“Lukas, I have a special task for you…” is one of Jaro’s favorite opening phone call lines. Be it organizing a Corporate Summit in Prague, arranging negotiations with Prague’s Customs Office, or asking Past Toastmasters International President to threaten with disbanding the East-European District: So far, I was never able to say “No.”
This time Jaro returned the favor and agreed to the interview. He speaks about the importance of sales skills, how much he learned by mentoring in Winners’ Academy and how even the most seasoned leaders sometimes act like in a kindergarten.
Jaro, the District Conference is finally over. When you woke up on Sunday morning: What were your first thoughts?
“Wow, I need to go to clean the conference venue!” We went to sleep at around 5am after the gala dinner. And I woke up at 9am the next morning. We already got some news from the municipal house, that the technical company did not come to pick the audio system, projector and so on. Thus my first thoughts were not the pleasant things you may have expected, like “oh finally it’s over”. It wasn’t over, even now it’s not over, we have to close the finances for example… But the feeling that you may have expected came already on Friday morning. When I opened the conference, I just thought: “Ahh, now the machine is set into motion and I can just enjoy.”
It certainly was a big machine to set in motion, and an amazing conference. I wonder, who came up with the mafia theme? The way it was developed was very unique.
Ah, the mafia theme. It always leads to one person and one person only. The secret mafia person, the deep core. Zuzana Figurova. But in general, we were thinking about a theme that we wanted to have at the conference from the start. It happened some time before the District Conference in Warsaw when we got the message from the District that the Aarhus (originally planned as District Conference in Fall 2017) might be problematic and that they might be stepping out from this. I felt at the start that all the District conferences look all the same and we wanted to make it more memorable. In the past, there were some attempts. They were written in the name of the conference. For example in Krakow: Challenge the Dragon. But there was no real life connection to a dragon in the conference.
True, nobody was asked to challenge the Dragon in Krakow.
It was a great conference. It’s just that the theme was not developed. I thought: Okay, let’s see if we can take it one step further. By the time we arrived to Warsaw, we still did not know what theme to do. Our best choice at the time was Time travel. Friday in the past, Saturday in the present; gala in the future. Brno as a city where you can travel in time. This was what we were explaining in Warsaw. But on the way from Warsaw conference it finally happened in the car. We were talking about this – “Yeah guys, it’s good, but it’s complicated. Can we find some topic that is easier to grasp? Something where we could just say the word and everybody would know what to imagine?” And that’s when Zuzana had hit us.
The answer to everything is Mafia.
In fact she mentioned your name in the start. She said: “I’m always telling to Lukas that our Division is connected like some kind of mafia family, maybe we could make this work.”
Right, that’s how the mafia theme got started. I mean, I loved it from the very beginning. First – okay, mafia theme is cool – then I saw the mafiabrno.com webpage, that was super-cool, but the best was when I registered and I received the first email – that I owe money to the famiglia. I laughed – I was sitting in the office – and I told my colleague Anicka Draganska: “Look what they did, this is so cool!” The more I was shocked that some people did not like the theme, or that they were violently fighting it. They even wrote to Toastmasters International that this was not an appropriate theme. How did you feel when you got those reactions?
I was really surprised. We were expecting that someone may be a little offended and that we’ll have to stand our ground. But we were surprised by the ferocity. The people who did not like the theme called TMI without even telling us. We were lucky enough that TMI responded “it’s their thing and we don’t care”. We also got strong support from the District. The leadership of the District understood that we’re not going to make Toastmasters look like mafia but that we’ll make it a funny game. Still, in the end, to cover some of the concerns, we agreed to make some adjustments and we turned down the aggressive language. We forbade people to bring guns…
You stood your ground, took into consideration the feedback and made it work. Speaking of marketing of a District Conference, if you should do it all again, what would you repeat and what would you avoid? What worked best?
