You’ll fail more often than you succeed. Failure is so important and so beneficial, but too few people tell you that and if they do, they whisper it. To fail means to try, take a risk, then learn and move on. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying new things, and if you’re not trying new things, then you’re probably not improving or enhancing your value. I sometimes cringe when I think about some of the different initiatives we’ve attempted over the years, particularly the ones that went nowhere. For example, a few years ago, we did a major marketing blitz to offer a new service called “CEO Narratives” — aimed at helping CEO’s reach their audiences and connect with truly authentic, vulnerable messaging and talks. We had a grand total of 0 takers. This one doesn’t make me cringe per se, I still think it’s a good idea, but it failed so we took the hint and moved on.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Beth Noymer Levine.
Beth is a public speaking coach, presentation skills trainer, and messaging consultant who works with high-performing, often high-profile, individuals and teams to formulate their messages and become better messengers so they can achieve greater success. She is the founder and principal of SmartMouth Communications, a communications consulting, coaching and training firm based in Salt Lake City and serving clients nationwide. She is also the creator of the mobile app SmartMouth Public Speaking Toolkit and the author of Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World, released in 2015.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Of all places, I started out on Wall Street but as a communications person. It was the 80’s and the heyday of deals — IPO’s, M&A, hostile takeovers, even the emergence of swaps and derivatives — so the pace and level of activity were fast and hot. I wrote the press releases, including the investment bankers’ and corporate executives’ quotes, as well as bylined articles and speeches for them. In those days, deals attracted a lot of mainstream media attention, and so I also learned and practiced the art of media training during a time when an article in The New York Times could make or break the success of an IPO or a merger.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
In essence, a lot of what I did in those early career years was “load the lips” of people who were smart, successful and had a lot more life and business experience than I did but who couldn’t message their way out of a paper bag. They would get lost in the weeds and needed help — whether for an investor presentation or a media interview — finding and articulating their key points. I remember two things about this: first, it came relatively easy to me; and second, the clients were very appreciative. That’s when I made a note-to-self that there was a niche business in helping people speak and present well.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Oh gosh, I hate to admit this. For probably the first five years of my business, the night before every significant client gig, I would play a tape in my head (and often say it out loud), “Beth, of all the harebrained ideas you’ve ever had in your life, this is the most harebrained of all! What on earth made you think you could do this?” So yeah, overcoming myself was hard. But even as I allowed “the tape” to play, I recognized it was purely subjective.
Objectively, there were two really hard aspects of starting my business. First, SmartMouth was my career re-entry strategy after taking a break for motherhood. I had off-ramped, so to speak, to have my three children and spent almost 10 years out of the workforce. Once my youngest was about to enter kindergarten, I had already grabbed my domain name, built an initial website, and SmartMouth was up and running. Nevertheless, I still had a gap on my resume and in my experience, and because we don’t know what we don’t know, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be an issue or not. Just in case, I applied and was accepted into a post-MBA program at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. It was a condensed but intensive business school refresher for people who had an MBA or MBA-equivalent career experience. It ended up being a great confidence-booster.
The second was that I had no professional network around me when I started the business. I was living in Utah after more than a decade spent in New York and Atlanta, and all my friends and colleagues were back East. On the East Coast, I had built a reputation and was a known quantity in professional circles. In Utah, people only knew me as a Mom. I’ll admit, this was hard on the ego. It could have been totally deflating, and at times it was, but almost ironically two of my earliest and best clients came through Dads I met in the Little League bleachers. Go figure!
Honestly, the main thing that kept me going was that I loved what I was doing. I genuinely enjoyed it and enjoyed my clients. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t add that I’m prewired to love the “chase and kill” involved in growing a business.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
The business is great, robust in reputation and revenue (knock wood!). Grit and resilience may have had something to do with it, but I give most of the credit to my clients. I always say I learn more from my clients than they learn from me, which is to say I learn A LOT from them. Over the years, it has been my practice to listen for and learn what they want and need, how well our services match up to those, and how we can stay a step ahead and deliver value. This is what keeps me going, drives me in fact, and what continues to fuel our success — staying laser-focused on our clients, what they need, want and value. It’s all about them.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Keeping it simple and keeping speakers real is our brand promise. We’ve worked with plenty of keynote and motivational speakers, but our bread and butter clients are corporate groups comprising up-and-comers who increasingly are in front of stakeholders and need to be effective. To that end, it’s our proprietary methodology — for being audience-centric, concise, and to the point — that makes us stand out. We strive to make it accessible, regardless of the client’s industry or role, and that’s been a differentiator for us.
A foundational concept of our methodology is the separation of information from the actual point so that information can be parsed out appropriately and not overwhelmingly. To illustrate this in a “sticky” way, we use big and little fish as metaphors. We have big and little fish slides, but most of the time, I draw them on a white board. They’re primitive drawings but the process of watching them come to life on the board is always fun and memorable.
