous communication skills.
The irony about Toastmasters is that it has taught me how to be a better listener as well as utilizing more humility in my own presentations. In the professional speaking world, we have organizations like the National Speakers Association that can teach you about the speaking business.
Most NSA members frankly joined the wrong organization. They should have joined Toastmasters to improve on their speaking product. That will assist them in making themselves more marketable.
SPRING TRAINING FOR SPEAKERS
Toastmasters is a forgiving group. It’s almost like spring training in baseball. This is the place to go to polish your material, your verbal and non-verbal skills, and other areas like voice modulation, eye contact and gestures.
When you’re being paid for a speech, meeting planners don’t want you cutting your teeth on their group. It could cost them their jobs.
I’m inspired by the words of General Douglas MacArthur on a plaque on the gridiron at the U.S. Military Academy: “On these friendly fields of strife are sown the seeds that on other fields and other days will bear the fruits of victory.”
The same could be said for Toastmasters. You will learn to be a better communicator but more importantly you will learn to be a better listener. You should think about joining!
Michael Aun, FIC, LUTCF, CSP, CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame has been in the insurance industry for almost five decades. His weekly column “Behind the Mike” can be found at http://www.aunline.com and are available free of cost. He has addressed NAIFA groups all over the world and other prestigious groups like the Million Dollar Round Table and others.