A nervous man standing in front of a microphone, hyperventilating and breathing into a paper bag, with the words "Overcoming Nerves" behind him

Just about everyone gets nervous before public speaking! 

Looking for public speaking & pitching advice? Look no further! Just about everyone gets nervous before a pitch presentation. Nerves themselves aren’t a bad thing; it’s proof how much you care about your venture. The trick is to learn how to lessen the power nerves have over you by:

  • Practicing until your pitch feels comfortable and natural.
  • Tailoring your pitch to suit your personal style.
  • Utilizing whatever mental techniques work best for you in order to make your nerves work for you rather than against you.

In this post I’ll share what’s worked best for me and my clients in helping all of us to overcome the inevitable stage fright we’ve all had to face when walking into a pitch competition or investor meeting. Remember, it’s proof you care! Now let’s make sure all that care gets put to good use.

First & foremost, don’t feel alone & don’t beat yourself up. Pretty much everyone experiences nerves at the prospect of speaking in front of other people. It’s human nature! But the good news is, that means there’s plenty that can be done to alleviate the anxiety. You can do this!

Pitch Practice

Believe me, I’ve been an entrepreneur enough times to know that you’re always busy, you’re always trying to deal with a new crisis, and your hair is pratically always on fire. Knowing that, I know you’ll hate what I’m about to say. But it’s the truth.

You need to practice your pitch at least 8 times before it starts to feel natural. The more you practice, the more the nerves will subside & the better your pitch will be. Practice saying it out loud, moving through your slides & transitions, preferably in the same situation in which you’ll be pitching. If you plan to stand, practice it while standing. Go through it again and again, at a minimum of 8 times.

That may sound like a lot, but if your pitch is only 3 minutes long, running through it 8 times will take you all of 24 minutes! Please, invest the time. Invest the time not only for yourself, but for your business. I promise, it will pay off!

I’d also highly recommend you practice your pitch in front of friends, family, and – if at all possible – fellow entrepreneurs. Keep an open mind, be welcoming of kind critiques, accept only the advice that both challenges you but also feels right, and you will improve.

Tailoring Your Pitch

I’ve noticed there are plenty of different styles when it comes to pitching. The main differences I’d like to go over have to do with pitch formulation & preparation.

Are You Scripted, Or Not?

Generally speaking, I always highly, highly recommend that my clients develop a script and stick to it as much as possible. Planning ahead in that much detail – especially when you’re facing pitches with tight time constraints – will ensure that you make the absolute most out of each precious second. But in working with my clients, I’ve notice there are some inevitable drawbacks with scripts.

First, for a lot of entrepreneurs, reading from a script inevitably leads to feedback that they should “go off script” to “sound more conversational.” This feedback makes me chuckle every time! I know they mean well, but I think it’s terrible advice. Why? Because they’re reacting to a symptom, rather than a cause.

The problem there isn’t that they’re on script. The problem is how they’re reading the script. If you’re not sounding conversational, it’s likely because your voice is too flat or monotone; that’s not a script problem, that’s a problem of vocal tone, cadence, and modulation.

Next time you’re hanging out with your closest friends, pay attention to how everyone speaks. How you speak. I guarantee that when you’re at your most comfortable, you will notice a lightness to your voice, a constant gentle rise & fall to your intonation. Some people even say that when someone smiles, you can hear it in their voice. That’s what investors are missing when they react by saying you need to “go off script”! So if you’re coming across as cold or robotic, try to mimic the way you speak when you’re surrounded by your closest friends. Perhaps even watch a few videos about voice acting on YouTube to get some pointers about ways to control your tone and modulation.

I’ve always been a strict adherent to scripts. Yet I’ve never once been told I’m “not conversational enough”. I’ve attended countless pitch practices for over ten years; I’ve only ever heard “you should go off script!” when the delivery was monotone. If you are hearing that advice, it’s not your script, but it is fixable! You can do it! Just add some heartfelt emotion to the rise & fall of your voice. When you convey that authentic emotion, your audience will feel it and won’t notice that you’re working from a script. 

