You’re on stage. It’s not your favorite place; as an engineer you’re more used to hiding in a lab or behind a computer screen. Your hands are sweating so much you can barely work the slide clicker, your face is flushed, you stammer out the first of your memorized lines when - khalas. You’ve gone blank.
Bianca Praetorius is a German actress-turned-pitch-coach so she understands.
Pitching is hard and for entrepreneurs who wish to join the merry-go-round of competitions and investor days, it’s necessary.
Praetorius began helping entrepreneurs prepare for pitching in 2012 and she’s seen a lot, such as the guy who, bored of the pitch they’d been prepping the day before, chose instead to open his moment on stage with a poem.
She says the perfect pitch needs editing - you don’t want to gabble when a simple sentence would do - and practice. But there are also techniques people can use to calm themselves on stage and to present themselves as a figure of authority.
Get used to bombing. It's not going to kill you. Get used to awkwardness, get used to people thinking this is stupid, this will never work. Get used to really trusting what you think about your own product.
Own the awkwardness. When you bomb, step back and take hold of the situation. When you go off stage, you breathe and say 'well that was really awkward, right?'. You name the elephant in the room and accept it was uncomfortable. Owning all the embarrassment of the situation makes the embarrassment go away.
Cut the cuteness, ladies. I'm always working with women on the cuteness trap. You do these things where you physically behave like a five-year-old, crossing your feet and twiddling your fingers. It’s when your body gets nervous and you really want to succeed but the opposite happens, so it's hard to take you seriously.
Be a tiger on stage. The best thing you can do is get your voice to a level where it's as deep and relaxed as possible. Dare to speak slowly because if you take the space, in that second you own that space. Use your arms, make big gestures, walk around at a pace that is like a small powerful tiger and have your voice respect every word so that you don’t rush through the sentence.
Resist the temptation to be sorry. People apologise on stage because they’re scared. It makes sense: by default the person who speaks is in the low power position because the audience, who you want to listen and understand, is in the position to go away and say ‘this sucks’. The default impulse is to apologise first so ‘if you reject me it doesn't really hurt so much, because I already suggested that you can’.
Don’t bore your audience, guys. Often tech guys tend not to be super dramatic which is fine, this is not a theatre, but they tend to speak very boringly. They don't really use their mouth when they speak and they have their hands in their pockets. Jump on a chair and sing your pitch. You will make a fool of yourself and be so embarrassed that pitching will be a walk in the park. Over-acting adds a little more liveliness.
Your ego is your enemy. People who pitch a lot can get bored by their own speech. Then suddenly there's TechCrunch and you want to surprise everybody, you want to try something crazy - then your pitch goes completely off track just because you didn't want to bore yourself. This comes from ego. You wanted to be the 'I'm the Steve Jobs kind of genius' that can blow people away with being different, but if you're being different for the sake of being different, people will smell that.
Be cool, even if you’re dying on the inside. You will be showered with adrenaline when you're speaking, as you will be the victim of your own nervousness. Before it’s your turn you should sit in your chair and try to breathe actively and slowly, and when they call your name, walk slowly. By faking it a little bit for the first 20 seconds you will forget that you were nervous.
There’s nowhere to hide on stage. Practice. The more you practice the more you own the pitch. When you practice, stand up, walk the room and say it aloud. That will lower the risk of you having a blackout while you're on stage because your body is already used to that kind of thing. As soon as you get nervous don't try to hide it, because hiding something on stage is like hiding in a spotlight.
Edit, edit, edit. Edit your pitch. You need to boil it down because it's much easier to say more, than it is to say less. Then do your slides. Don’t make the audience choose between listening to you or reading slides. Spoon feed them: simple is better, one thought per slide. Don't give them anything to look at that you’re not talking about yet.
Your pitch is like a book with chapters. You have the first chapter where you talk about the problem. Then you go to the next chapter to introduce the product or the solution - you walk a step, you lower your voice - and it's like turning a page in a book, it feels different. That simple storytelling tool helps all the busy brains in front of you to follow you more easily.
Don’t play buzzword bingo. People in startup conferences have heard pitches before. There are certain words that you can't use anymore: disruptive - do not say that you have a disruptive product. Innovative - it's done, it's over.
Feature image via Bianca Praetorius.