Pitch DNA Insider 117: What We Learned from 3,284 Live Performances


If you’re a regular reader of the Insider you know that, when we met back in 2001, we became fast friends in the first few weeks of a comedy class. We were in very different places back then: auGi had successfully built and sold an agency, and Stu... well, he had worked at a startup that went up in flames. (Good experience though)

auGi was always a focused entrepreneur and was driven to put meaningful structure around every creative endeavor, which led to something crucial for both of us.

Stuart: “In 2002, auGi convinced me to sit down and write a business plan for our individual fledgling comedy careers. It worked wonders. The next year was a game changer and it was likely because we did two things:

We were 1) intentional and 2) focused.

During our years in Los Angeles, we both racked up hundreds of shows per year. So, by the time I moved to Boston and auGi to Portland, we had completed 3,284 performances (yes, we kept track!). That’s a lot of stage time.”  

As with any pursuit, over the years, there were periods of exponential growth as well as periods of stagnation.

“You’re either getting better or getting worse, but you’re not staying the same.” - Some truthteller

We don’t know who said it (and Googling it gets a bit murky), but whoever said it, there is truth in that statement. In order to get good at anything, you’ve got to be intensely focused on achieving specific goals. Psychology professor Anders Ericsson, the author of Peak (good read), says that “to improve, you’ve got to get outside your comfort zone and try activities that are beyond your current abilities.”

So, whether you’re about to give a keynote at a conference or present your big idea at the MassChallenge Challenge Awards on October 17 (Stu is hosting, by the way!), you don’t get better by doing everything at once. You’ve got to be intentional with each little step.

These tips will help push you outside of your comfort zone and build up your confidence so you crush it when it counts. 

1. Think 

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.” - Henry Ford

Before you do anything, you need to interview yourself.

This is straight out of Dan Pink’s extremely valuable book, To Sell is Human (read it, buy it, review it, love it). Dan suggests, based on research, that instead of telling yourself “I can do this,” you should ask yourself “Can I do this?”  

This self-inquisition will help you turn your thoughts inward and build your confidence.

Sound counterintuitive? It certainly did to us when we first read it. But let’s look at the process a bit more closely. If you slow down and think about the message you’re trying to get across and why it’s important to the audience, the answers should help quiet any negative self-talk.

Stuart: “I do this all the time before I give a big talk. I ask myself things like: ‘Do I have something to share that’s meaningful? Do I care about this topic, this audience, and the material? Do I sincerely want to help others? Why is it important?’ 

No matter which questions I ask, the answers that I generate from within helps boost my sense of purpose and gets me into a service-oriented mindset. I remind myself that I am there to serve others, the material, and to help people. As long as I focus on them and not me, I have a chance to make a difference through my talk.”

So, take a tip from Dan and ask yourself a few questions like:

  • Am I helping others? How so?

  • Will the world benefit from this idea?

  • Do I care about the solution?

  • Do I care about the people in the audience?

  • If for some reason I couldn’t give this talk today, would that be a missed opportunity?

There’s no perfect list of questions. Your job is to ask a few that are meaningful, then listen to yourself for the answers. This is where your authentic self should be revealed, and if you’re putting yourself out there for the “right” reasons you’ll be in touch with your purpose, and your confidence will grow.

Power tip: Instead of giving a performance, try to genuinely share your ideas in a way that inspires you first. Others will follow your lead. 

2. Be like Steve Jobs (the nice parts)

Brent Schlender, the co-author of "Becoming Steve Jobs," said Jobs would spend months preparing and rehearsing "exhaustively" for public appearances. 

His keynotes are the thing of legends; millions of views online and billions of dollars earned because he could get a simple idea in your head. “A thousand songs in your pocket." Remember the first iPod?

The trick: it takes a lot of work to make it look easy. So rehearse your script until it feels effortless to say out loud.

You don’t need to memorize your script – you need to internalize the points.

You can also practice by speaking it into your phone’s voice memo app, a tape recorder, your computer, or if you took a time machine back to 1982, a (gasp) answering machine. Once you’ve nailed down a solid version, transcribe it with a software program (we like TEMI.com) that will generate a text version of your audio or video. Take the transcript, format it in a word processing tool, and you’ve got yourself a script to further shape and hone as you rehearse.