For the start, what got us to sell out all the Early Bird tickets within the first 8 hours was the video that we presented in Berlin and the photoshoot afterwards with the costumes. The previous conferences were selling the Early Bird tickets for days, so I consider 8 hours a big success.
8 hours was a record, Prague conference sold out within 24 hours, but, 8 hours…
…was superfast. What was surprising for me though was what happened afterwards. For 3 months, there was almost no registration. I was really shocked by this. We were communicating every week. We were doing the introductions of clans. We were tagging people on Facebook, doing our best, and we really saw nothing. My guess is one of the key points is how is the conference city known. I think we suffered from the Brno effect. People did not know what Brno is, where Brno is and how to get there. We communicated that it was easy to reach once you got to Prague or Vienna. Nevertheless, I believe many people just did not do the research and said to themselves: “It’s somewhere I don’t know where, thus I’m not going there.”
Who Is This Young Punk
You being the conference chair was something like your comeback among the leaders on District level. I wanted to ask you about your Division Governor years. You were a Div Gov for central Europe – Czech republic, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary. I remember there were some issues related to the handover between you and your predecessor, the previous Division Governor. Would you like to speak about it?
I can, but I’m not sure if you want to…
I do, it’s an interesting topic.
Okay. We had a great Division Governor before I took the role. Her name was Toni Purdy and she did a great job helping the clubs in the Czech Republic and the region of Central Europe to grow. She raised standards of everything – and I loved what she did for Toastmasters here in the Czech Republic. I got into this position (Division Governor) without being an Area Governor before. Before I was just a VPE who got into the Division Governor role and because of that I was not well known in the other areas. It was obvious that I may have lack of support from the people who did not know me. It’s like in life. Especially when you’re young. When they don’t know you, they may think: “Oh, who is this young punk ordering us what to do?”
I was hoping to get some kind of support from the outgoing Division Governor Toni. The problem was that at the time she was not leaving only her office, but also the Czech Republic for Australia. She wanted to use this occasion of handover as some kind of goodbye party. One of my initial ideas that I really wanted to work – and it is working till these days – was to start the year with a TLI (Toastmasters Leadership Institute) to educate the incoming officers. Until the moment I became Division Governor, the officer trainings were made by the Area Governors who made some kind of small trainings in the clubs. As far as I experienced them, they were not effective, not giving people much of valuable information…
You’re putting it very nicely, they were kind of boring and…
Right, that’s what I wanted to say.
Okay, if I can speak this frankly, they were boring and useless. We thought – there must be some way to transfer the best practices in a more fun way. We wanted to do this in Brno also for the Toastmasters from Prague. My point as Division Governor was: “Let’s start strong with a TLI where the best officers from the past year will teach the incoming officers to give them the right information and make their lives easier.” I started working on this idea. However, the outgoing Division Governor wanted to make her own officers training in Prague as her own private goodbye party. She organized it in June, without consulting with me. It would have been completely okay if she did just this. But what I found out after a few days of promoting the Brno TLI was that she was actually discouraging people from going to Brno.
[laughs] Okay, I can imagine this can resonate with some people from Prague.
It sure did. The funny thing was – it was not that Toni would just say it in a meeting. There was a mass email communication in place, sent to club leaders in Prague. Some of Prague’s leaders were talking about me like “Who is this young punk, what does he think, that he should take us to Brno? Don’t go there.” Then one of those people leaked this email to me. When I saw it, I just lost words. For me this was as if someone took a knife and stabbed me in the back. I did not expect this to happen in Toastmasters and I did not expect this to happen from such a seasoned Toastmaster as Toni. It was so childish. You know: “It’s not going to be my way, so let him not have his way either.” We fought back. I knew that I could not fight with “weapons”, or harsh words, so rather I was trying to communicate on a personal level with the club leaders and upcoming club leaders from Prague. I tried to convince them that the TLI had a vision and meaning and it would make sense for them to come with their team. Many people from around the central Europe understood this idea and a few of them came – we got around 90 officers from less than 20 clubs in our Division. From Prague just a handful. Most were caught up in this idea of a goodbye party with Toni.