What if You Absolutely Hate Having a Script?

Trust me, I’ve seen my fair share of entrepreneurs who simply do not flourish when they have to pitch from a script! Putting them on script is like sticking them in a cage; they start to feel rigid, uncomfortable, and just plain not themselves. I get it! If that’s you, that’s totally fine.

But before you decide to jump off script, I want you to ask yourself one question & think about it honestly: is your hesitation about scripts due to a natural inclination… or feeling overworked when it comes to preparation?

If it’s because you’re feeling burdened at the thought of prep time, going off script will not help you. Believe me, as an entrepreneur many times over, I understand burn out! But avoiding practice will only make things worse in the long run. If you want to get investment, if you’re developing a pitch deck, you absolutely have to practice. Think of it as an investment in your future, just as much as any other part of building your business. If you can’t tell your story, it’ll make convincing others to join you that much harder!

If you’re simply not a script person, that’s totally okay! There are plenty of other ways you can prepare. I’ve often helped these types of folks prepare by utilizing outlines organized like a bulleted list. I’ve even created some where there are little thumbnails of each slide, with a bulleted list of the top 2-to-3 points they need to make next to the relevant slide. That little teeny bit of structure is usually just enough to keep them on time, keep them from rambling, and ensure they don’t forget to convey important details. So if you’re chafing at the restraints of a script, give that a try instead!

To Transition or Not to Transition; That Is The Question

Another key aspect of pitch preparation has to do with animated transitions. Personally, I’m a huge fan of them! The artist side of my brain truly enjoys using every tool in my kit to engage the audience, transforming pitch decks into cinematic experiences. Naturally, animated transitions should always, always be subtle! The point of every pitch deck is to focus the audience’s attention primarily on the speaker, not on whiz bang special effects going on in the slide deck. But a tasteful dissolve here, a bit of motion to build in graphs one element at a time; they can add impact, make complex issues easier to understand, and help you stand out from the crowd.

But. Some entrepreneurs just clash with transitions. They can’t get the timing right, don’t want to deal with the distraction, or they just flat out don’t like messing with clickers that much. Again, that’s okay! If that sounds familiar, it’s 100% okay to skip the transitions and keep things simple.

The only exception I will make to that rule is when it comes to building in elements one at a time when you have to explain a truly complex or detail-heavy slide. If all the information being presented has to be on one slide, then please, build it in bit by bit, so the audience doesn’t read ahead or get overwhelmed. You don’t need fancy animations to build it in! But please, keep your audience’s comfort in mind as well as your own; don’t give them any excuse to distract their attention away from what you’re trying to tell them.

Comfort is the Key to Perfection

Ultimately, making a “perfect” pitch deck is all about finding out what “perfect” means to you. A big part of my job is about helping you discover ways to make sure the deck serves you, rather than distracts you. Think carefully about what annoys you most when delivering a pitch; is there a way to eliminate – or at least lessen – that annoyance? Anything you can do to make the process feel more natural for you will go a long way toward helping to overcome those dreaded nerves!

Comfort also applies to the pitch environment as well. Believe me, I learned that lesson the hard way! While I was a fellow with the Halcyon Incubator, I fell and my left ankle was fractured quite badly. My doctors stuffed me into a huge heavy boot cast, but I was determined to continue the program. At my very next pitch practice session, they offered me a chair, but… everyone else was pitching standing up. A guest lecturer had told us we should always pitch standing, to “command the stage”. Steve Jobs always pitched standing! Thus I declined the chair & soldiered on.

Huge. Mistake. Only a few minutes in I could feel my leg swelling. The pain was overwhelming. I was mortified, embarrassed, and in absolutely agonizing pain. It finally got so bad that I was having difficulty breathing. Yet still, I kept pitching!

Thank God, finally the program director interrupted me and said, “Heather, I think you need to sit down.”

I finally took a seat, but I insisted on finishing my pitch. It was a complete disaster. Thankfully it was only a pitch practice and not a real pitch, or I would have been sunk. (Actually. A similar story happened once during an honest-to-goodness pitch, involving an allergic reaction I somehow managed to hide until I was done, but still… Worst. Pitch. of. My. Life! Needless to say, I did not get the investment.)

