How to build your public speaking skills

I have lost count of how many times I have been told about accountants who fail to make the most of speaking opportunities. Often they have fluffed their spot at a structured networking event (eg: BNI or 4N). Other times they have failed to engage their audience – whether speaking at their own seminar or when making a short presentation somewhere else.

There are two separate issues here. The first is having the confidence and ability to stand up and communicate effectively with an audience. The second is developing and presenting a powerful talk that is both memorable and special.

If you either lack the confidence to stand up and speak in public, or you have never had any feedback on your speaking skills, I recommend you join a local speaking club. There are plenty all around the UK – and most are ideal for novices and for those who want to improve.

At various stages I have belonged to Toastmasters International (TI) which is nothing to do with red-jacketed masters of ceremony often seen at formal functions. Over 14,000 international speaking clubs are affiliated to TI. Almost 180 of these are in the UK (of which 50 are in and around London) and they all operate in much the same way. 

Members develop their skills initially by working through the Competent Communication manual, a series of 10 self-paced speaking assignments designed to instill a basic foundation in public speaking.

Everyone who joins Toastmasters works through the manual to achieve the status of ‘Competent Communicator’. Thereafter you have a choice of other programmes to further develop speaking skills in different directions.

Another organisation is The Association of Speakers Clubs (ASC) which was formed in 1972 and now has some 110 Clubs throughout the UK with about 1600 members.

I should also mention the Professional Speaking Association (PSA) although its objective is quite distinct from that of local speakers’ clubs. The PSA is a much smaller and UK-centric professional body. It is part of the Global Speakers Federation, a group of speaking organisations from around the world.

Launched in 1999, the organisation is for anyone involved in the world of speaking professionally. That would include accountants who intend to use public speaking as a route to building their practice. The motto of the PSA is ‘Speak more…..Speak Better’.  I was thrilled to be elected a Fellow of the PSA in 2013 – this is the highest level of membership and evidences a high level of professional experience and ability.

Some accountants will recognise the networking opportunities that may also present themselves at speakers’ clubs.  I would stress, as always, that you should first aim to get to know the people you meet. Use the speaking opportunities to practice talks you might give to promote your practice.  But do not attend meetings with the aim of coming away with new clients. In time you may well find some fellow members need your help or know people who need a new accountant. But if anyone senses that your primary objective is to win new clients you will find it more difficult!

My favourite twitter tools

I received a tweeted message from ‘twopcharts London’ on 6 July notifying me that it was the 6th anniversary of the day I joined twitter. This led me to check out ‘twopcharts‘ which was where the message originated.

Despite my continued ambivalence about the business benefits of twitter I continue to be an active and enthusiastic user. I’m also interested in related stats and twopcharts offered me two new ones. I’ve noted them below for posterity and have also then shared a note about my favourite twitter tools. These have evolved over time.

Firstly a couple of stats from that are not otherwise available from twitter:

  • I’m included in over 240 twitter lists curated by other people. I think that’s more than most, which is nice.
  • And apparently I’m among the top 5,000 tweeters in London. Not sure if that’s really worth celebrating!

On my computer I typically use hootsuite to track tweets by those I follow, tweets that mention me, conversations I’m having, tweets by those on my twitter lists and tweets I have sent. I only open this a couple of times each day – to avoid being constantly distracted.

I very rarely ever visit other than occasionally to see how many people I have listed in the various lists that I curate. You can follow any of these lists if you want to see the tweets from the type of people listed – without having to follow each of the tweeters individually.

On my iphone I rely on the echofon app to read and post tweets as I find it more user-friendly than the mobile twitter app.  I also rely on buffer – see below.

Every now and then I visit:

manageflitter - this allows me to check out who I follow  and who follows me by ref to various criteria – such as how active or inactive they are. I may then choose to unfollow some of them. I do this as I like to track the ratio of ‘real’ people I follow and equally those who follow me. I’ve never been keen on playing the game of following others to get them to follow me. If I did I might well have more followers but doubt they would be interested or ‘listening’ at all. This is why I tend to think that the ratio of followers to those you follow is informative as well as the number of followers.