Interesting you’re mentioning that. I attended both and I did not feel that only a few people from Prague came. From what I saw, people from the new clubs, like Prague Business Toastmasters, the new school of Toastmasters in Prague, came…
Right, your club came, I had problem with the oldschool clubs, these were the guys making trouble. I don’t want to name any more names, but from those clubs came the “Don’t go to Brno” voices. Maybe I could check the records, but from Prague, it was mostly the new blood.
What were the lessons you took from this handover fight?
Never feel safe, always assume someone can stab you. Hahaha.
“Never feel safe.” That is a great message from a Toastmasters interview.
I don’t know, it’s just that people can really surprise you. No matter how much we learn about feedback and leadership in Toastmasters. You can see people teaching these qualities, and then when it comes to a critical situation, they still act like in a kindergarten.
We all are children in a way.
True. For sure I have some stupid reactions in my life as well.
That I don’t believe Jaro, in my eyes, you will always be perfect.
Toastmasters Legacy for Central Europe
Which leads me to the mid-point of your Division Governor career. You were doing it for two consecutive years and I wonder – what was the reason? Was there nobody else capable, or did you just enjoy it so much that you wanted to have one more year?
It was more complicated than that. One thing that was problematic for me during my first Division Governor year was that I did not choose my team. Not that I would be able to choose them – I came from a club as a VPE, so I did not even know who was good and who was not good, but still. Some of those Area Governors were not really doing their job during the first year. Especially Prague Area Governor – if you remember the conference where I came for the keynote…
The conference was supposed to start at 9am; 9:05 they were just unlocking the venue and there was only me and Area governor’s wife. By 10am there were 10 people, barely enough to run a single contest.
Nobody had judging forms.
Nobody had judging forms, there were not enough judges, helpers, some people who did not speak any German were judges in the German contest… That Area Governor did almost nothing about the contest. I believe, from what I saw, he was pushed to take the position. He did not even want to do this. I don’t blame him. Just – if I had a chance to choose, I would have chosen someone else, someone who would enjoy the job.
[laughs] There’s certainly an advantage in that.
I had similar problems in Vienna. The guy who took it was active in the beginning, but he spent too much energy micromanaging. In a few months he burned out and stepped down, leaving us in a problematic situation. So the first year was more about solving the problems somebody else created for me rather than creating a new Toastmasters family for myself. That’s why I decided to do one more year. In the first year I managed to establish the TLI, which is working until today and I’m happy about this. And I managed to find good active people who helped me in the second year. In the second year I had perfect Area Governors. I’m not saying I did not have good ones in the first term – but in the second year I had a superteam. We also had a big vision about how to grow. When I took the Division we had 16 clubs and in 2 years we had about 30. It was because of good work of those Area Governors and good work we did with events like Corporate Summits.
Okay, I understand you needed the second year to create a legacy.
Something for our grandchildren to boast about.
Contests and the Winners’ Academy
Then you took a break – you did not continue going for the District Core Team roles – you went for contests. I remember at the Prague conference Humorous Speech contest, you rocked with your speech Toastspiracy. I saw it a couple of times on video (link). For people who did not see the speech, could you describe what the speech was about and what was the idea behind it?
As a Division Governor and upcoming Division Governor I could not compete. One part of why I am for so long in Toastmasters is that I like the competitions. I was so much looking forward to the moment when I would be able to compete again. That was in Prague right after I finished my term. Over the past two years we were trying to make people more competitive at District level. Except for Vera Orac, nobody could beat winners from other Divisions. We were thinking about how to change that. In Brno we created the Winners Academy. We were meeting every two weeks to polish our speeches and give each other feedback.
Do you have it somewhere documented – like The Principles of the Winners’ Academy?
