Last Wednesday I went to another great panel discussion for ACG Central Texas. This particular panel was a spotlight on private equity, and it included partners from Vista Equity Partners, Virgo Capital, and some of the other top equity firms here in Texas. They shared their observations on today’s market and talked about what, in their eyes, makes a successful business founder.

One thing really caught my attention — and the reason I’m writing this blog post — was that they all talked about the importance of founders being open-minded: open-minded to unexpected opportunities, to different strategies, to new directions. And I couldn’t agree more.

The word I use for this quality with my clients is coachable. To me, open-mindedness isn’t just about entertaining new ideas or new ways of doing things; it can also be about taking someone else’s informed opinion or criticism and using it to positively impact your company and career.  People often ask for help and are then unwilling to execute on it.  So why ask?  If you want to get better at a musical instrument, let’s say, you would look for a great teacher.  Meeting with the teacher they will give you suggestions, advice, homework and feedback.  You listen and practice because know that is the only way things will get better.

Whether you’re a founder of a bootstrapping startup, an experienced entrepreneur, a manager trying to move up in a large company, or a C-suite executive, true success comes when you are open minded and coachable.

A lot of my clients come to me for help, but instead of being open to suggestions and new ways of doing things, they want me to wave a magic wand and make everything better. (If anyone has figured out how to do that, please let me know. My business will skyrocket.)

The truth is that real breakthroughs only happen after a lot of hard work and some coaching from those trusted advisors that you’ve already vetted and brought into your inner circle. Be judicious about who you take advice from, but once you decide who those people are, take their advice!

No matter how experienced any of us are, there’s always something we don’t see, there’s always something we can learn, and there’s always someone else who may have valuable perspective and insight. Being open to others’ ideas and suggestions (while not always being reliant on them) will lead your company or career to new heights you hadn’t even imagined.

So try being open and coachable, and watch how things take off.

 

I recently came across an article on eye contact that the Harvard Business Review highlighted back in October. Those of you who know me know that I’m a big proponent of eye contact, so I was understandably confused to see that this study actually discouraged eye contact. To be honest, I started yelling at my computer screen because I so adamantly disagreed. Why such a strong reaction? Well, the study was conducted using video recordings of speakers expressing different views. Not real people — videos.

Of course we’re going to be turned off by direct eye contact in a video! We know instinctually that, if the speaker in a video is looking right at us, he isn’t making eye contact, he’s just staring directly into the camera. We know that this effect is achieved without looking anybody in the eye. That’s why it feels uncomfortable, insincere and unpersuasive. They say in the article that “eye contact decreases the success of attempts at persuasion.” Well, I’m not sure what the speaker was unsuccessfully trying to ‘persuade’ the camera to do, but I know the viewer had no part in it. The viewer was simply an observer of the speaker/camera interaction. Of course they weren’t persuaded of anything.

Eye contact is a powerful tool to create connection. It’s not one sided; it’s an exchange between two real-life, present people. It has the power to establish trust, credibility and confidence through mutual acknowledgment. But you can’t receive mutual acknowledgment from a video. You just can’t.

I was watching the news the other day and saw that the Pope took two young boys on a spontaneous joyride through St. Peter’s Square in his Pope-Mobile.  After the story was over, the news commentators all said: I LOVE this Pope! And while I am not Catholic, I have to agree.

So what is it about him that inspires such reaction?

Why does everyone feel such a connection to this man? And how is he igniting enthusiasm around the world and reenergizing Catholics?

The key is that he connects. He’s not focused on how he can be the best Pope that ever was – he is focused instead on them.  Whoever they may be – the elderly or disabled, the homeless, even two young boys on a school trip – he is always thinking about how to help and connect with them. Everything that he does and everything that he is comes down to what he can do for others. He isn’t just speaking from his glorified pulpit about caring for the poor and being a good Christian – he thinks, “What can I do that will be meaningful to this man, this child, this crowd.”

This is what makes people want to see him, listen to him, and be around him. This is what makes people want to engage.

When you are trying to communicate with someone — whether it’s an infuriating coworker or a potential investor – you will always be more successful if you focus on them and look for ways to connect. Communication at its best begins with generosity.  Think of this the next time you are about to lead a staff meeting or speak to your Board of Directors.  Remember, it’s all about them.

