Pitch DNA INSIDER 114: Supercharge Your Talk in 3 Bold Steps

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Happy Summer, Insiders!
 
We hope you’re enjoying some leisure time, chilling at the pool, and enjoying a few barbeques + campfires. In the past year, we’ve covered a lot of ground with the Pitch DNA Insider (help yourself to the archive here), and with many new subscribers in the past twenty-eight days (welcome!), we’ve had a high demand to put together an all-in-one guide.
 
This month, we’ve created a supercharged punchlist, plus a bonus pocket punchlist for your downloading pleasure that was designed by our creative partner (and graphics + branding guru) Molly Scott. So, whether you’re developing an entire keynote talk or just need a lil’ pitch pick-me-up, you’ve come to the right place.
 
Let’s get to it!

STEP 1: PREPARE

A) Set one goal
 
When we started doing stand-up back in the early aughts, it was easy to get overwhelmed trying to work on all aspects of performance at once. It's hard to know what to do with the microphone, when to try out new material (and when not to), how to cultivate stage presence, and more. When Mark, our mentor (and co-owner of The Improv) made the following suggestion, it eased our anxiety and set us up for success.

For each performance, set one tiny goal. And don’t make that one goal about getting a laugh, because what if you don’t get any? You’ll feel like you failed. But if you set one goal—and you work towards it when you’re onstage—you’ll always succeed.”
 
The same applies to you. Your goal might be “I need to smile more,” “l will do my entire talk from a particular spot on the stage, without wandering all over,” or “I will maintain a steady cadence.”
 
When you achieve that one goal, you will feel successful, and thus create a virtuous cycle which will encourage you to return to the stage again and again.

Stuart: One of the best investments I’ve made in my speaking career, and which I continue to do to this day, is video-record my talks (with a small camera or my phone). Early on, I discovered that I was unintentionally speeding through my delivery. For the next few shows, my one tiny goal was to slow down. By making this minor adjustment, I started to find new material in between the words. This single adjustment changed how I wrote new material and thought about performing. It improved my entire approach.
 
Takeaway: Before your next talk set one tiny, achievable goal. When you do, the odds of reaching it increase tenfold, and you’ll feel more inspired to continue.

B) Research who's involved

It takes a village to produce any event, even the small ones. You might be surprised how many people work behind the scenes to make something happen. So the next time you’re invited to present, speak with as many of the event producers, organizers, administration and staff as possible to learn about the event, the attendees, and what to expect.
 
Stuart: Last month, I spoke at a conference for 100+ business owners. In the weeks leading up to it, I interviewed six people from the sponsoring organization and almost as many of the attendees. Through these short, candid conversations, I gained invaluable insights I never would’ve found online.
 
auGi: Plus, when you invest time up-front with key people, you’ll build relationships that will pay off during the conference and beyond. It’s exceptional networking, and it ensures that when you take the stage, at least a few people in the room are more receptive to your presence.
 
Takeaway: Do your research to enhance the experience for everyone.
 
C) Draft an outline
 
Whether your talk is thirty seconds or thirty minutes, it needs some structure.
 
Stuart: After college, I worked in production for a TV station. One of the hosts taught me about writing. He said, “when drafting a script, make it easy for the audience to understand the ideas.”
 
One foolproof structure to achieve understanding: The Upside Down Tree Method. It starts with the main topic, then breaks down into three sub-topics:

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Using the Upside Down Tree, the host could write something like, “There are three things you need to know about building a guitar—the body, the electronics, and the tuners.” In this example, “building the guitar” was the main topic. The components of the guitar (the body, electronics, and tuners) were the sub-topics.
 
Takeaway: When you build (and present) your talk using a method like the Upside Down Tree, it makes it easier for us to track along, comprehend your ideas, and increases our attention.

STEP 2: PRACTICE

A) Work it out… loud
 
Once you’ve mapped out your talking points, go to a private space where you feel cozy and speak it out loud from start to finish. This will help you find a flow that feels natural to you. While this step is critical, most people don’t do it because it feels awkward to say it aloud when you’re alone. But it’s worth it.  
 
auGi: Another powerful lesson we learned from Mark, “Nobody writes like they speak. So, if you want to sound conversational (the gold standard), you’ve gotta listen to how you say things out loud and then rewrite your set in those exact words.”

When I am working on a new talk, to help transform my written words into a free-flowing speech, I print out my script, place the pages on a music stand, and read it aloud. This helps me to quickly translate into my normal “voice.” As I speak, I redline any changes directly on the page. Then I head back to my laptop to make updates. I repeat the process until the script sounds like a human and not C3-PO.
 