Twitter counter – this lets me track movement in the number of my tweets and followers etc

twtrland - I recommend this as a way to find tweeters you might want to follow in any profession or with any specific interests.

Buffer – this is a wonderful aid. It allows me to spread out my tweets across the day even though I might have written them all, found interesting links or spotted items to ReTweet during a ten minute splurge first thing in the day. My buffer account is synchronised with my home computer, my chrome toolbar, my echofon account and my iphone. Buffer also provides stats about the tweets it has managed. How often have the links been clicked, and the tweets been retweeted or favourited. I am frequently disappointed by the low figures in each case.

Which other twitter apps and sites do you use and rate?

How to STAND OUT after you’ve won the work

Sometimes a new client has moved from another accountant. Sometimes you are the first accountant they have ever appointed.

In either case the sooner you can ‘wow’ them the more you will STAND OUT and the more likely they will be to talk about you (positively).

Given that most accountants claim that the best source of new work is client referrals, the sooner you can get them talking (positively) about you, the better. What do you do to show your clients that you value their business and you want them to come back?

A few years ago I visited a firm of accountants to discuss their upcoming staff conference which I had been invited to address. As I entered the reception area I was greeted by a welcome sign. It was welcoming: “Mark Lee”. I remember thinking ‘wow!’ It was a simple enough thing to do and maybe I’m easily impressed. But it had the desired effect and I’ve never forgotten it.

There are many ways you can do something special for your clients and business contacts to remind them they are more than a name and a number.

When a client calls or visits what could you do to give them a really positive feeling about you and your firm? What could you do to evidence that you really care?

Other examples I have heard of in a similar vein include:

  • personally signed birthday cards, anniversary cards, new home cards etc
  • going the extra mile beyond simply sending a quick email reply.
  • picking up the phone to talk through an issue that has been raised by email or letter.
  • providing a reserved/named parking apace.
  • providing their favourite drink when they attend meetings at your office
  • calling to confirm meetings and to ensure they can find the office/venue easily and that they’ll have all they need with them.
  • providing an agenda for each meeting you have with them.
  • offering them USEFUL branded gifts that they will talk about and maybe show friends and family.
  • arranging to send them a gift of a book relevant to their area of business, that you know they don’t already have.
  • a genuinely free tax planning meeting and advice (even though this may be factored into the annual fee, it needs to feel like a free bonus benefit).
  • featuring and promoting them in a client newsletter.

It doesn’t always take a lot of effort to make a big impression. What it does take however is the mindset that you want your clients to feel valued. By providing that experience to them, they’ll recognise that you STAND OUT. They will then have reason to talk about you positively when with friends, family and business associates. Thus you will raise the prospect of  being remembered, referred and recommended.

If they ever later get tempted away by the promise of a low cost alternative, they will also quickly appreciate that you get what you pay for.

Inner Circle – How to differentiate your practice

The main topic for discussion at last week’s meeting of The Inner Circle was: Distinguishing your practice from the competition.

We met at our new home, The Eight Club in Moorgate, London. Members of The Inner Circle again benefited from the willingness they all had to share their experiences and insights during our round table discussion. In accordance with one of our key membership principles everyone agreed to abide by the Chatham House Rule.

What follows are simply some of the opening comments that set the scene for our round-table discussion:

  • The primary objective of distinguishing your practice is so that it stands out (positively) from others when a prospect is considering which accountant to appoint.
  • Another reason for doing this is to make it easier for others to remember you, to refer you and to recommend you to the type of clients you want, to do the work you enjoy and for the fees you deserve.
  • Check your online echo and that your website, linkedin and other profiles support and echo the distinctions you talk about when you meet people. Otherwise you risk standing out for the wrong reasons (being inconsistent) which will not help you win work.
  • Don’t worry about trying to find a USP – few accountants can provide their services in a unique way.
  • Branding often starts with a strapline, a business focus, a specialism, key areas of expertise, a niche audience or even a local area.
  • What distinguishes your practice needs to be valuable, relevant and memorable.
  • A strapline alone is just a gimmick. Better to ensure that the concept is evidently part and parcel of how the practice is run and the service that clients receive.
  • The practice’s culture needs to tie with what you believe, your ethos and your approach.