One of the first times I used the big and little fish metaphors was with a group of engineering types, who are not always the best communicators and are often violators of overwhelming their audiences with too much information. I was delivering a series of presentation skills trainings to this group, including how they should organize their thoughts and material for their audiences. So I shared the big fish (message or point) and little fish (supporting information) metaphors. About three years after I finished working with them, one of the women from that group saw me on the street and blurted out, “Big and little fish! I am constantly reminding my colleagues to find their big fish!” I was stunned, then amused, then pleased. To this day, former clients tell me the fish have stuck with them.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Let me first say that the funniest mistakes are also the most embarrassing. Like the time, in my second or third year of business, when I got my first really big speaking gig. I was in a target-rich environment (i.e. lots of potential clients in the large audience), excited and nervous, and wearing a fabulous light tan-colored jacket. Let’s just say that my excitement and nervousness became quite apparent when I raised my arms to gesture toward the screen!
Strategically, though, I made an almost ironic mistake from the get-go. When I established SmartMouth, as I mentioned earlier, I was emerging from motherhood and building a business that I felt I could grow alongside my children and around their schedules. After all, I still needed to be as hands-on at home as possible. What I told myself, and later told others, was that this idea I had had years ago — to start a niche business helping people to speak and present well — was perfect because it was transactional, in-and-out, no need to be on the line for long-term client relationships. After all, I would say, I already had three very demanding long-term client relationships (i.e. my kids). I soon learned what most entrepreneurs and business people already knew, which is that you want long-term client relationships, that it’s a lot easier and more efficient to keep existing clients than to find new ones. I laugh now when I think back to my transactional one-and-done philosophy regarding clients. Luckily, I had enough clients who wanted an ongoing relationship and forced me to see the light!
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Well, there was the one C-Suite client who told me she thought the name SmartMouth was silly and people wouldn’t like it. I almost listened to her and changed the name, but then stuck to my guns. The name continues to amuse people and get their attention in all the right ways. So that was a close call.
I would have to say that, because of SmartMouth’s proprietary methodology for demystifying public speaking and presentations, I got enthusiastic advice about leveraging the “speechbuilder” functionality from my mobile app into a Saas offering and/or creating and hosting online training. We took on the latter; we created and hosted online presentation skills training courses and tried to sell them on our website. I know I wasn’t alone, several other companies in my professional space also had their own online courses and must have been told they could do the same thing. But here’s the deal: While the advice was very well-intentioned and even timely, it was not well-placed. I’m not a tech exec, nor am I a LMS specialist. And selling products online was not our business model. There was a lot of great learning that came out of this experience, and we salvaged and repurposed the courses (now hosted on platforms such as Udemy and OpenSesame, as well as others), but it was an expensive lesson.
This all took place while I was finishing my book. By some miracle, I was able to meet all of my publisher’s deadlines concurrently with building the online courses — thanks to the efforts and support of some great staff — but I often wonder if I inadvertently directed energy and attention to the online courses that should have gone to the book and book promotion.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First, I don’t take myself too seriously, nor do I think I have it all sewn up. That’s not to say I’m not a serious professional because I am. I mean that I’m focused on looking through the windshield — at what’s coming next, what we can do better, how we can do something differently — and not through the rearview mirror at how awesome we have been. In other words, I don’t see success as something I’ve arrived at, it’s something I’m always striving for and probably always will.
Second, I can laugh at myself and admit when I’m wrong. I might kick myself too, but I’ll be laughing. This is particularly important for employees to see and experience. I always wanted employees who would challenge me if they thought a decision or direction was wrong, so I’ve remained conscious that it has to be safe for them to do that.
Third, I’m a learner. Over the years, I have made it my business to learn from the generation ahead of me, naturally, but more important, the generations behind me. A concept I love, and have employed, is to take on a millennial mentor. Yes, I have had a millennial on staff from whom I have learned, gained perspective, and whose advice I have sought and trusted implicitly. Everyone over 40 should try this!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I can’t speak for or to everyone, but I can offer my perspective as a Mom and entrepreneur to others in the same position. Sure, you want the growth and success but what you don’t want are regrets. So when you’re faced with a business versus family decision — because you can’t be everywhere at the same time — my advice is to picture yourself 10 years from now and ask if you’ll be satisfied with your choice or if you’ll regret it.