To make sure a script makes sense, I invite my wife (who’s also a brilliant + funny writer) to sit in on a few read-throughs and give feedback. She always helps identify ideas that are unclear, makes suggestions on how to reword them, and offers fantastic punchlines. I don’t know what I would do without her.
 
Stuart: Not long ago, I had to give a crisp, high-stakes talk for a pretty buttoned-up crowd. I got my format together, wrote out my speaking points, and asked a friend if I could practice my talk via Skype. After a few passes (and getting some of his valuable feedback), I recorded the best “take” (the one that felt natural to both of us) and then transcribed it, which became my working script. Extremely valuable.
 
Takeaway: Write + rewrite your script by saying it out loud. Bonus points for recording and transcribing it so you can capture your real voice.
 
Power tip: Need a fast and low-cost transcription of your video or audio files? We both love Temi.com.
 
B) Memorize your script
 
auGi: As Dr. Smith said so frequently in the original Lost in Space, “Oh, the pain, the pain!” Yes, memorizing can be a chore, but when you do, you’ll boost your confidence and find the freedom to “move beyond the words” on the big day.
 
Though I studied improv at The Second City and feel cozy speaking off-the-cuff, I never go into any speaking engagement without a script and memorizing it to the best of my ability. I say “best of,” because remembering every word, line-by-line, like Sir Ian McKellen does when he’s doing King Lear, can take eons to pull off. But you don’t have to be a trained thespian to memorize your lines. In fact, you can be a total nurd like me and still remember 97% of your script by doing one thing: reading your script out loud 2x a day leading up to your presentation.
 
How much should you practice out loud? It depends on the length of your talk.
 
For my new, Humorize Fundraising keynote, which is an hour-long and has a ton of slides, I practiced twice a night (yes, two hours a day!) for a month preceding its first performance. Typically, I would prefer a couple of months, but I was crunched for time. In total, I rehearsed it over 60x. It was worth every minute.
 
Did I completely memorize it? Well, not quite. But to ensure I didn’t miss a beat, I added the contents of my script into my Apple Keynote presentation and requested a confidence monitor (a giant monitor that sits in front of the stage where you can display both your slides and your script notes).

 auGi (L) performing at a gala with auctioneer, Justin Timm (R). Notice the confidence monitor near Justin's fancy shoes.

auGi (L) performing at a gala with auctioneer, Justin Timm (R). Notice the confidence monitor near Justin's fancy shoes.

I’m glad I did because I lost my place a few times during my talk. Glancing down at the monitor helped me get back on track without the audience knowing.
 
If you’re speaking to a smaller group and don’t have a confidence monitor, bullet-point out your talking points (or “beats” as we called them at Second City) on note cards. Nobody in the audience will be upset if you occasionally glance at your notes.
 
Takeaway: You don’t have to spend two hours a day rehearsing, but if you invest the right amount of time, you’ll sound like a natural born leader. 
 
C) Fly into the discomfort zone
 
To get good at anything, first, you’ve got to be bad. This is especially true in public speaking (and even more so in stand-up comedy).
 
When you’re first getting started, it’s okay (and advisable) to build confidence by practicing in more comfortable settings (i.e., alone in your office or after lunch with a friendly co-worker). However, public speaking events are unpredictable. Don’t assume “business as usual.” When you practice speaking in challenging situations, it will prepare you to power through the unknown.
 
Stuart: Earlier this year, I was preparing a group for a pitch competition. One of my participants, Liz, had a brilliant idea, but she happened to speak extremely quietly. In fact, she was so quiet that it was difficult for others to hear when she spoke.
 
When I coached her to project her voice, Liz said, “I’ll just use the microphone to be louder.”
 
“That may seem like a fair assumption,” I said, “but it’s not always the best plan. During a nerve-racking presentation to 250 people at a business conference, my microphone died. It didn’t matter; I had to continue! So, I acknowledged the problem to the audience and carried on. I projected my voice as loudly as I could—practically shouting the remainder of my talk. It was painful, but I managed. And because I persisted through the challenge and didn’t make a big deal out of it, the audience rallied with me, which created a bond between us. It turned into a big success because of the adversity, not in spite of it.”
 
After sharing that story with my class, Liz dialed-in her performance. When she took the stage at the pitch competition later in the week, she used more of her voice box to command the room and even placed among the top three finishers. Nice job, Liz!
 
Takeaway: Make practice difficult so when it’s showtime, you’re ready for (almost) anything.

STEP 3: PRESENT

A) Rehearse in full regalia!
 
Whatever the “full version” of your talk is (i.e., using slides, wearing a banana suit, chopping through a beer can with your Ginsu knife), practice with all of your tech gear, props, slides, and attire in “show mode" before the big day. Why? Because there’s a huge difference between practicing in your basement wearing flip-flops and shorts vs. presenting in a stuffy boardroom in your fancy Hugo Boss suit (unless you’re pitching to surfers, at which point the flip-flops are an asset)!
 
