Consulting Advice from Dr. Barbara Clark, Day 5

Barb Clark PicDr. Barbara Clark is a UK-based linguistic consultant with over 10 years of experience in civil aviation.

In June, guest blogger Lauren Johnson had the distinct pleasure of talking with Dr. Clark via Skype.

Last week we brought you Part One and Part Two covering Dr. Clark’s background, including her experiences as a flight attendant, how that led to her pursuing a PhD, and how she’s making her expertise available via her consulting firm, You Say Tomato.

Every day this week we’ve brought you a series of posts where Dr. Clark shared her experiences as a consultant and offered suggestions on topics like finding clients, making yourself memorable, and gaining perspective.
For the final day, Dr. Clark offers her advice for dealing with doubt, not fearing failure, and why she’s always looking for opportunities to ‘pay it forward’.


On Dealing with Doubt and Rejection:

There was a point when I was working on my PhD when I lost loads of my self-confidence. It was quite a dark time, and although I’ve slowly built it up again, even now I still struggle with showing weakness, because I fear that will make people think I’m a failure. I know everyone has ups and downs and every consultant deals with clients who never get back to them. There are all sorts of roadblocks and it’s a matter of persevering and not letting it get you down. Which is easier said than done.

One coping mechanism I use to combat those negative feelings is my Happy List. It’s a list where I write down everything that makes me happy throughout the day. It may be something as simple as, “Well I had a snooze and the cat came in and slept on top of me,” or “I had a Snickers bar, that made me happy.” Silly stuff like that. When I’m feeling low it sometimes strikes me as childish or stupid, but on the whole when I read it, it’s quite good.

Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Failure:

Failure teaches you a lot of things. When I feel like I’ve failed, I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness. It ties back in with a lack of confidence. And confidence is such a crucial quality when we want to do something that’s outside the norm. Basically, having confidence is going to help you so much with clients, because you have to project, “I can do this,” even if in your head you’re thinking, “Really? Can I do this?”

In academia you’re discouraged from making definitive statements. But as a consultant you don’t necessarily want to mitigate your language when you’re making a business proposal. I think hedging and mitigation undermines that all-important confidence, and it undermines how you come across to a client. It’s the difference between saying, “This is what I could do for you,” and “This is what I will do for you.”

Being at the Vanguard and Paying It Forward:

I think what we do is very slow. We’re at the vanguard, the forefront, the coalface, people would say here, of applying linguistic anthropology, academic theory, and concept methodology outside of academia to the real world, for positive change. And I think it’s just a slow burning thing.

So I guess another takeaway from the last couple of years is “Learn more.” There’s always someone who knows something you don’t. It’s not a case of being shown to be dumb. It’s a case of “They’re going to help me improve.”

A great many people were kind to me when I was doing my PhD and helped me in so many ways. They were generous with their time and they absolutely did not have to be. And now I feel that, having had such a rough time while working on my PhD, it’s very important to talk to people about those topics that aren’t always discussed, like business speak or the mechanics of applying academic theory outside of academia. I enjoy helping people with that, because not only do I learn more, but it also gives me a possible future ally, and it helps expand our growing industry of applying linguistic anthropology in the real world.

And it just makes me feel good too. I quite like helping other people.

Thanks again to Dr. Clark for all her advice, and for sharing her story with us!


Maximizing your Online Presence:

Along the lines of expanding how I define the work I do and marketing myself more broadly, I’ve recently started offering a new service called Twitter for Professionals, learning more about Twitter ads and using their built-in analytics to get instant feedback. I also pick the brains of my other half, who’s been advertising on Twitter for a while.

I’ve started to advertise on Google using Google Ad Words, but one of the hardest things is trying to think of how other people would find me, and what keywords they would use that would bring up my service in the results. To answer that, my plan is to send out emails to people asking, “If you were looking for my service, or a service like mine, what would you type into Google?”

In correspondence after our interview, Dr. Clark mentioned that she has also begun advertising on LinkedIn, which she said is, “more expensive than Twitter advertising, but I think the audience is much more specific and focused for my advertising goals.”

Meeting New People and Gaining an Outside Perspective:

I go to Meetups to get my brain thinking. I’ve found it very helpful to talk with people who are in different consulting industries. I was just at a Meetup recently that had nothing to do with aviation or linguistics. It was about product development. The theme was experimentation and there were all sorts of people from different backgrounds, mainly IT people because the host was kind of a tech-y company.

