Specializing in social marketing and business communications training

4 Communication Lessons We Can All Learn from ‘Shark Tank’

shark tank edited

The popular TV reality competition show, “Shark Tank”, is packed with tips on how business professionals can improve their communication skills. There are also plenty of lessons to learn about pitching stories and self-confidence.

As you probably know, the premise of the program is that aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs give a 10 minute presentation to five self-made millionaires and billionaires. Among the Sharks: Real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran and the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban.

Each guest requests funding for their idea and offers a percentage of the business. One or more of the Sharks can suggest a modified plan for funding and the piece of the pie when—and if—the business takes off.  

Make no mistake, the program is called “Shark Tank” for a reason. The investment tycoons considering the deals are top notch professionals who have succeeded and struggled in numerous ventures.

I imagine it’s quite intimidating to stand before this esteemed group to pitch your idea.

Consider these four communication lessons we can all appreciate from “Shark Tank.” It seems all of the budding entrepreneurs have similar traits:

  1. They absolutely believe in themselves and their products. From the elderly couple who designed a pair of underwear to capture the smell emitted from flatulence to the young political wonks in Washington, DC who, in their spare time, created a recipe for Barbecue Sauce and Rub, every person who has appeared on “Shark Tank” has had a true sense of themselves. Their willingness to be vulnerable to the barrage of questions and raw feedback on national TV is admirable.
  2. They embrace negotiation. Often times, the projections and numbers are off, and the Sharks are fast to point out the ‘real numbers.’ Fledgling entrepreneurs often have to think on their feet to throw out new and more accurate figures without compromising their business plans and credibility.  
  3. They control their emotions. A certain blend of heart, enthusiasm, and humility is a significant part of a successful pitch. Yes, most guests leave the show disappointed that none of the Sharks invested in their idea. But it’s valuable for people watching the show to see guests draw the emotional line and keep their composure, something that requires a great deal of inner strength.
  4. They know how to appeal to the senses.  The inventors and creators that are on “Shark Tank” know how to engage the Sharks with visuals, tastes, smells, and sounds. The gym trainer who created special bras for women athletes brought along several women who were wearing different styles of the undergarment. When pitching food or drinks, guests arrive with impressive packages containing samples for each of the Sharks.

If PR, marketing, and other communication professionals focused on these four skills and attributes—belief in themselves and products, negotiation, control of emotions, and sensory experiences—I’m guessing we would have a more satisfied and successful workforce.


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Gallup: Only 11% of Business Leaders Believe Grads Are Prepared for Work

Admissions office SNHUThey lack basic communication skills and business competencies. So how are millennials earning college degrees and preparing for the workforce?  

A recent Gallup poll reveals 11 percent of employers feel grads are ready for work. Educators, meanwhile, are giving themselves high marks for preparing students for the labor force.  

At a recent IBM Conference, T-Summit 2014: Cultivating Tomorrow’s Talent Today, educators and business leaders addressed the disparities.

Paul LeBlanc, President, Southern New Hampshire University, was one of the conference speakers. I interviewed him about the changes in business and education.

Q: How do employer expectations differ from the past two decades?

A: Twenty and 30 years ago there were different patterns of employment. Someone graduated from college and got a job that they stayed at for some time. For the first three years, that new employee would be moved around in different roles, mentored, and trained. They would become fully immersed by building internal networks, learning the discourse, understanding company culture, and becoming familiar with processes. This would keep them at the top of their game.

Today, companies want students who can do this immediately. Business is pushing down into universities a set of expectations that in some way weren’t there before.

Q:  Tell me about the higher education model that was the centerpiece of the conference.

A: We always thought of higher education in terms of a ‘T-model.’ The horizontal bar of the ‘T’ is the broad-based Bachelor’s Degree. The long vertical is a student’s major that reflects a deep knowledge of one subject, such as accounting, and it may include some sociology and fine arts.

We’re now hearing from employers that the horizontal bar in the ‘T’ is more complex. Businesses are looking for graduates who can think in terms of systems and work in cross-functional teams.

In a college setting, for example, a student who majors in marketing will do small group projects with other marketing majors. With the new cross-functional model, the interdisciplinary approach is needed so marketing students will integrate with accounting and engineering majors. That’s what the reality of work looks like today, but universities don’t usually replicate that.  Instead, students work in silos.

Q: What kinds of changes should colleges be making to better prepare students for work?

A: Historically students didn’t worry about the job market so much. They don’t have that luxury any more. We want students to have a plan and to be purposeful as they think about their four-year journey.