Stuart: Over the past six years, I’ve witnessed thousands of pitches, and I’m always amazed (horrified?) at how many ways technology and the environment can conspire against you. Rarely is a setting “perfect” for presenting. You might encounter a glitchy cable, a TV monitor on the fritz, an extremely hot and humid room, or a venue with so much sunlight that we can't see your slides clearly.
 
Preparing well is about imagining all the things that can go wrong (within reason) and plan how you’ll solve for them. I work hard to rehearse every presentation through the lens of how the other party will experience it, even down to cleaning the entire desktop of my laptop so, when I hook into the projector, the only visible thing onscreen is my presentation (and not my dog video collection).
 
auGi: And if you haven’t seen Stuart’s dog videos—like The Alhambra—you haven’t yet lived!
 
Takeaway: Plan for things to go wrong and, more often than not, they’ll go right.
 
B) Get centered (breathe)
 
You’re backstage, in an adjacent room, or maybe sitting at a conference table waiting to go on. It’s almost showtime. Are you feeling nervous? Anxious? Terrified? That’s alright. It's normal. Your job is to make friends with the anxiety you’re feeling and breathe it in, so you don’t let the anxiety own you. 
 
Stuart: Hours before I go onstage, I usually do breathing exercises. One technique is to take a big breath, hold it in, and slowly exhale. Repeat 3-5 times. Once, I read that it’s impossible to breathe deeply and feel anxious at the same time. Whether this is true or not, I believe it, and even if it’s a placebo effect, I don’t care. It just works.
 
auGi: In addition to breathing exercises—in the final minutes before you present, anchor yourself to a bold emotion. Why? Words alone are not enough to inspire. Your words (message) must be attached to emotion so the audience FEELS something. Plus, the last thing you want when entering the “stage” is to be in your head.
 
How: To access a genuine emotion, I look at my favorite photo of my Mom (it’s on my iPhone). Her smile and laugh, which inspired me to pursue a career as a performer, transports me to a warm, safe place, and encourages me moments before I greet the audience. Seeing her, I know she’s with me no matter what. It’s the boost of “lovetricity” I need.
 
Takeaway: Find a way to relax and ground yourself. And remember, the presentation is bigger than you. You’re there to serve the message. Grounding yourself will help you deliver it just right.
 
Now, for the final tip...
 
C) Remember your one goal
 
If you establish too many outcomes, you’ll overwhelm your brain and minimize your talk’s impact. Instead, set a single goal and direct your energy on its achievement. Bam!
 
IN SUMMARY
 
1) PREPARE: Set one goal, learn who’s involved in the event and talk with a few key players, and build your outline.
 
2) PRACTICE: Work your material out loud, memorize your script, and practice in an uncomfortable setting. Nothing good ever came easy.
 
3) PRESENT: Practice in full presentation mode, get centered, and remember to consciously focus on your one goal.
 
See you next month!
 
Stuart & auGi
@StuartPitch / @auGiGarred #PitchDNA #AUGTRICITY

WAIT...HERE'S YOUR SUPERCHARGED BONUS!!

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Get the companion Pocket Punchlist: Supercharge Your Talk

BONUS! The first reader to share a selfie with a printed Pitch DNA Pocket Punchlist to @StuartPitch on Twitter or @pitchdna on Instagram will get a custom Pitch DNA t-shirt (like these modeled by Stuart and his beautiful wife):

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P.S. Stu just got written up in the Boston Sunday Globe! (No, not in the police reports). Big thanks to journalist Cindy Atoji Keene for writing such a generous article.

P.P.S. We love putting this newsletter together for you for a few reasons. First, it feels good to share what we've learned with you, and second, it helps us think about how we can transform our experiences (and failures) into useable lessons. 

Each month, we think, write + rewrite, edit + refine the Pitch DNA Insider to be the best possible newsletter we can come up with, and of course, it always needs to come out the 15th of each month (it's just a thing Stu has for the 15th of each month; especially March). 

One way you can partner with us is to consider sharing the Pitch DNA Insider with a friend or colleague, or (gasp!) even your followers. We want to connect with anyone else who could use a lil' help pitching, presenting, and speaking. (But only if they're a good person; we don't want to help any misanthropes).

And whether you decide to share, just know we're glad you're here and we want to hear from you. What topics would you like us to cover in an upcoming issue? Would you want us to do an all Q + A Insider? Share your thoughts with stuart@pitchdna.com or augi@pitchdna.com, or just shout us via Twitter @StuartPitch or @pitchdna on Instagram.

From both of us, thank you for being with us on this journey. You make it worthwhile, and that's a fact. :)