This is such a topical issue that we are likely to return to it again at a future meeting of The Inner Circle. If you’d like to know more about it, just click the link>>>

Lessons for accountants from….. London cabbies

Last week many of London’s black cab drivers staged a protest against the way that the authorities had treated a new competitor in the marketplace. This reminded me of the strident views that some qualified accountants express as regards the competition they face from unqualified people.

Some of the reports of the cabbies’  protest suggest that their beef was with the new competitor – ‘Uber”, an online app.  Essentially it enables prospective passengers to call for a mini cab which picks them up and then charges them a fare based on the distance they travel.

I understood that the complaint was that the authorities are not upholding the law. As a result, unlicenced cars with the ‘uber’ app are able to operate in much the same way as black cabs but without any of the safeguards or restraints that are imposed on black cab drivers. The app enables minicabs to operate in much the same way as black cabs but without the training, licence or regulation that makes black cabs generally safe, reliable and professional.

The authorities are refusing to get involved presumably as they do not agree that the rules are being broken. What lessons can accountants draw from this stalemate?

  1. There is no point complaining that unqualified competitors are stealing clients. You need to ensure you offer a compelling case for people to engage YOUR services. How do you STAND OUT from the competition?
  2. The marketplace is evolving and cloud computing makes it easier for clients to access their data online. Many will prefer the traditional service, just as many people will prefer to continue using black cabs. If however too many passengers move to uber the black cabs will have to evolve. If you find that many of your clients exercise their right to choose convenience and web, tablet or smartphone focused services you will need to adapt too.
  3. If you build strong relationships with your existing clients they may be more inclined to resist  the temptation of going with a new, easier to use alternative service provider. If you’re lucky.
  4. You need to decide whether to become an early adopter and adapt early to new services and alternative business models.
  5. Good PR can really help you to STANDOUT even if you are not that different to other accountants. The uber app does little more than does Hailo, the black cab app. Hailo enables you to find local black cabs who will then come and pick you up. Uber does the same thing with unlicenced drivers. But Hailo hasn’t had the benefit of the PR that has been generated by the fuss about uber.

What other lessons can accountants learn from London cabbies?

Your service is not unique but you are

Years ago I became quite attached to the idea of identifying UPBs (Unique Perceived Benefits). I prefered this approach of looking at the provision of services from the client’s viewpoint rather than trying to identify a USP (Unique Selling Proposition).

More recently though I have realised that it is all but impossible for any of us to provide our services in a ‘unique’ way.  How many professionals offer any element of their service in a way that is like no other? More often I have noted that claims of USPs are all too similar. I believe that most prospective clients dismiss them as simple marketing puff. This may also mean that such claims have a negative impact.

I believe that there are other ways in which we can each distinguish our services so that they STAND OUT in a positive way. This is often a pre-requisite if we want to be remembered, referred and recommended to the type of clients we want, to do the work we enjoy and for which we get paid the fees we deserve. I have touched on such ideas in other blog posts here as well as in my ebook.

In my talk about ‘How to STAND OUT’ I explain that there are two key ways in which you can do this. One is focused around your core business messages, marketing and branding. The other around the quality and power of the conversations that you have.

I am indebted to my friend, Alan Stevens, for reminding me recently that though our services may not be unique, we are all individually unique. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. In ‘The MediaCoach‘, his free weekly ezine, Alan noted that:

There are millions of social media postings every day. Many of them repeat the same old stuff, often about how to be a better person or “dos and don’ts” for some endeavour or other. Some of them are very good, but most of them are not. The ones that I read and enjoy most are those that stand out from the crowd by having a unique, personal point of view. I may not always agree with the poster, but I’m always interested to read what they say.

Many posters seem to want to be someone else. They copy styles, ideas, and often even entire posts from experts they admire. Alas, no-one is going to be interested in recycled ideas. They want the real thing. To be a successful poster, I suggest you focus on your uniqueness (and don’t tell me you aren’t unique, because there is obviously no-one else like you).

In short, express your views, even if they are out of line with the mainstream (especially if they are out of line). Try to back up your views with evidence, otherwise they can just become a rant (a statement for which you have no evidence at all). Be controversial. Be yourself. Be unique.