Unfortunately not. It’s just in our heads. We’ve learned so much doing it though. One of the guys who was in this academy was in Toastmasters just half a year. In his first speech he was so nervous that he had to stop in the middle of it and went to sit down. In the winners’ academy – we tried really hard, we took him to a speak at shopping mall, we made him talk to people at bus stops – we wanted to make him stress-proof on the Division and District stage.
Oh I know, it was Silviu Marisca.
Yes. Silviu. In the Division Contest he was beaten by Vera Orac. I think this was because Vera had a more natural speech and Silviu was already playing it for the District level. It was more theatrical. The judges probably thought it was overplayed. But in the process we learned so much that when I had a chance to compete, I could use it all for my own speech as well. For a long time I was looking for a topic and when I found it, I developed it using all the principles we have learnt in the academy.
It definitely worked. Even though, my secret sources told me that at the club level you came second with this speech. I even heard that your speech sucked. I’m not going to tell you who told me this – the only thing I can share is that she is from Bulgaria.
[laughs] Okay. The speech didn’t suck. But it’s the kind of speech that gets better and better with a bigger audience. It’s more of a theatrical speech. I was second in the club and I was even second in the Area as well. I advanced to Division because the guy who placed first in the Area – Simeon Iskidzhiyski – couldn’t make it. I was lucky as hell to get to Division. But over there, I already knew the audience would appreciate it. And while in the Division round it was very nice, I knew that in the District level the speech would rock. I also made some alterations to semi-finals and finals version – and so even people who saw it twice could enjoy a surprising ending.
I remember that in the speech you were calling out the club and District officers at the appropriate levels as part of a great conspiracy and drawing some crazy charts on a flipchart. At the Division level I was a contest chair and because of where I was sitting, I couldn’t see what you are drawing and it made me even more curious for the District.
Yes. And in the finals, I incorporated even the international president at that time, Jim Kokocki. Those jokes were the most funny, because – nobody makes fun of the international president, right? Haha, wrong!
Often people in Toastmasters get asked this question: What skills from Toastmasters do you take to your job? But I’m going to turn it around – what skills from your job – and I know that you work in real estate – what skills from your job you take to Toastmasters? Be it Division Governor, be it main organizer of a District Conference?
It’s unbelievable how much sales skills can help you with organizing things. It showed when we were making the Corporate Summit. We divided the list into who would contact which company. In the end all of us tried, but except one company, all fo participants were those companies that I have approached. My guess is that others might have been good speakers as well, but they had trouble with the sales part. It’s the same for the District Conference organization. We had big discounts for the venue, we got discount for the gala dinner venue. We got many things for free. You really need to be a salesman for that. With the District conference, I had a big help from two people in this area – Tomas Sarocky and Jiri Malinak. Both of them are salesmen by profession, so I guess it proves my point.
Can you give a specific example for someone who never was in sales?
It’s always about trying to find a way how to make the deal interesting for the other side of the deal. It’s something that you can read in every book, but almost nobody is doing it when it comes to negotiations. When you come to a company and you say: “We are Toastmasters, give us money.” It might work in the mafia world, but not in the corporate world. Every time when we are trying to arrange something, we are trying to figure out how can we really help those sponsors. I think I’ve mentioned that also in the Gala dinner closing speech. I really wanted to thank those sponsors. I owed it to them. They worked with us because they liked the idea – but they also believed that it may help them in something. With some sponsors it is easier. The big corporations usually have some budget for sponsorships. They are just considering how well it fits their image to support this or that event. For example, Flixbus and Liftago gave us discounts easily, because they wanted to promote their service in the region. It was as easy as: “Of course, here you go, there are your discounts.” Similar way was with Red Bull or Starobrno – they gave us drinks for free, even though we had to fight for it a bit more.
What always helps a lot is a personal contact. Red Bull was first contacted by Tomas – and they told us there is no way they would sponsor us. Then I remembered about my friend who was working in Redbull in marketing and I remembered he always had some free stuff at his events. So I called him and asked him if it was possible to connect me with someone who would make it possible – and suddenly it was possible. Connections and contacts help – but also what you can offer. Like with Zebra and Gravelli.