Every good public speaking coach will tell you that stories strengthen any presentation, speech or pitch. Stories put information into context. However, not every story is a good story or even the right story. So here are three rules to follow to help you identify the right stories.

Connection
Relatable:
This is one people often overlook. Your story may be perfect for your speech, but not for your audience. Each audience is different. Telling a story the majority of your audience can’t connect to, is worse than no story at all. So realize you may have to change stories each time you give that presentation. If not, it may feel like an inside joke that alienates you from the audience.

Clarity
Relevant:
I have often seen speakers who include anecdotes or stories because they read in a book that they should. They never bothered to figure out how or why that story makes sense in their speech. If you don’t see the connection, why should they. Think of the story as a picture you are painting for your audience so they can remember your points and put them in context. Make sure your stories are a good fit.

Credibility
Real:
First and foremost stories need to be true. An audience can usually sniff out a ‘planted’ story that was crafted for the occasion. They always fall flat and leave you looking like a twit. By the same token, I have seen people use other people’s stories as their own. While it is always more powerful to use personal stories, there are times when an experience that a client or colleague has had can be useful. However, if they are not your own you need to qualify that at the beginning. Give credit where credit is due. Keep it real.

So think about your audience, your information and your experiences. The stories that intersect all three are always the ‘right’ stories.

Your research is done. Your deck is ready.  Your business is poised.  Now all you need to do stand in front of the investors and make the pitch.
So, make sure you…

6. BREATHE 

Nerves are normal, even healthy.  Nerves can create energy and help you get your message and passion across.  But uncontrolled nerves are deadly.  So breathe.  It sound so simple, but it the first thing we stop doing when we are nervous.  Besides being generally good for you, breathing is the key to controlling nerves.  Standing in front of important and influential investors is not the time to limit the oxygen to your brain.  Take long, slow, deep breaths.  This will help you control your heart rate and by extension, your nerves

7. FOCUS ON THEM 

Another tip for controlling nerves is to focus on the investors.  Often when we are making a presentation or trying to persuade someone, we stay in our own heads.  We think ‘I hope they decide to fund’ instead of ‘I can’t wait for them to hear about my company’.  Get out of your head and into theirs.  Now instead of nerves, you will show passion, focus and connection.

8. PACE YOURSELF

The single biggest presentation mistake entrepreneurs make in a pitch, is spending too much time on the product and not enough time on the company.  When you are practicing, practice your pacing.  Make sure you are spending more time on your team, financials and growth strategy and leave time for Q & A.  Nerves on the day will eat into your time, so practice your pace and plan to finish early.

9. SPEAK UP  

You may be lucky enough to pitch to a couple of folks in a conference room, but you will probably stand in a lecture hall or auditorium in front of an entire angel network .  Prepare to present anywhere, at any time by gauging how much you will need to speak up to be heard clearly.  If you lose your place, don’t mumble.  Just take a breath and move on.  Your voice helps you tell your story, but only if they hear it.

10. LET YOUR SLIDES DO THE TALKING

Hopefully you have spent the time and money to put together a smart, clean, brief deck.  If not, call the folks at InvestorPitches.com for some help.  But now that you have the slides, don’t read them.  This is not kindergarten.  It’s ok, they can read.  Don’t waste precious time repeating what they have read.  Instead, use your deck simply as a tool to tell your story.

Now go forth and get funded and let me know how it goes.

Your research is done. Your deck is ready.  Your business is poised.  Now all you need to do stand in front of the investors and make the pitch.   So, make sure you…
1. PRACTICE
You’ve spent countless hours developing your idea, putting together your team, validating your value proposition and creating your pitch – now practice.   Actors rehearse, athletes train.  Great actors and athletes rehearse and train relentlessly.  So practice as often as possible and out loud  (things always sound different, and usually better, in our head).

2. PRACTICE TOGETHER
If more than one person is presenting, don’t practice separately.  In theater, the actors playing Romeo and Juliet never rehearse separately hoping that opening night everything will work out.  Practice your timing and hand- offs or you risk looking unprofessional and disorganized.