We are now revisiting career services. They simply can’t help students polish résumés and do mock interviews right before graduation. That was fine 30 years ago, and it’s still an important piece, but it’s a tiny piece. The reconceptualization of career centers encompasses several things, such as having these discussions at freshman orientation. At Southern New Hampshire University, alumni now make themselves available for mentoring and internships to give students a better sense of what the real workplace looks like. We’re moving away from asking alumni for financial help and looking to them for more business-related contributions.”

Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, says the notion of shared responsibility—not finger pointing—is important.

4 Ways Colleges Can Better Prepare Grads for Business Communication

The yellow brick road. Kind of.Educators, business leaders, and government representatives recently converged on San Jose, California for a conference on cultivating talent and the emerging workforce.

Much of the time was spent on social media, communication, and learning outcomes. Everyone seems to agree there is a gap between what colleges are teaching and what employers need from recent graduates.   

One of the universities leading the charge for academic innovation is Southern New Hampshire University. I interviewed Paul LeBlanc, the president at SNHU, who also presented at the conference.

Beginning the conversation: Historically, students didn’t worry too much about the job market. Today, they don’t have that luxury. We want students to really have a plan and to be purposeful as these conversations should begin at freshman orientation.

Social media presents a multi-faceted and amazing opportunity for networking. We have been linking student portals and going with more web-based portfolios for our students. More and more of our disciplines are adopting E-portfolios that students bring with them to interviews. Included are conventional résumés and electronic materials. Employers, to varying degrees, will look at them, but even the sense they could look at the materials if they wanted to, is powerful. 

Improving online and interpersonal communication: Students must have the ability to walk into a room or an interview, use eye contact and offer a firm handshake. Millennials also have to understand that conversation is a two-way back and forth, and two word responses don’t suffice.This new generation lives so much of life in the virtual space, they are less adept at the kinds of interpersonal skills that employers and mature adults look for. Some of this is developmental, immaturity, or lack of self-confidence. In reality, much of that communication continues to outpace our societal ability to make sense of it.

Social media channels are incredibly powerful, and one area we’re addressing is how students convey empathy and understanding online. There’s still that clumsy etiquette.  Schools can hire outside trainers but we are supposed to be doing this. It’s our responsibility.

Expanding roles of colleges: Colleges are moving into the world of non-disciplinary skills; the things that employers value a lot. Employers had taken responsibility for these things 20 years ago, but today, organizations want the colleges to do this. We are looking at how students develop leadership skills, how they develop the ability to work with people who are different than they are, how they can work in cross-functional teams, and how they think in terms of systems. These lessons don’t live in courses, they are bigger than that and we have to figure out how to make it happen.

Making the changes:  First, SNHU is taking an integrated approach to our career services, alumni outreach, and classroom instructors. We’ve hired new people in career services and are moving the department far beyond résumé services and mock interviews. Second, instead of simply asking alumni to donate money, we are partnering with them to provide internships and mentoring for students who need insight into the real business world. Finally, SNHU is pulling faculty into this holistic approach. We’re getting them more involved with internships and job pipelines, with teaching outcomes that are measureable.

It’s nice to see academia stepping up to face the changes that are needed in business and communication. Let’s hope others follow suit.

Simple 3-Word Phrases You Need for Success

barrelsThe way we communicate with ourselves reflects how we interact with others.

What are you secretly, quietly, and unknowingly telling yourself that is standing in the way of your business success?

If negative self-talk is a daily ritual, consider the following 11 phrases. These simple messages that I’ve been using for years can empower you while replacing the poison you’ve come to believe.

  1. Stay with it. Feel like giving up? Frustrated? Refuse to quit. Persistence often trumps brains.
  2. Get in there. Sometimes you can’t or shouldn’t wait for an invitation. You want something? Go get it.
  3. It’s all good. “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should…Strive to be happy.”-Desiderata
  4. Yes I can. Avoid looking at why something can’t be done. Turn it around with positive energy and focus on why it can be done.
  5. I’ll do it. Don’t try. Commit to a positive outcome and get to work. Make it happen.
  6. One more time. Don’t give up. There’s always hope.
  7. Bring it on. You are so much better than you think you are.
  8. Step back now. Hasty decisions and impulsive responses create problems that no one needs. As tempting as it may be to react or get fired up, take a step back and pause. A few quick seconds makes a big difference in our communication and relationships.
  9. In the moment. Be fully present and engaged. “Where ever my feet are, my head is.” Relentless internal chatter pulls us into the past or propels us into the future. There’s no turning back to change the past and creating drama about something that likely won’t happen in the future deprives us what is right in front of us. Be in the moment.
  10. Too much stuff. We complicate things and situations. We over analyze. We go down rabbit holes. Simplicity is a beautiful thing.
  11. Not a word. Know when to speak up and know when to shut up. Not every statement requires a response. There is power in silence.