When it came to my kids, I always erred on the side of avoiding regret. In fact, I can remember when my youngest was in 6th grade and the date for her performance in “James and the Giant Peach” kept getting changed. It finally landed on a day that I was scheduled to work with a client group in Los Angeles. This may be an extreme example, but in my desperation to not miss a performance she had been rehearsing for months, I offered the client a deep, deep discount in exchange for a change in date. Lucky for me, they were more than happy to take the offer, and I was thrilled to attend my daughter’s play. No regrets on that one.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
This may sound counterintuitive, but going full tilt on marketing when you open your doors can be a mistake. I’m a proponent of organic marketing, at least initially. This is based on some advice I got very early on, and I’m still a believer. Until you know what you have, what your strengths and differentiators are, and what the market will value most about your product or service, you really don’t know what you have or what you want to highlight. It can take a while to know your value prop, what sets you apart. Once you do, though, you can let the marketing games begin!
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Staffing. Employees. Humans. For sure, the challenges associated with “people” are considerable. Recruiting, hiring, managing, evaluating, compensating and motivating other people can be difficult, draining, and never-ending. At best, you have a team of high-performers … until someone leaves and you rebuild. At worst, you are babysitting … until you find the right people and you rebuild. The ultimate responsibility is on you, and people take as much of an investment as anything else.
I had one employee who was a great thinker and writer but wasn’t so great in front of clients and didn’t last long. I’ll never forget the client meeting when, toward the end of the hour, he started tapping on the back of his iPad — essentially tapping his fingernails on metal while the client and I were still talking. He had checked out and must have been getting bored? The tapping was loud, distracting and, frankly, embarrassing. It seemed like I shouldn’t have to tell someone not to tap loudly during a client meeting but alas, I had to. It wasn’t long after that when he left. Always building and rebuilding.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Bigger isn’t necessarily better. There’s so much emphasis on the metrics of growth, size, scaling and capacity. And while all of those are good things, positive things, maybe that’s not your ultimate goal. I spent a good deal of time, probably too much time and quite a bit of money, chasing the holy grail of bigger, only to realize in the last couple of years that I actually favor quality — of clients and employees — over quantity. As the founder or CEO, that’s a choice you can make, but I would suggest making it consciously and proactively.
- Balance is a myth unless your time horizon is long. Admittedly, this is one of my Mom things. When you have kids at home, balance does not and cannot happen on a daily basis. Balance happens over time. It’s really only once you’re an empty-nester that you can even attempt to achieve anything approaching balance on a daily basis. Kids are the masters of unplanned and unforeseen circumstances. There’s no way to plan ahead for one of your kids getting stranded in a snowstorm after school during a packed work day. That’s just one example that jumps to mind. I really wish someone had told me early on not to expect balance. I have more of it now than I’ve ever had, but I’m an empty-nester now.
- You’ll fail more often than you succeed. Failure is so important and so beneficial, but too few people tell you that and if they do, they whisper it. To fail means to try, take a risk, then learn and move on. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying new things, and if you’re not trying new things, then you’re probably not improving or enhancing your value. I sometimes cringe when I think about some of the different initiatives we’ve attempted over the years, particularly the ones that went nowhere. For example, a few years ago, we did a major marketing blitz to offer a new service called “CEO Narratives” — aimed at helping CEO’s reach their audiences and connect with truly authentic, vulnerable messaging and talks. We had a grand total of 0 takers. This one doesn’t make me cringe per se, I still think it’s a good idea, but it failed so we took the hint and moved on.
4. Leading is the heavy lifting of growth. Growth does not happen on its own, it requires leadership. Not directing, but leading. I don’t think I realized how much time and energy would go into leading — including motivating, listening, managing — in order to achieve some of our growth targets. I have learned to be a better listener over time, and it has informed my leadership style overall. Ironically, the motto of my business is “communication is the currency of success” on the theory that no one succeeds alone, everyone needs to communicate in order to get things done, achieve goals and success. The same is true for growth. It can’t be achieved alone, without leadership, which, of course, requires communication. It comes full circle.
5. Plan ahead for an exit. As I reflect, in the 16th year of my business, I wish someone had told me to have some exit ideas in mind as I was growing it. Perhaps that way, I might have built the company with less of me out front and more of my employees, I might have built it to meet a certain minimum threshold ARR, or I might have sought out more strategic partnerships with like-minded or adjacent services companies. I’m not without options or ideas down the road, but I probably have fewer than if I had had a couple of exit strategies in mind from the beginning.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Similar to a sell-one-give-one-away social impact model, I would love to see companies ask their employees to mentor a new American, even for a brief period of time. I am the daughter of a refugee (from Nazi Germany), and I volunteer as a public speaking teacher for refugee teenagers, mostly African. Helping new Americans lift themselves up and achieve the opportunities they came here for is not only a compassionate thing to do, it’s also expedient. It helps them integrate better and faster and thereby contribute to our economy and society better and faster. Refugees in particular are some of the most motivated, resourceful, resilient people you’ll ever meet, but they cannot achieve their full potential in isolation. They need, and will flourish with, the aid of those of us who can help them navigate the language and the various nuances and ins and outs of their new home country.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!