It was really interesting to listen to people because many of them had the same problems I was experiencing, even though their work had nothing to do with aviation communication. Problems like, “How can I know that my research has impact?” “How can I gain new clients?” “At what point do I stop advertising and change what I’m advertising because what I’m doing isn’t working” And it made me realize that one never stops learning. There are constantly things to learn and so I’m constantly never the expert. It’s quite nice but in a way it’s a bit shaky and you always feel a bit unsteady.


Crafting an Elevator Pitch:

In my elevator pitch, when I speak with airlines, I focus on safety which is key for them. My five-second elevator pitch is “I work with organizations to understand how miscommunication happens and how it can be reduced to increase safety.” It’s more than five seconds but it encapsulates what I do in a nutshell.

Now, I used to say all sorts of things people outside of academia don’t care about, like identity construction and occupational community. But I still believe it’s my job to insert identity and community construction as I’m talking because if someone speaks about their job outside of work, that shows that they’re well devoted to that job or that profession. If someone speaks positively about their employer, that employer should be really happy because it means they’re doing their job really well.

Being Memorable:

I know that what I do is very word-of-mouth. It’s very niche. But I also hate the “hard sell.” When salespeople try to hard sell me, it makes me run the other way. So I never want to do that. My intention is to plant a seed in someone’s head, and I’m not always successful in that but that’s my goal when I chat with people. And I always try to have something that’s memorable. My business cards are different to the standard size business cards. The name of my consulting firm is “You Say Tomato” which, because of the different ways you could pronounce “tomato” (to-MAY-to versus to-MAH-to), it immediately gets people thinking about different pronunciation standards, and what assumptions they make based on how someone pronounces “tomato.” I also try to maintain contact with people but I have a terrible memory for names. So that’s something I’m always working on as well.


Building Client Relationships While in School:

When I was doing my PhD I tried to make contacts and network with industry people, like stakeholders and gatekeepers, because while I enjoy chatting with cabin crew (whom I love) these are rarely the people who hold the budget strings. And that was a hard lesson to learn.

Getting to the point where I’m sought out to do a job is the result of many years of relationship building. And yes, there is a certain amount of luck but it’s a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of explaining what you do. I think it’s being able to draw from the linguistic norms of other industries where you want to work and then applying them to what you want to do.

Presenting at Industry Conferences:

As soon as I could, I started presenting at conferences. And that was incredibly helpful. It forced me to stand up in front of people and talk for 45 minutes about academic research to an industry audience, which was scary as hell, because in my head I was thinking that every single person in that room was a potential client. And it was really intimidating to think, “If I mess up, or misspeak, or if I put something out there that I think is wrong or that ends up being wrong, that’s going to reflect on me.”

At my first conference I did two presentations the same day—the same talk to two different audiences—and it was really helpful. I still do that presentation to new clients and to different audiences because it explains linguistic anthropology, interactional sociolinguistics and Hymes’s SPEAKING grid, and we look at some data. It’s a nice way of introducing language in context to a non-academic audience.


Advice for People Who Want to do a PhD:

Pick something you love doing, even if you think it isn’t PhD material, because you’ll be wedded to it for at least 10 years, both during your PhD program and post-PhD. You’ll be mining it for as much as you can, for things like publications and conference talks. And if you’re planning to go into a PhD program straight out of undergrad, realize that it is not the same experience. I had a stellar undergraduate academic career, which set me up very poorly for my PhD, because I thought a PhD program was a longer version of undergrad.

On the Difference Between Academia and Consulting:

When you’re an academic you think, “Oh that’s a really interesting problem,” but when you’re consulting nobody cares about interesting, people care about money. I still struggle with that today: how can I balance my research interests with making money? How can I work with clients? How can I sell myself? How do I convince clients that they need to hire me and how can I show them their problem is one that only I can solve? I wish more PhD departments focused on that instead of grooming students to go into academia.


  • Find out more about Dr. Clark’s consulting firm, You Say Tomato on her website.
  • Follow her on Twitter:
    • @infoYST (more aviation oriented)
    • @drjavafox (more linguistic, anthropological, and informal tweeting)
  • If you’re a professional looking for help with making your Twitter presence more effective, check out her course: Twitter for Professionals
  • If you’re a current, potential, or future PhD student looking for advice, Dr. Clark welcomes you to contact her at!


Lauren Johnson is a linguist and theater artist, based in upstate NY. She currently works as a consulting researcher examining humanitarian intervention and violence against women in Darfur, Sudan. A highly accomplished binge reader and trivia buff, she is always accepting recommendations for what to read next.

You can read more about her here:

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