Which of these can you get started with right now?

I invite you to share your own easy breezy nuggets that keep you on the path to success, learning, and enlightenment.

Empowered Employees Can Improve Communication and Customer Service

Train on the tracks in Metuchen 2013No one likes to be ignored.

Especially customers who give their hard-earned money to businesses in exchange for a product or service.

It seems that most organizations aren’t making the connection between communication and customer service.

When business communication is forthright and delivered in a timely way, organizations are building loyalty and trust, which impacts revenue and reputation. 

Consider this scenario: You go into the local bagel store for coffee, only to learn they are out of decaf. You’ve already had two cups of coffee and had your heart set on decaf. You innocently suggest to the young man working at the counter that he could buy a can of decaf at the supermarket located in the same strip mall.

The employee response: I’m not allowed to do that because the supermarket’s decaf doesn’t taste the same as the product provided by the regular vendor.

Is it better to tell customers you have no decaf?

Derailing Employee Communication

Michael Shaw, a conductor on the busy Metro-North rail line that serves southern Connecticut and New York City, is one person who recently decided to take control of his communication and customer service.  

Last Friday, Shaw told riders at four stops on his route to wait 30 minutes for an express train. But Shaw, a conductor with Metro-North for 30 years, didn’t know that the backup train had been canceled.

When he learned of the mix up, Shaw composed a handwritten apology to passengers. According to NBC affiliate News 4 New York, Shaw made 500 copies of the note and left them on the seats of the train Monday morning.   

The letter was addressed to “our friends and passengers,” and went on to say, “I am as sick of apologizing to you as you are of hearing it.” (Editor’s note: Shaw is the president of the conductor’s union). 

In light of ongoing safety problems plaguing Metro-North for the past year, passengers praised Shaw for his candor.   

Not everyone is thrilled with Shaw’s note.

In an e-mail to the media, Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for Metro-North, said the rail service shares Shaw’s concerns, but does “not condone his methods of communicating them.”

Was Shaw’s letter to customers a catastrophe or a coup?


The Top Reason You Shouldn’t Try to Improve Customer Service

choc covered strawberries closeupI recently had some eye-opening customer service experiences that I must share. Each revolves around a dangerous three-letter word.

I’m guessing you have been through similar situations when communicating with front counter people working in retail establishments. It seems everyone wants to ‘try’ and help.

Room service: When room service failed to pick up my breakfast order from the doorknob tag the night before, I called to place my order. Keep in mind it is 6:30 AM and I’m bleary-eyed having not had my daily cup of coffee. “I’ll try to bring the tray up as soon as I can,” mumbles the woman on the other end of the phone in a most monotonous voice. My take: Don’t try. Fully commit to fixing the problem by telling me the breakfast will be delivered in 20 minutes. Then deliver it in 15. I promise I’ll be impressed.

Cashier: “I’ll try to contact my manager to see if he can authorize a refund.”  My take: I am certain you know how to contact your manager. Don’t try. Make the call. Write the e-mail. Send the text. Impress me with your response time.

Front Desk Attendant at hotel: “I’ll call now and try to get you a taxi to the airport.” My take: Just last night, you happily offered to call a cab for me so I could easily get to the airport. Now you’re only willing to try? Look around. We’re in New York City. There are cabs all over the place. Your cavalier attempt to find a taxi borders on lame. Real New Yorkers can call or hail a cab with barely any effort. Sure, I can drop my bags and flag down a cab, but I was counting on this person to follow through on his promise. Now that would be impressive.

A bit harsh? Maybe. In my own defense, my only response in each encounter was to smile.  And bite my tongue.

For many years I have likened the word ‘try’ to being mediocre.

Professionals who go beyond ‘try’ and deliver fabulous customer service (bring the food, call the cab) are the ones who excel and make positive lasting impressions on customers and prospects.  They also get noticed by managers and executives who sign their paychecks.

These are the professionals who have purposefully removed the word ‘try’ from their vernacular.

This three-letter word is giving us permission to merely be average in a world that demands outstanding.

Do You Know How to Create and Use Punchy Sound Bites?

blackboard_sound_biteBe quotable. Make your point. It’s kind of like a tag line. Sum it up in eight words or less.