The moral of the story is, do whatever you need to do (within reason!) to be as comfortable as possible while pitching. Plan your pitch to suit your natural inclinations, and when it comes time to pitch, for the love of Mr. Wonderful, if you need to pitch sitting down, sit down! When you are at your most comfortable, you’ll find that the nerves quiet down considerably.

(I do, however, draw the line at pitching in pajamas, gym shorts, or stained clothing. Yes, I’ve seen that in real life too. Make sure your own comfort is always balanced against looking appropriate for the occasion, because you want to make sure to show respect to your audience!)

Techniques to Address Nerves Head-On

Even if you’ve tailored your pitch to your specific style & practiced it more than 8 times, you’ll likely still feel some degree of nervousness leading up to a big, important pitch. Your preparatory efforts will most certainly lessen their severity, but nerves are inevitable. So what can you do to knock them down another peg or two? Here are a few mindfulness techniques my clients & I have found helpful over the years. I hope they help you too!

Box Breathing

If you find yourself getting hit with a bad case of the butterflies right before the pitch & need something quick, quiet, and calming, I highly recommend Box Breathing! It’s basically a fancy name for a quick four-part breathing technique used by Navy SEALS:

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose for 4 seconds. 
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  • Breathe out slowly through your mouth for 4 seconds.
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  • Rinse & repeat.

It’s backed up by some pretty rigorous, basic science. Breathing deeply into your diaphragm helps to rush oxygen into your bloodstream faster. Controlled slow breathing also helps to push your body back into the parasympathetic nervous state, helping to pull you back out of Fight or Flight mode being triggered by your anxiety. Overall it’s a good, quick, easy thing you can do before any pitch to help calm your body down!

Here’s a guided YouTube video of the technique, if you’d like to give it a try: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJJazKtH_9I

Manifesting a Positive Outcome

I’m not generally a very spiritualistic person, so this is quite a departure for me. But over the past year or so, I’ve transitioned from setting goals to instead adopting a practice called Manifesting. It’s very similar to goals, but with an ever so slight shift in intention and perspective. I’ve found it immensely helpful, so I thought you might find it helpful too. If it’s not for you, though, that’s okay!

Setting a goal would look something like this: “I want to pitch to ten investment groups & secure an investor for my company.”

Manifesting would take the same idea, but instead present it like this: “I will pitch to receptive, well-suited investment groups, at least one of whom will become a successful investment partner to champion my company.”

To me at least, goals feel very action-oriented, while Manifesting goes a step further. It not only details the action, it continues the logic through to a desired & detailed outcome. It reminds me of a common phrase my Mother always used to say throughout my childhood, “Follow the logic train all the way through to the station.”

In other words, think it all the way through to the end. Manifesting does that for me. It not only helps me to see what I need to do, but helps me to imagine the best possible outcomes from those actions. It has helped me to see other possible paths to my desired destination, helped me to examine problems from other perspectives. But most of all, the longer I’ve carried on this practice, the more I’ve noticed a broadening of my own desires.

For the past year, I’ve tried to “Manifest” at least once a week, each time declaring one thing that will happen for each segment of time:

  • Tomorrow
  • Next Week
  • Next Month
  • By the end of the Year

Again, it’s following that logic train all the way through to the station. Say you pitch to those ten companies and you get that investor; what happens next? And after that?

It’s a long-view approach to your life, but without all the stress and pressure of a detailed roadmap. It’s permission to let your heart dream and your mind wander. The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve also started to focus not necessarily on what I “want”, but what I truly “need”. My original manifesting journal was full of mundane, every day things like, “This client will pay me tomorrow,” or “I will finish this pitch deck this week.” It slowly, bit by bit, without me even realizing it at the time, morphed into, “This client will pay me when they are able to,” and “I will be happy and rested while managing to finish my work.” I truly think it’s the difference between focusing on the action versus focusing on the outcome. The more I’ve focused on the outcome, the more I’ve been able to find calm and be at peace with the actions I’ve taken to get where I want to go, especially as Ceemo has transitioned from a consultancy to a software company. My wants expanded, and so did my accomplishments!