3. LOOK THE PART  Remember you are asking someone to trust you with their money.  Make sure you look like the kind of person they can trust with it.  Think more debate team captain and less hipster geek.

4. SHOW YOUR PASSION  When pitching, entrepreneurs get so wrapped up in facts and figures that they forget to show their passion.  Show it!  Passion means you are serious about your company and will do what it takes to succeed.  Investors will be energized by your passion and get excited to be a part of your vision.

5. EYE TO EYE  Not looking the investors in the eye can cost you.  If you seem like you are avoiding them, which can happen if you are nervous or unprepared (refer to #1), you will seem insecure and uncertain.  Regular, direct eye contact helps create a compelling presence and a connection with the investors.

Come back next week for Part 2.

There is often a misconception that we need to keep a poker face when faced with difficult people or situations at work. The truth is that a poker player is encouraged to “maintain an emotionless, apathetic demeanor”. That is not how we want to be perceived at work, any more than anger or frustration. So, how can you keep from sending signals which might just anger someone or escalate a difficult situation?

Here are some tools:

Relax: Facial muscles are often the first indicator to others of what we are thinking. We break into a smile. We purse our lips or squint our eyes. So when you are facing a tense situation or you hear bad or frustrating news, start by relaxing your facial muscles.

Blink: Often when we hear surprising information or are angry, we fail to blink. It is almost as if we can’t believe what we are seeing/hearing. So remember to keep blinking.

Look Away: Our eyes give away a great deal. That is why poker players often wear sunglasses. Briefly look away from the source of conflict. Give yourself time to process your thoughts and ‘put on’ the right face. Look at a friend across the room or down at your papers. By the time you look back, your initial frustration will be subsiding.

Smile with your eyes: Now you are ready to use your eyes to counteract any signals that may have slipped out in the first few seconds. A soft smiling eye, give others the impression that you welcome their thoughts and input and are open their ideas.

Overcompensate: Sometimes we are don’t have time to fully process what we are thinking or how we are taking the news. In these cases you are always best to overcompensate in a positive direction. If your employee has just shown some attitude or your boss just gave you a less than positive review, be kinder and more receptive to what they say than you might feel. If you don’t create tension at this point, you can always come back to them in an hour or a day with a well thought out response.

Walk in with a positive outlook: If you have to go to a stressful meeting or are giving a review to a difficult employee, tell yourself before-hand that it is going to go very well. Your positive attitude and demeanor will show in your voice and your body language. You might be surprised to the effect it will have on others.

Know your tells: We all have a tell or two, a habit or tic which immediately tells others what we are thinking without us even opening our mouth. It is almost impossible to notice these in ourselves, so ask a coworker. Find someone at work that you trust enough to not only help you identify your tell, but to give you a head’s up when they see it. Maybe you can have a secret signal they can send you from across the room. Over time you will find that becoming aware of your secret signals will allow you to control them.

Another Sunday, another award’s show.  Every year there is as much anticipation for the hosts as for the award winners.  How will this year’s hosts do?  Will she be funny?  Will he be completely inappropriate?  Or will they completely flop?  Remember Anne Hathaway and James Franco at the Oscars or Tom Bergeron, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst and Ryan Seacrest at the Emmy’s?

But this past Sunday we were treated to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes.  Reviews for them have been raves across the board. So why did they succeed when so many others have not?  The reasons are the same for then as for anyone in front of any audience.
 

CONNECTION
Know your Audience
There have unsuccessful comedians as hosts before, so it takes more than being funny.  Tina Fey and Amy Poehler understand their audience very well.  In some cases they know them personally. That gives them an understanding of where the line is and what is concerned ‘crossing it’.  They can add inside jokes, but know not to make too many or too inside or they will lose the viewing audience.  They put their audience at ease and set a tone with which everyone could be comfortable.
 

CLARITY
Go with the Flow
In interviews before the event they mentioned that they had their opening bit laid out and some ideas about would follow. They were prepared but things were not so structured that they were not ready to incorporate banter as the evening went on.  As long as you know your material well, you can allow yourself to deviate from it if the moment allows.
 