I agree. Do you?

Linkedin and Facebook. What’s the difference?

A trainee accountant I know had just heard that I’d been speaking about Linkedin at an accountancy firm’s away day. He was amazed that a firm would need this as, in his words, “Linkedin is just like Facebook isn’t it?”

This is a common misconception, fuelled in part by surveys and articles that reference Linkedin simply as just another social networking site. This causes many older people to dismiss Linkedin as they have no interest in social networking. And many younger people then pay it little attention as they are already active on Facebook. “Why bother doing much on a copycat site?”

My view is quite simple. The two sites are very different.

For professionals, like accountants, I suggest viewing Facebook as being principally for fun, friends and family.

Linkedin however is where you can build, manage and utilise your business connections. It’s more of a professional business networking site rather than somewhere to share your social activities and non-business views.

Crucially, as I explained to my young friend, his career moves are more likely to benefit from his Linkedin activity than from his use of facebook. The latter has more potential to have an adverse impact if postings and comments are not carefully considered.

Linkedin can also be used as a powerful career enhancer and I have spoken about this before. More and more recruitment decisions are influenced by Linkedin profiles. Also relevant to your career success will be your activity and the connections you build up on Linkedin.

The other key distinction between facebook and Linkedin is that the latter is a powerful lead generation tool that can be used by accountants – of all ages.  And this tends to be the focus of the talks I present on the subject both in-house and at conferences.  Hence my conclusion that Linkedin is VERY different to Facebook and a far more valuable and important tool for most accountants.

Confessions of a tax avoidance scheme promoter

At last week’s annual Taxation Awards event I found myself chatting with someone who used to promote tax avoidance schemes. What he had to say was well worth sharing with readers of my blog.

First though let me offer some background. I want to provide enough details to justify why what Mr X had to say is so important. But I am respecting his preference not to be identified here especially as I made no notes at the time so I do not want to specifically attribute his comments.

I have known Mr X for 15 years or so. When I was in practice I attended many meetings with him and was always struck by his honesty and integrity. Although I was never a fan of tax schemes, when Mr X promoted a tax scheme I knew HE had always researched it thoroughly himself and understood exactly how it worked. He was in favour of making full disclosure on tax returns and was very choosy about the schemes he promoted – even before the DOTAS regime was introduced ten years ago.

Mr X has been a top private client lawyer and tax adviser for years. He belongs to a number of professional bodies; his expertise and independence are highly regarded and he frequently writes cogent and hard hitting articles for the professional press.

Our conversation started by referencing the latest media reports about the icebreaker tax scheme and Gary Barlow and Take That. See: Why weren’t all accountants promoting those tax schemes? This is a post I wrote when the same story first became news almost 2 years ago in 2012:  (It has since become apparent that the scheme dates back to 2004 – rather than only to 2010 as I suggested in that post)

When we talked I learned that Mr X has found that the market for tax schemes has dried up in recent years.

In his experienced and credible view NO professional accountant in their right mind spends time promoting tax schemes to clients any more. There is NO point in accountants spending time trying to get their heads around new schemes, as an independent conclusion will always be that the scheme will not survive attack by HMRC.

Mr X told me that in his view the only people still actively promoting tax schemes to clients are the naive and those whose independent view has been compromised by their need to earn a living. Oh, and the liars who know that their assurances are unreliable.

There will always be greedy people who will want to believe that they can reduce or remove a large tax bill by doing what they think the rich and famous do. And there will always be slick salespeople who can exploit that desire for a profit.

Mr X still advises on tax but confessed that he no longer promotes ANY tax schemes. He does however get involved in helping extricate people from schemes that have been found not to work or where this is now anticipated to be the likely outcome.

Supplemental point

When I was at Accountex last week I noted that two well known membership groups for accountants are encouraging their members to use the services of their preferred tax scheme promoters.  I tend to think there is a combination of naivety and greed involved in such arrangements.

Having said that, maybe this is the right approach for that handful of clients who want to know what their options are. Especially as they will only want to pay a fee if someone is going to help them pay less tax.

