The cardinal sin
I thought I had it in the bag. Twenty years of working as an actor, I’d learned to engage all kinds of audiences…
Apathetic teenagers in high schools. Aggressive offenders in prisons. Chattering classes in theatres. From village halls to stadiums I’d done them all. I knew the difference between getting onside an intimate room of recovering addicts and an arena full of paying punters. Heck, I’d even run workshops coaching business people on public speaking. Repeating my mantra: practice, practice, practice. Bring your boldest self to the stage. Don’t go into a presentation scenario under-rehearsed. So, when the producer of my new play asked me to pitch to a roomful of potential investors, I told her sure thing. Easy pickings.
And yet here I was: a clam.
To be honest, I felt I knew my pitch inside out. After all I’d written the play. How hard would it be to flesh out a couple of the scenes and paint a few broad strokes about the story’s arc? I had broken a cardinal rule I tell all participants on my courses: I was going to forgo all that preparation stuff. I’d decided I was going to open my mouth, and head for the sky by the seat of my pants. And why not? Not only had I studied improvisation way back in the day, I was now a guru in the art of presenting with impact.
You’re probably ahead of me. My pitch barely got off the ground. Rooted to the spot, hands in pockets- I was half-way through my lead character’s description before realising I’d not even set up the premise of the play. My throat, sensing this was nosediving, did the sensible thing and chose to close up. Words broke pitch. My tongue stuck to the room of its mouth whilst my breathing did its best impression of an asthmatic duck. Thank you ‘fight or flight’ for the unnecessary shot of adrenalin. As I desperately tried to recall the incredible stories and anecdotes that wouldn’t seem amiss on Parkinson, my audience busied themselves by watching the tumbleweed blow across my stage.
I bring this all up not to snitch on myself, or even to judge what contributes to weak or strong presence, but to identify the indicators attached to a stinker of a pitch. Something about my whole approach was suspect and I’d chosen to ignore the warning signs. I wouldn’t dream of stepping on stage with a bare grasp of my lines, frozen to the floor, hoping to wing Hamlet’s soliloquy. And yet here I was fudging it in front of backers hoping nobody would notice. Acting is about telling the truth in such a way people will be entertained or moved or uplifted. Why shouldn’t a good pitch do the same? If only I’d approached my presentation in the same way as I prepare for a performance.
Seven things you can apply to presenting with impact learned from the world of acting:
1) Learn your lines. Maybe not verbatim. This is a marketing presentation not Oscar Wilde, right? But over-familiarise yourself with your content. It might seem boring, but it pays dividends later: public speaking is so much easier when you understand what you’re saying.
2) Practice out aloud. Get a feel for the words and phrases. Enjoy the sound of certain words. Know which sentences trip you up. What parts of your presentation need energising? Alter your rhythms. Slow to hammer a point home. Fast to generate excitement.
3) Warm up your voice and body. Get used to the room. If you don’t know it already, speak to somebody the other side of the room. Know what kind of energy and volume is needed to be heard.
4) Enjoy the silence. Let the room breathe. Don’t feel pressured into speaking for the sake of speaking. A well-placed pause can add dramatic effect. It can punctuate a thought. Even if you’re doing nothing, do it actively.
5) Be bold. That doesn’t mean undergoing a personality transplant. Be bold but be yourself. Bring your boldest self to the forefront. Confidence puts an audience at ease.
6) Let your body talk. Over half of your message is communicated non-verbally. Allow your hands to talk. Adjust that slouch. Be purposeful in when and where you walk. Be fluent in facial expression.
7) Breathe properly. As well as calming yourself down, good breathing allows for clarity and volume. Besides if you stop breathing properly, you get a sore throat. And if you stop breathing, you die. CPR is not a good strategy for closing a deal.
If only I’d heeded my own advice perhaps, I’d be selling the rights of my new play to Hollywood right now. Alas, the script remains in my drawer. Maybe another day. And that’s part of the moral of the story too. My play could’ve been saved. Had I have ironed out my pitch. Lack of rehearsal wrecked it.
And you do this too. How do I know it?
Because you’re human. You look over your notes, run a few phrases over and over in your head, tweak your power-point and then hope to reach the sky by the seat of your pants. Pitches need practice. Presentations need practice.
Did I commit hari-kari when my pitch was turned down? Did I throw my notes out of the window? Did I throw a hissy fit on the floor like a toddler deprived of sugar?
Of course, I did.
But when that was over, I headed home and began to practice in front of the mirror.
I put a raw steak on that blackeye and tried again. Practise. Practice. Practice. It’s my mantra.
Matt is an award winning theatre director, professional actor and coach. He delivers our Presenting with ImpACT masterclass. Find out more or book your place <here>