Look for what you can do for the sponsor, not just what they can do for you. And sell them your vision.
I guess after this interview is published, we may see more Toastmasters joining OVB, Partners and Amway just to get the right practice for organizing conferences.
Yeah, they should do that! Great way to learn these skills.
Most Inspiring Toastmasters
The last thing I would like to touch – who inspired you most in Toastmasters?
The first one who comes to my mind is my very good friend Michal Holub, my former club president and Area Governor. When I saw how driven he was, how he delivered results, how he could motivate people and how the Club Officer Trainings he delivered were giving value – then I thought – ahh, you can really make an impact with COTs.
Can you give an example?
We started asking the club officers what was it they really wanted to learn. You know, earlier the Area Directors read about a topic in a book and then gave a presentation. But we asked the officers: “What would help you to do your job better?” Once we knew that, we tried to find a proper speaker who was really good at that topic. The workshops gave a big value. The people who attended applied what they learned in their clubs. This might have been one of reasons why we had such a dramatic growth those years.
Great! Anyone else?
Another guy who really inspired me a lot was Silviu Marisca. He turned from someone who was scared to speak to almost a District Champion. And I’m saying that because I believe that if he passed the Division contest – which he didn’t – I believe he would place in the top three at the District. From him, I have learnt how far you can go in the analysis of speeches. He found a package of videos of all Toastmasters World winners. He went through all these videos and he took notes about what all those speeches had in common. Also the bond we created during this mentorship – I was going with him to the shopping center where he spoke to strangers. With him I saw how much mentoring can teach you. Because – until that point, I thought that it’s only about more experienced person teaching the less experienced person – and I did not expect any value in return. But when this happened, I saw so many insights coming from the mentoring to me, I was flabbergasted. I think I’ve learnt more by mentoring Silviu than I have learnt by my own experience or from books. He is another person who helped me a lot and whom I admire. I could probably find more, but now, under this pressure…
Oh yes, this interview is high pressure.
You would not believe…
Okay. One question about Silviu – where is he now? I did not see him compete after that contest in Prague.
I think he got heartbroken. He put so much effort into this contest that when it did not work out, he just deflated. He did not get back on his Toastmasters feet since then. Maybe time will come when he’ll decide to try it again, but he was totally burnt out after he put in so much effort and didn’t win.
Would you do something differently if you were to train someone like Silviu again?
Yes, I would prepare him for the possibility that he still might not win 🙂
This time, if I would be training somebody, I would phase up how much theatrical the speech should be at which level. As we discussed, my Toastspiracy speech had much better reception at District level than in the previous levels. And it would be the same with Silviu’s. But that was another big lesson for us. Also, maybe we were so convinced that the speech is perfect, that there was not anything we could improve – we did not even consider an option that Silviu would not win at the Division. After all the hours he put into it, it still did not work out, though.
Interesting that you’re mentioning that. I believe most people are not aware that for every level, they need to give a different level of speech, because the audience is different.
Absolutely. Different level of audience, different language skills – for example in the clubs there are many people who do not speak English that well. In the District, you can use more sophisticated vocabulary. Theatrics – work on a big stage, not on the club floor.
See you in Athens!
Division Governor, Competing, District Conference Organizer – what’s next for you Jaro?
Competing! See you in the finals of Athens!
Great! Do you already have a speech?
I will start working on it after the new year. I want to compete. I don’t want to get back into the leadership track yet. Maybe in the future. I know it’s a rewarding experience. At the moment though there is too much going on in my professional and private life and I can’t take on too many things.
I understand – and I will envy you the possibility to compete. Last question Jaro – if you had a chance to send a message to everyone who is reading this – what would you tell them?
Get sales skills, they will improve your life. If you want to get really good in speeches, have one at least once in 2 weeks. And surround yourself with people you can rely on, especially if you organize things.