For the matter at hand of nerves, it’s been an absolute life-changer. Focusing on the outcome has changed my nervousness about the immediate action at hand. It also creates such an air of positivity; you aren’t just hoping for an action that might happen. Instead, you’ve put the idea in your head that it will happen. Yet again, a slight shift in perspective that makes all the difference in the world. Suddenly the outcome isn’t nebulous and scary and anxiety-producing. It’s already been written, it’s already taken on a positive hue in my mind’s eye; suddenly the pressure about what might happen or the worry that I might mess it up just dissipates.

I hope you’ll give it a try and see if it helps you too! Good luck!

Tapping The Nerves Away

Another fellow from the Halcyon Incubator recently introduced me to a technique called Body Tapping. I’ve recommended it to a few clients already and they’ve had really positive reactions to it! It’s a little more involved than Box Breathing, but it seriously feels like you’ve had a massage by the time you’re done. I found a helpful YouTube tutorial for it, but the one thing I’d change based on my friend Samier Mansur’s instructions: put on a happy song with a beat you can’t help but dance to! When he taught us how to do it, he put on Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ and it was perfect!

Here’s the tutorial: https://youtu.be/UacJm2AM5U0

"This Is My House"

This is an oldie but a goodie! Way back in 2014, I was a fellow in the inaugural cohort of the Halcyon Incubator. It’s a very unique program; its headquartered inside a gigantic historic mansion in Washington, DC. Part of the house and the adjacent townhome is split into apartments, which the fellows live in during a 6-month-long Residency Phase. At the end of the Residency, the home’s massive ballroom hosts a Showcase event where all the fellows get up and deliver pitches in the hope of getting investors.

I was a nervous wreck. None of my other ventures up to that point in my life had gone through a typical investment process; I was a dyed-in-the-wool bootstrapper. I’d made a lot of progress during the program, but I was still unbelievably nervous and dealing with a lot of Imposter Syndrome.

The night before Showcase Day, another fellow and I stayed up ridiculously late, practicing in the ballroom. At one point, as the nerves got to be a bit overwhelming, I had an idea. I stood at the lecturn, put my hands on it, closed my eyes, and repeated something over and over in my head.

“I’m in my house. I’m in my bedroom. I’m in my happy place. I’m safe. I’m about to do my favorite things. This is my house. This is my bedroom.”

It started to work, so I decided to open my eyes back up and just walk back and forth, on and off the stage. I was petrified I was going to trip, as I was still recovering from a badly broken ankle at the time. Each time I walked up the steps, I repeated in my mind, “I’m walking into my bedroom. This is my house.”

I hoped that muscle memory would take over and help calm me down, kind of seeping in the same feelings of comfort I get each time I come home, or go into my bedroom to lay down for the night. It definitely felt like it helped! During the event I didn’t trip when I went up the stairs, I delivered my pitch remarkably well, and everything went just fine.

If you’re really desperate for something to calm your nerves, maybe give my little made up practice a try!

The Audience is Rooting for You

No matter what, I want you to remember this one last thing. The audience wants a good show! Each and every one of them are rooting for you to do well. They want to be inspired, to learn about all the amazing new things coming their way.

Don’t forget that. Thrive off that positive energy! Audiences are like great big emotional amplifiers; they’re mirrors that reflect and multiply whatever emotions you send their way. Remember that they’re rooting for you, use that as fuel, so you can express your own authentic emotions in return. Share the pain points that inspired your innovations, then the excitement of having built your solution. Kick off that emotional roller coaster and watch how it swells into a memorable moment with your audience. I promise, it’s a high you’ll never forget!

Good luck!

Remember, you can do this. You know your business, you’ve attempted something few people have the guts to try, and you’ve accomplished a lot. Only a simple pitch stands between you and the next stage of your journey to success. That’s nothing compared to everything you’ve already accomplished! So get out there and make it happen.

Need a Perfect Pitch Deck?

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