Take the Stage
Pitching in front of an Audience
By Adi Hillel
OK, you’re an entrepreneur and you have a pitch coming up. Way to go! We both know it’s not an easy job, but you’re going to do it anyway; it’s an inevitable part of every entrepreneur's life, and you have a startup growing inside you, eager to come out.
In our last blog post — Take the Stage, Part I — I introduced some of my tips & tricks for pitching in front of an audience. If you haven’t read it, start from there and come back here later.
In this post — Take the Stage, Part II — I’ll share some more techniques which you may find useful. Let’s start with the first thing you should remember the next time you go on stage and feel those hyperactive butterflies, jittering in your stomach. I’ll start with:
Anxiety and Excitement are the Same
I had this revelation in a Donna Griffit workshop. Donna is a corporate storyteller for startups. Among other things, she reminded us that physiologically, we experience THE SAME SYMPTOMS when we are stressed and when we are extremely excited (try to recall the last time you were in love). Adrenaline gushes through your veins, and your heartbeat and blood pressure accelerate. Your autonomic nervous system activates your endocrine system, and you are all aroused and ready to fight (or flee).
So when you think about it, the same body reactions can be interpreted differently according to context, and the good news is that you have full control over the latter. Instead of telling yourself (and others) I’m super-tense right now, try to rephrase: I’m sooo f***ing excited. Replace nervous with thrilled, stressed with enthusiastic, and rule your story. We all face the same bodily symptoms, but some of us have the ability to make the most out of them. Be that someone by transforming your inner storyteller into a heck of an optimistic dude.
Speaking of mind-body, you can always…
Picture the Sun Heating up your Hands
A few years ago I suffered from back pain. A couple of visits to the clinic led my doctor to suggest that it’s mental stress which is affecting my joints and muscles, and he sent me to biofeedback. There, attached to sensors that measured my physiological activity, I was taught how to actively calm myself, by gaining control over my breathing, blood pressure, muscle tone and later on, my brainwaves. One of the mind-body manipulations that worked best for me was to imagine a sun heating my hands. Believe it or not, the sensors on my fingers showed the same thing — my hands actually got warmer, even though I was sitting in a dark room. And that’s not all, I started to feel relaxed.
The explanation is simple. Stress is a biological response to a threat or a challenge. One of the symptoms of stress is acceleration of blood flow to the vital organs, like the heart and the lungs, and constriction of blood vessels in many other parts of the body, like our legs and hands. Heating the hands contradicts the physiological state of stress, and thus helps us relax. Try it, and see for yourself.
Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
There is no other way to put it — a well delivered pitch is a factor of the time dedicated to preparing, learning, practicing and rehearsing it. Craft your text endlessly and improve it after every pitch you make. The feedback from your audience is your best editor.
Write your own text. Saying words that were written by somebody else will not sound native and genuine coming from your mouth. If you do let someone else write your pitch, “translate” it into your language afterwords, with your specific diction and emphasis.
Know your pitch by heart. Say it again and again and again (as Noam Feinholtz stated again and again), in the shower, on the bus, while walking in the street, while falling asleep, while dreaming. Embarrass yourself in public by talking to yourself; it’s wonderful! Or you can just pretend that you’re speaking on the phone (the virtue of the 21st century).
When I started, I found it extremely difficult to memorize the text due to my lousy memory. When a friend told me that every time I say I have a lousy memory my memory gets lousier in response, I immediately stopped saying I have a lousy memory (here I said it again!), and started memorizing. To my great surprise, it had two positive effects:
1) It became easier for me after 2–3 times as my cognitive resources became more efficient. Nowadays, I need a day or two to rehearse, when a year ago I dedicated a whole month to studying my pitch (I’m a bit obsessive).
2) The structure of the speech and important key phrases have emerged into my lexicon, and now I find it easier to improvise and sound spontaneous!
Conduct a dress rehearsal. Dress up. Put your shoes on. Buy a clicker and click through your slides while synchronizing your clicks with your spoken text.
Get a karaoke kit and plug it into your loudspeakers. This is your voice when it’s amplified. Experiment with hand gestures, when your left hand is holding the clicker and your right hand is clasping the mic. Try to switch sides, and notice that you’d better hold the mic with your stronger hand, so that it won’t shake. Keep in mind that you should point to your slides with the hand that isn’t holding the mic, or you won’t be heard.
Ask your friends & family to play the audience. Chances are they’ll find it amusing, and you will overcome your glossophobia. Do pronunciation warm ups. Film yourself pitching. Watch the footage. Don’t judge yourself, but be aware of your facial expressions, your body language and your voice range.
Find your Magic Feather
Remember Dumbo and his magic feather? Find your own feather, the one that keeps you bold and brave. For me it’s a semi-gold necklace shaped like a light bulb. It is visually similar to our website design and the minute I bought it, it became my amulet. I KNOW it doesn’t hold any super powers, but its sole purpose is to empower me, by placebo effect which works just great.
It doesn’t have to be an object, it can also be a ritual, which for you is attached to success. For instance, Donna told me that eating fruit like strawberries and kiwis just before pitching, prevents one’s mouth from getting dry during the speech (which happens to me every single time). Following this advice, my partner Ella brings me a bucket of fruit before every presentation, and watches me binge on it. I’m not sure at all about its effect on my salivary glands, but this simple act has become a habit, it comforts me in my stressful moments and gives my team and I the sense that we are in the driver’s seat.
But the most important thing is…
At the end of the day, your key comparative advantage is YOU. Despite the fact that pitching is a performance, you are not an actor/actress who’s playing a role. You are there to present the Unique Value Proposition of your startup, and you and your team are part of its DNA. If you’re clumsy or shy or slightly neurotic, make it a part of your show. Stand out for what you really are; don’t try to pretend you are someone else. Be enthusiastic and fully express your passion. Put the force that drives you ahead in the front; if you have come this far, just imagine where you can still reach. It’s your chance to speak up and show the world how you’re about to disrupt it. It’s your turn to show your audience how you visualize the future from your point of view. Enjoy it!
One last thing. It does get easier. Scout’s honor.
Care to share your own advice? Please do! Comment right here or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.