In a previous post, I mentioned that I had been working with student finalists in the annual pitch competition hosted by the John S. and Marlene J. Brinzo Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation at Kent State. A small group of faculty, staff, and donors mentored the finalists for 4-5 weeks leading up to the event to help them hone their financials, slide decks, and overall presentations. Because we had a lot of positive feedback from the students, I thought I’d share some of what we discussed in this blog post.
Pitch competitions are very similar to arts performances, such as recitals and plays, in that they all require someone to present ideas to an audience. In fact, many pitch competitions are set up like a stage, with lighting and sound you would find in any performance venue—the hall is dark and spotlights are focused on YOU! This is relevant because it can be disconcerting for those not used to performing in that environment. Coupled with the statistic I read yesterday that public speaking is the biggest fear for 75% of the population, it’s imperative we coach students on stage presence.
If performers are being honest, we all have some degree of apprehension before performing because we want to do a great job. It could vary from backstage nerves to full-blown stage fright. I’ve also observed these same responses in many business negotiations where anxiety manifested itself in hand-wringing, perspiration, higher-pitched voices, and so on. I think the degree of apprehension is also directly proportional to the amount of money being negotiated. The key is how we deal with it. Here are some activities that students said helped them with their presentations:
One student asked how he could cope with his intense fear of public speaking, so I went through a brief visualization exercise I use with musicians: I asked him to stand on one side of the room and walk toward me, which he did easily enough. I then asked him to do the same exercise but imagine he was on a sturdy board about 4 feet wide, which he also did. Then I asked him to imagine he was on a sturdy board 2 feet wide, which is wide enough for most to walk at their normal gait—and he changed the way he walked. That is a typical response so I asked him what changed and he said, “the way I thought about it.” That’s the answer, and the solution is to recognize that you are the expert and nobody will know your proposal as well as you. When you are in a pitch competition, you are there to educate the audience about your business. In that scenario, be confident when telling YOUR story.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Great performing artists don’t practice until they get it right, they practice until they can’t get it wrong. Rehearse your presentation until it’s smooth and natural. Give it in front of a mirror; to anyone who will listen; and record yourself so you can observe your body language, facial expression, vocal characteristics, so on. Then watch yourself with the audio off and see if you still have the same impression.
Perform “With” the Venue
To the audience, the performance begins as you are entering the stage, so try to access the event space prior to the competition. This will allow you to feel how your voice sounds in that venue (minus an audience), and how your body feels and moves in the space. Experiment with the pace at which you speak and the movements used to convey your ideas. The more familiar you are with the environment, the more comfortable you will be.
Other suggestions students found helpful:
If you are someone who wants to improve their public speaking or stage presence, or simply become better at speaking about your art, consider trying the above techniques to see what works for you—and keep practicing!
Thanks for reading,
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