“How does one get into shape for public speaking?” I was sitting in McMenamin’s Bar, sipping a guilty-pleasure Coke, when I became phenomenally obsessed with this question — “How does one get into shape for public speaking?”
At that moment, I was waiting to go on stage to pitch our startup, and became quite aware of my heart rate. My Fitbit registered 145 beats per minute(bpm) — super high — like I had been jogging a few minutes. I felt my body was betraying me, amping up my adrenaline when I didn’t want it to- today’s pitch wasn’t even that important.
In that moment, I embarked on a journey to get in shape for public speaking, particularly startup pitching.
Adrenaline is an issue. Along with anxiety, it can cause anyone to jitter the first few words, nervously step back and forth, talk too fast, feel like their vision just came out of warp speed or forget what they were going to say. I love the adrenaline that comes with kiteboarding, wakeboarding, snowboarding, skydiving — but my bad public speaking habits were also coming from adrenaline.
At that bar, I was grappling with the question that every Techstars founder grapples with during the entire program: In three months, how am I going to deal with the stress and give an amazing presentation on Demo Day? In other words, if my heart rate was 145 bpm now, it would be even higher for the high-stakes Demo Day pitch I was going to give in three months. That wasn’t going to be good.
To maximize our raise and — let’s be honest- for pride, I needed to knock Demo Day out of the park. I’ve always been an athlete, so naturally, I wanted a training regime. Over the next three months, I built one on top of what Techstars provided. The practices I tried are what I intend to share with this post. Some things were conscious. Some things were serendipity. Some things worked. Some things didn’t.
So here, in all their glory, are the 7 tactics that comprised my training regime.
As you’ve gathered, I landed on heart rate as a proxy metric for the combination of adrenaline, anxiety and flight or fight programming.
When I was a swimmer in college, it was something I regularly checked after finishing a set. Hitting 200+ BPM was a badge of honor (so was vomiting due to lactic acid buildup). Both were feedback loops indicating that as phenomenally in-shape athletes, we were working hard.
In the case of pitching, however, I identified high heart rate as a negative. Using my Fitbit, I monitored my heart rate prior to going on stage for different pitches leading up to Demo Day — just and as I would for swimming. The lower my heart rate, the more progress I felt I was making. This was my North Star.
Practice Makes Permanent
This was one of my baseball coaches favorite expressions. Over the three months, I tried practicing my pitch in cars, to friends, to colleagues and to cameras.
I created a rule for myself during these practice sessions. No matter what happened I would NEVER stop the pitch and say ‘let me start over.’ I realized that doing this would train me to want to do this in the middle of every pitch. That was a dangerous training practice.
Instead, if I made a mistake, I rolled with it or acknowledged it. If there was an interruption such as someone walking in late to a pitch practice, I asked them to take a seat and continued until I finished the pitch. In my best cases, I made a joke out of any interruption which put the test audience at ease.
Note: Pitching while driving didn’t work for me. The theory was that it would simulate a distracting environment. In practice, it’s amazing how much attention an unprotected left turn takes.
Win the Crowd, Win your Freedom
I identified early on that getting a laugh in the first three lines put me at ease and (presumably) lowered my heart rate. This isn’t as hard as it sounds.
Most public presentations have low entertainment value and even lower presentation quality. Commenting on virtually anything that was said previously that is not a verbatim cliche such as “I love this city” or “let’s put your hands together for [previous speaker]” will get you a laugh or applause. It must only show the slightest wit, tweak, or that you were listening to previous speakers.
An example: In my Demo Day presentation, I listened to the entire 45-minute keynote speaker simply to find my hook. I keyed into one segment particularly when the speaker talked about hiding emotions and not to believe anyone who said “they were killing it.” When she said that, I looked at my friend and made a joke. He laughed. I had my hook.
What did I open with as a Drone company that sprays and kills invasive plants to protect trees? “DroneSeed. We are killing it” (1:19). The audience loved it. Was it original? Yes. Was it brilliant wit? Meh. Maybe. Did the audience give a big laugh? Yes. Was I MUCH more comfortable on stage after a laugh? Hell yes.
Pro tip: If you’re in a series of speakers, listen to every other person’s hook. If they use what you were going to use, you have to find a new hook or your funny line is going to go over super poorly.
“Ain’t Nothing but a Peanut.”
That’s the famous phrase of bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman as he does lift repetitions over and over. I found I similarly needed reps for my pitch in the two weeks leading up to Demo Day.
As we received feedback from mentors, we were making changes to slides and the script to incorporate it. I had to stay on top of all the activity and figure out how I would naturally say the new lines.
Most nights before going to bed, I flipped open my laptop, assigned myself a certain number of pitch repetitions, and recorded myself doing each one using Quicktime. When I felt I nailed it, I would transcribe a script from the video.
Embrace the Script
I personally don’t believe in scripting a pitch first. It doesn’t work for me and it feels fake. What I do believe in NOW, post Techstars, is pitching something from an outline repeatedly and seeing how my natural inflection lands with the audience. Once I have that, I write the script — but only for a Demo Day-caliber event.
Here is why: Before Demo Day, I fought the script. I fought it hard. Then I hit a point where I realized that I had my pitch 90% down but couldn’t get that last 10% to come off clean. The remaining stutters, stalls and hesitations were caused by the recurring need to make a choice about what words to use.
I was at that point 3 days before Demo Day. I took one of my Quicktime videos and wrote down every word. I removed some clutter and then committed to the verbatim version. It came out clean. Holy crap, is this what actors actually do? I never knew.
Like it’s your Job
I haven’t yet addressed the adrenaline. How did I drive my heart rate down? The answer on how to deal with adrenaline came to me after presenting at McMenamin’s.
I recalled a conversation I had with a skydiving instructor. Out of sheer curiosity, I asked him how many jumps he did as an instructor before the adrenaline didn’t kick in and it was a ‘job.’ His answer was about 100 jumps.
That was my answer for adrenaline. My thesis is that overcoming adrenaline is as simple as doing something so many times that it’s routine (though hopefully not boring).
By the time Demo Day rolled around, I’d pitched to a live audience for feedback multiple times per week. I had also added 10 pitches a night for two weeks. I’d embraced pitching as my job. It was routine. It was having less of an affect on my heart rate each time.
I would say that is one of Techstars’ secrets and why they have so many flawless pitches on Demo Day. Does everyone need this? Maybe not. I did.
Staying in Shape
I was really pleased with our pitch. Go on, judge me here. However, after Demo Day, I had a question, what do I do to stay in pitching shape and keep pushing my boundaries?
To broaden my abilities, I enrolled in an improv comedy class with Jet City Improv to up the ante. Realistically, today I pitch all the time to evangelize our company. I use our Techstars pitch as a base. However, improv ups the game. I have no idea what my partners will do. I have no message or point to deliver, my objective is to be funny for people who are expecting entertainment. Luckily, there are rules and even an ethos that messing up can be just as funny.
So what was my heart rate prior to a live improv performance in July? It was a nice 115 BPM. I interpret that to mean I’m having fun — but it’s not boring.
How do you prep for public speaking? What’s your training regime? Is heart rate your best indicator or have you found something better? Have thoughts on this post or just found it helpful and want to drop a line? Email me. I love feedback. Also, try finding an improv place near you.