CREDIBILITY
Timing is everything
As the night went on the humor and tone changed with the room.  The Golden Globes are known for the free flow of wine and the lack of food.  So by the end of the first hour the audience is, say… more relaxed.  So was the ladies’ presentation.  They eventually presented with drinks in hand.  That may not work at your company retreat, but it’s very timely at The Golden Globes.  Presenting in a way that is authentic to you and accessible to your audience is always a winning formula.

So if you want to be remembered more like Bob Hope than Rob Lowe (1989 Oscars!), remember to keep the audience’s needs and mood in mind. Stay present while presenting, you never know when a brilliant idea may come along. Prepare, Practice and then let go. If you know your material you can relax and have fun. And who said work couldn’t be fun? Not Tina and Amy!
 

 
Everyone finds themselves in front of an audience at some point. But what happens if that point is key to your career, your sale, your success? Be ready for that moment by finding your own style, crafting a compelling message and creating the presence to succeed.

At Articulate Persuasion we help professionals communicate effectively so that they can articulate their message, get more business and speak fearlessly. Let us know if we can help YOU communicate more effectively.

When people find out that I am a Communications Coach, I often get the same question “What is the one thing you can tell me to help me with my next presentation?”                                                                                                                                         
The truth of the matter is that one thing differs which each person. However, there are three things that are fundamental practices to succeeding through communication.

1. Research
You need to know your audience. Why are they there? Do they want to be there, or did their boss require it? Did they just have a heavy lunch and are now sitting in a darkened ballroom? Are you the only thing standing between them and happy hour?

Once you know who they are, why they are there, and how you need to engage them, you can begin the process of putting together your presentation. Make sure everything you put in is about them – your audience.

2. Practice
Once you have your speech or presentation laid out, you need to practice. That does not mean memorizing it, or reading it over and over. You actually need to practice out loud, preferably in front of a person for reaction. You can also turn your iPad on yourself and video your speech, or stand in front of your dog (they make a very receptive audience).

Saying it out loud is key. As opposed to keeping a thought in your head, hearing it helps you edit and refine your message. It will also help you remember what you want to convey.

Then, do it over and over. You should prepare well in advance so that you can go over it numerous times and then: let it go. Give yourself at least 24 hours to play hooky from your presentation. If you practice enough in advance, you will remember it with no problem, but the time off will let it sink in and help you stay relaxed on the day you present.

3. Authenticity
Finally, don’t try to act or sound like anyone other than yourself. People want to hear from you, not you pretending to be Steve Jobs. If you don’t naturally use a lot of hand gestures, don’t worry. No one ever leaves a presentation thinking ‘Why didn’t she use her hands more?’ Before you speak, try to notice how you move and use your voice when you are at your most comfortable. That is all you need to do when you present.

Now you simply need to keep it conversational, focus on how your message helps your audience, and let your hours of practice take over. You will be relaxed, focused and able to communicate to maximum effect.

Often my clients what to work on the nerves and anxiety they feel when they have a pitch or a presentation.  They what to take a magic pill to make the feeling go away.  I have even had a few who have taken a pill to try and make them go away.  That always ends in disaster.  They are always surprised when I tell them we will work on not taking them away, but transforming them.

Nerves and anxiety almost by definition are energy.  When you are anxious you feel as if your ‘nerves’, both literal and figurative, are alive.  They are.  Energy is running through your body.  The problem is not the nerves; it is how your brain is reading those signals.  When you feel anxiety your brain gets the signal that there is something to be afraid of.  The fight or flight instinct kicks in.  But there are other occasions when this energy is used to create momentum and enthusiasm.  Think of a pep rally in high school or the pep talk the coach gives the team.  This ‘pep’ or energy is useful, even necessary.  The same is true for your presentation.

We have all sat through speeches or meetings where the speaker looked as if he was he could put himself to sleep.  Low energy in a presentation can be deadly. (That’s why the magic pill doesn’t work)  The key is to tell your brain that the nerves are enthusiasm and excitement for your speech, not fear.  If you focus on how useful, or entertaining or enlightening what you have to share will be to your audience, it becomes easier to refocus those nerves.  Anxiety is about what might happen to you.  Focus on them and your ‘energy’ will be infectious and get your audience on your side.