Sound bites have typically been associated with political speeches and the subsequent ‘confusion’ (allegedly) created by reporters who have irresponsibly taken things out of context.

A sound bite or quote is the short tight combination of words that hits your message home.

It’s the needle in the haystack.

How do you determine the nugget, the key point that you can pull out of the entire speech or article that is powerful, succinct, and telling?

I’m fluent in sound bites because of my experience in broadcast news and covering press conferences and political events. It requires a new way of listening.

Today, we depend on sound bites because of the dwindling attention span of our society. Too often, 140 characters are too many.

Below are five ways to recognize valuable snippets and sound bites so your communication pops:  

Testimonials: Gather a few thank you cards or recommendation letters you’ve received from happy clients. Highlight one or two key phrases that resemble a movie advertisement. For example, when a new movie released, you’ll see these kinds of splashy nuggets: “Best Thriller of the Year!” or “An Amazing Voyage of Life!”  Identify the words or phrases in your client’s note that reflect your brand and results.   

Blog Posts: Have you participated in a webinar or read an intriguing article? Find the expert’s snippet or quote that can strike a chord with your audience. Open your post with this powerful quote and build out your topic.  

Slide Decks: Have you been repurposing old but still relevant content to include visuals? Pull a couple of gems and quotes from well-respected thought leaders and include them in your slides. The words should be bold and punchy.

Research: Many communicators are moving away from lengthy white papers and case studies. Learn how to capture key results from research so it’s easy for your audience (or boss) to process. Simplifying material isn’t about ‘dumbing down.’ You can quickly add a hyperlink to the full content for those wishing to access more details. Remember that infographics are appealing and easy to grasp because they are sprinkled with sound bites.  

New Developments: Many speeches delivered by thought leaders and politicians contain more than just the key points that support the title. Trained journalists will tell you there are often tidy little references or hints of something to come. Pay close attention, not only to the main points of a speech or article, but for a hint that may be dropped about a new trend or industry development. By pinpointing this buried treasure, you’ll have a new nugget or sound bite to fuel fresh content.  

Clearly, there is value in communicating in sound bites. 


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7 Smart Things Every PR Pro Can Do During a Blizzard

Edited snowstorm jan 2014Can’t pitch your story because of the weather?  Tired of eating the cookies you bought during an ‘emergency’ pre-storm grocery run? Sick of watching reporters get blown off their feet during live shots of the blizzard?

Speaking from personal experience, I’ll venture to say that most PR professionals and communicators don’t thrive on down time.

With the media in complete storm mode, forget unsolicited phone and e-mail pitches.  

Below are 7 ways for communicators in marketing and PR to stay productive until the weather clears. Most of these can be done from your cozy couch.  

  1. Use SlideShare to create a slide deck from a previous post that received a lot of hits and comments. Repurpose the post by grabbing a few key points from your written text. Add some images and graphics to spice up your words. Post it on SlideShare and cross-promote it on your other social channels. (If you’ve never tried SlideShare, decks are created in PowerPoint, so it’s easy enough).
  2. Take pictures to energize your blog, e-newsletters, and presentations. So much better than stock photos.
  3. Write your Editorial calendar for the year. We are well in to January. It’s time to get the framework together for 2014.  
  4. Check out Muckrack.com (on Twitter #Muckrack) and Help a Reporter Out, or HARO. These are two places where news pros and bloggers are scouting out subject matter experts and trusted sources. There’s plenty of activity to pursue while your sluggish competitors watch the snow fall.
  5. Subscribe to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. It’s a research center that provides in-depth studies and data on timely news issues. You’ll want to bookmark the Journalist’s Resource.
  6. Identify five blogs and pursue opportunities to guest post.   
  7. Poke around Pinterest to see how others in your field are using it to (visually) appeal to customers and prospects.

Just because there’s a blizzard, there’s no excuse for you to have a brain freeze.

And if you opt for Plan B—watching the first few seasons of Mad Men on Netflix—we won’t judge you. Promise.

Stay safe.

4 Letter Words for Creating New Content

Brooklyn it's where my story beginsI was born in Brooklyn, New York. I know a lot of four-letter words.

Sure there are a few that aren’t suitable for this space. But I learned a lot of positive four letter words when I was growing up, too. My parents and grandparents told me—and showed methe meaning of these words: give, help, and team.

When looking at my website analytics, I find that most of my visitors are searching for topics and ideas for their own content and articles.

With four-letter words in mind, here are ways to spark your creativity and develop fresh content:

1. Get a clue about what success means to your target audience.  Have you identified your target audience? Do you know the top five dreams or goals they have for their professional success? When you answer this question, you will have an endless pipeline of topics and content.  

