Take the Stage
Pitching in front of an Audience
By Adi Hillel
Getting up on stage is never easy. Getting up on stage to pitch your early-stage startup is even worse. You chose to be an entrepreneur, not a performer, yet you’re here, dazzled and shaky, and all you can hear is your palpitating heartbeat and imagined murmurs from the audience. You know, stuff like: “This is the most absurd venture I’ve ever heard of and what the hell is she wearing??”
Well, tough luck, pitching is an inseparable part of entrepreneurship.
At some point or another you’ll find yourself with a microphone shoved into your face, and clusters of eyes staring at you. You’ll pitch in front of investors, decision makers, future employers, potential customers, your grandma, your cat.
As a scriptwriter, I’ve practiced “public pitching” before, but it wasn’t until I had a startup, that I started to form my own strategies. I have had limited experience, but I’ve been on stage more than once — in demo-days, competitions and startup events. I pitched in pubs, in hubs, at academic institutions, accelerators and online. I spoke fluently in Hebrew and stuttered in English, I faced students, teenagers, entrepreneurs, educators and investors. I’ve learned a great deal in each and every one of these opportunities, but I know I have much more to learn before I can fulfill my dream — to give a TED Talk without fainting in front of a live audience with multiple-cameras documenting my fall.
In this two-part post there’s a list of tips that help me, as a beginner venture-performer, to cope with this overwhelming mission. Bellow you’ll find personal recommendations, esoteric tricks and curated pieces of advice concerning public pitching. But you won’t find even one word about the pitch itself; not because it’s not important, but because it’s TOO important; it deserves a post of its own. So for now, I’ll deal with the “delivering” part, and leave the “story” for later.
Mark your Territory
Always come early to the pitching premises. How early? Fifteen minutes? Make it an hour, it’s worth your time, trust me. Get familiar with the space. Find the bathroom, discover where you can get some cold water (or a shot of tequila if needed). Get up on stage and look at the empty seats. This is where you’ll need to look when they’re taken. Practice getting on and off stage, even if there’s no actual stage. Make sure your Power Point works. Go over all your slides, just to make sure nothing went wrong while you were transferring files from one device to another. Ask the sound-wo/man to do her/his sound check on you, while you hold the microphone. Figure out how loudly you should speak. If you’re going to use a Madonna mic, make sure you know how to put it on, especially if you wear glasses (for me it’s hopeless). Rearrange your surrounding, so that they fit your size (yes, move that chair if it blocks your entrance). Befriend the staff and don’t be shy, ask for help if you need it.
Reducing elements of uncertainty is the name of the game here, and its main objective is to give you a sense of control and make you feel a little more at home. It usually works.
Mind the Audience (before they mind you)
I got this advice from my entrepreneur friend, Offir Goldstein, who is the coolest pitcher in the world (I’ve never seen him have a panic attack before pitching. Not even a minor one…). It goes like this:
Before the actual pitching starts, there are always last minute preparations. People are catching their places, shaking hands with their neighbors, checking emails on their smartphones while the host coughs into the mic. This is your chance. Stand up, but not too straight, lean on your chair or on Offir’s shoulder. Look cool whilst you shift your gaze around the room. Familiarize yourself with the surrounding faces. Transform the human mass into individual people, who will soon squeeze in line beside you for some cheap champagne.
When you face them again, this time as the center of their attention, they will look more familiar.
Hey! I remember this guy, we did a hackathon together. He was telling me then that he was shifting from QA to design…
Not surprisingly, it will help you feel more comfortable. And among those faces, you will soon…
Find your anchor
Your anchor is the person in the third row, who keeps smiling at you and nodding his head to the rhythm of your presentation’s special effects. Your anchor won’t stop looking at you, and she will know that it’s HER LOOK, that is keeping you afloat. You don’t need to stare at your anchor, on the contrary, you shouldn’t! Let your focus wander from one listener to another, leave no one behind. Don’t worry, your anchor will still be there, you’ll FEEL IT, and at any given time you will be able to take a moment or two, and return to her reassuring gaze.
I personally thanked my anchor once, at the end of a pitch. She was a complete stranger, but she immediately understood. She’s an anchor, after all.
Don’t just Stand There
Back to Offir and his second trick. This time it’s pure magic. Ready? OK then… The host has called your name. Unfortunately, you instinctively react to it (years of training) and find yourself in the exact spot everyone is staring at. You are handed a mic. Silence fills the room. Everyone is waiting for you to start. Dear god! Can it get more DRAMATIC than this? Luckily it can’t. You’ve reached your limit. Now all you need to do is de-dramatize the moment. How? Start talking WHILE you make a casual gesture, with an emphasis on casual and on gesture.
For instance, pull off your jacket and hang it on the back of your sit, and AT THE SAME TIME, say your first sentence.
Hi, I’m Adi, and I’m — now you can straighten up, let your eyes find a decent target, you’re sharp and calm — the co-founder of… Bang, you kicked off, in a nonchalant fashion. This gesture can be anything. Adjusting the microphone stand, moving an object from one corner to another, even making your first steps onto the stage. Begin talking while moving. It will be easier for you to start, and much more natural to your audience.
For more tips check out Take the Stage, Part II, and in the meantime — Good luck out there, getting up on stage and surviving to tell the tale :)
Care to share your own advice? Please do! Comment right here or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.