I must admit though that I wonder how often well advised clients actually choose to go ahead with tax avoidance schemes these days. I have noted previously that barely one in ten clients proceed once they understand what is really involved.

As Mr X confirmed when we spoke, the outcome of any remaining tax avoidance schemes must be in some doubt. Because of the inevitable prevarication and argument the final outcome will typically only become clear over the next 5-10 years.

Much better, in my view, to simply seek the advice of a suitable experienced tax expert to help ensure that a client’s transactions etc are being arranged in the most tax efficient and non-controversial manner.  Mr X does this. And the Tax Advice Network provides a simply way to secure such input from independent tax experts around the country.

Related post: Why weren’t all accountants promoting those tax schemes?

Effective use of new tech in accountancy offices

This was the main topic for discussion at yesterday’s meeting of The Inner Circle for Accountants. I have summarised below some of the key issues members addressed.

We met at The Eight Club in Moorgate, London and Members again benefited from the sharing of knowledge and insights around the table. Inevitably we strayed onto related topics as will be seen from the summary below:

- Likes and dislikes about key practice software
- Software that members had tried but given up on
- Different approaches to CRM using software solutions
- Synchronisation issues and solutions
- Managing multiple client and prospect databases
- Workflow management tools
- Managing online marketing campaigns
- Pricing formulas and fee quoting software

One of our members is among, what he believes to be, less than 300 UK accountancy firms to have invested in a branded ‘app’. His views will evidently impact other members’ response to the heavy marketing push around this topic.

Half of the members present had been at Accountex last week and provided their feedback as to whether a visit is worthwhile and how to gain maximum value when you do go.

At the end of the meeting I invited members to share what were for them the key learning points and takeaways. I have since shared these with all members of The Inner Circle along with related links to save them time trying to locate them. I will also share a fuller note of the issues discussed and shared at the meeting in due course together with additional relevant ideas. In accordance with our Membership Principles all such notes will comply with the Chatham House rule.

The Inner Circle is a facilitated group of like-minded accountants in practice who share similar challenges – and are willing to help each other by sharing practical solutions.

Check it out and follow the link to watch the intro video and then get in touch so that we can discuss whether joining would be good for you and for your practice


You need to avoid STANDING OUT for the wrong reasons

This list started as a quick note of ways in which you might STAND OUT to people who meet you, but for the wrong reasons.  In each case I suggest that the issue is one which will probably undermine your credibility even if you are remembered. There is little benefit in being remembered for the wrong reasons as you will not then win the referrals and recommendations you seek.

As I started thinking further about this the list has grown longer. If you can think of anything else please add your comments below. And equally if you disagree with anything below please share your reasons:

  • A limp loose handshake
  • Errors on your business card
  • Amateurish logo design
  • Inability to look people in the eye when talking to them
  • Broken links on your website
  • Talking too much when you meet people
  • Having an info@ style email address
  • Branded vistaprint or moo ‘business’ cards
  • Breaching client confidences
  • Being rude, unpleasant or miserable
  • Looking a mess
  • Claiming to have a USP that is clearly not Unique
  • Excessive non-business related tweets (on twitter)
  • Failing to look people in the eye when listening or talking with them
  • Being dirty or smelly or both
  • Unprofessional looking marketing materials or website
  • Inconsistent claims as to your expertise online
  • Highlighting irrelevant features of your service offering
  • Tiny font on your business card
  • Inability to talk about anything other than accounting and tax
  • Being arrogant (unless you are a litigator when it MAY be a less unattractive quality)
  • Adopting copycat or other tactics that do not appear credible or congruent
  • Lack of clarity as to your ideal new client
  • Appearing to be lethargic and lacking energy and enthusiasm
  • Extensive irrelevant or boring conversation
  • Use of inappropriate language online or face to face
  • Failing to keep your promise as to how and when you will follow up

During my talks on ‘How to STAND OUT’ I explain that my focus is on the perceptions that we create when we meet people for the first time. Most accountants would prefer to encourage a positive perception. There are few people who would form such a view if faced with any of the above. First impressions count so we all want to avoid STANDING OUT for the wrong reasons.

Do you agree, disagree or have suggestions of other things accountants could do that might constitute STANDING OUT but for the wrong reasons?