2. Stay curious. Consider every minute, hour, and day a happy adventure in which you’ll discover tons of new things. Read magazines you’ve never picked up. Walk the long way to the office building. Strike up a conversation with someone who appears quite different than you. Read a section of the newspaper you always skip. Listen to a new talk radio show or podcast. Rent a really old movie.  Watch 10 Vine videos. Peruse a competitor’s boards on Pinterest.  Be open to learning.

3. Keep asking questions. When looking for fresh angles and topics, ask yourself the following: What else, what else, what else?  What else is this conference about? What else do people want to know? What else can someone read to learn more? What tips can make their jobs easier? What else did the speaker mention that’s relevant to my audience? There’s always more. Don’t scratch the surface. Keep asking questions.

4. Rage against inertia. Inertia flies in the face of the Internet and everything it represents. Static, stuck, still. Inactivity in social channels simply doesn’t work.

5. Plant the seed. Deepak Chopra wrote, “In every seed is the promise of thousands of forests.” What seeds are between your ears or hiding in social channels that can be planted in fertile soil, nurtured and cultivated? looking up at trees

6. Ramp up your efforts. Don’t take the pathetic road to ‘Pity City.’ I speak from experience in suggesting it won’t serve you well. Sporadic articles, posts, slide decks or videos won’t suffice in keeping people engaged. Commit to these four-letter words and you’ll soon find increased energy and momentum when developing content and ideas.

Need an added content boost? If you would like to brainstorm with me about topics that are relevant to your demographic, sign up now for a discounted one hour telephone coaching session.


5 Ways to Effectively Use Native Advertising

Riverwalk water shadows sept 2012Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Alicia Lawrence.

The phrase native advertising (NA) has been buzzing around ad agencies since 2012 but only a few communicators have truly grasped its benefits. It’s time to demystify NA.

Native advertising refers to the placement of ads that seamlessly blend in with the format and style of whatever platform they are on. Hence, the term “native” as it appears to originate from the site and not a third party.

What Makes NA So Popular Now?

If you’ve kept your eye on the effectiveness of online ads, you’ve seen it drop from 9 percent in 2000 to only .2 percent in 2012. People have developed ‘selective seeing.’ This is why 2012 experienced a spike of interest in NA. Native advertising became a viable option to solve the online ad problem.

Native advertising is focused around the user experience. Since it’s seamlessly woven into consumer content, it forces the eyes onto the brand. You’re not trying to put a mask on the ad so people read it. Instead, it’s about appealing to the needs of a particular audience.

It puts the consumer first by offering relevant content.

 5 Types of NA

-Social NA: Social media platforms have caught on to the effectiveness of NA. Facebook created their promoted stories. Unlike many forms of native advertising, social NA is very affordable.

-Branded Images: Creative original content is another form of NA when combined with a brand. For instance, Porsche sponsored an image-heavy post on The Atlantic that went viral. And there are branded web graphics like this one from Clarity Way.

-Sponsored Videos: Native video ads in particular have become increasingly popular on the web. While they may cost a pretty penny to create, the ROI companies are seeing from NA continues to make it an attractive choice. Native advertising is also a trendy pick for video games.

-Promoted Posts: Public relations professionals have created this form of NA for years. They write and pitch relevant articles that their audience would find educational and enjoyable. The only connection back to the business is a brief mention in a bio line at the end of the post. SEOs have recently picked up the power of promoted posts to further their cause of link building. The article is usually not marked as advertising and most times the owner of the blog has no idea it’s even taking place. How can that be? The anchor text and brand is seamlessly woven into the content.

-Creative NA: Due to its very nature, NA harbors the need for creative advertisers to innovate. This form of NA is open for interpretation because that is what makes NA so appealing to the consumer.

The Difficulties and Benefits of NA

Native advertising didn’t come without its challenges, which deter many agencies away. Since NA must match the website’s tone, style, and format in order to be effective, it requires tailored content for each site. The non-scalability of NA is a major turn-off for fast-paced agencies. This also means the creation and placement of NA is typically quite expensive.

Native advertising is still considered a gamble in the advertising world. We have seen great success with promotional stories on Facebook and natural product placement in videos. However, we’ve also seen great failures.

What is your experience with Native Advertising?

Alicia Lawrence is a content coordinator for WebpageFX and blogs in her free time at MarCom Land. Her work has been published by the Association for Business Communication, Yahoo! Small Business, and Spin Sucks.