3. Act confident (even if you’re not feeling it)

Back in 2012, Amy Cuddy at Harvard Business School got a lot of attention with her idea of “power posing.” This is the that idea your external reality (your pose) informs your internal mindset. This may seem like the opposite of tip #1 above, but who cares! Whatever works, works.  

Notice that it’s not about saying “I can do it,” but it’s about acting as if you can do it. The old, “fake it ‘til you make it” kind of thing. 

You can actually do the poses, too. Stand up straight like you’re trying to make yourself seven feet tall. Make your hands into fists and rest them powerfully on your hips. Hold this pose for thirty seconds to two minutes, and you might notice a subtle shift in your confidence. If it works for you, use it. If it makes you feel too goofy, ditch it. Do. What. Works.

auGi: “Stu’s right. Apply whatever works for you. I don’t power pose before I go onstage, but whether someone’s paid me to keynote their conference, or I’m volunteering my time for a cause that I love, I always act like a professional speaker (even if it’s just one of my many consulting roles) because that’s my commitment.”

Stuart: “A few years ago, Amy took a lot of unnecessary heat for her research but she’s back with brand new evidence supporting her theory that adopting a powerful stance makes you feel more powerful – that’s effective. You can look it up on the interwebs if you want. Frankly, I don’t really care if her research methodology is perfect or not; she's done more academically than I'll ever do. All I know is, as a professional speaker, if it helps me and isn’t detrimental to my health or harmful to others, I'm in."

Before your next talk, stand like Wonder Woman, Superman, or Black Panther for a couple of minutes before you hit the stage. You can even wear a cape – we won’t judge.

4. Copy that!

Stuart: “When I feel like I need to rehearse, but I don’t feel like saying it out loud, I simply write it out longhand.”  

We’ve found that writing out your talk on legal pads will help you internalize your points. After three longhand passes, copy your talk onto notecards.

We like the classic 3 x 5’s from any stationery store. They're easy to carry, fit in most pockets, and won’t need an adapter to work. Keep them on your person as a safety blanket so that you know, if all else fails and you blank (you won’t), you have a backup.

Power tip: Notecards free you up to “walk and practice,” which brings us to the next point.

5. Get out!

Going outside is a great way to rehearse.

Stuart: “Sometimes I take Buck (my dog) in the car, head out to the woods with my notecards, and go over my notes as we stroll. Changing the environment cues me to memorize in a new way and the change of scenery really helps.”

auGi: “During the summer, I set up a music stand in our gazebo and rehearse my scripts. Though I prefer practicing indoors (where it’s quiet), when my neighbor is mowing their lawn or there’s construction happening nearby, working with the background noise creates an atmosphere that’s more realistic to a live event.”  

You can also rehearse by putting in your earbuds, calling a friend, and saying it over the phone to him/her.

The key: Get creative with your rehearsal, and you’ll build your confidence exponentially.

6. Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.

If you're feeling overwhelmed leading up to the presentation (happens to us all the time), breathe deeply three times in a row.  

Say this: “Breathing in, I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out.” Repeat 2x.

It’s nearly impossible (biologically) to feel anxious and nervous at the same time. This simple breathing exercise, which we both learned during our early stand-up years, should help settle things down and is a useful reset button anytime your anxiety kicks in (and it will). 

7. Butterflies are your friend

If you notice butterflies or feel queasy, welcome to the club! You’re not alone – this is normal and it’s actually a good thing. 

Guess, what? You’re alive! When you have bad feelings, your goal is to interpret those feelings as excitement. Breathe in and tell yourself: "I'm excited about this opportunity. I have something important to share. This matters."

Stuart: “I see the ‘butterflies’ as energy bolts that charge up my internal battery.” 

auGi: “I use the butterflies as a way to get out of my head and into my emotions. Because I need to hit that stage grounded in a feeling, or the audience will know I’m just reciting words. As one of our mentors said, ‘Words without emotion are empty boxcars. They might be moving, but they contain nothing of value.’ Heavy, but true.” 

Your goal: Create your own ritual that helps you see anxious feelings as a POSITIVE, because that’s exactly what they are, and will fuel your performance (and your words).

8. Eat an apple (this is not a metaphor) 

Literally. Eat an apple 30 minutes before go time! The natural enzymes in the apple help keep your mouth moving in case you get dehydrated.  

auGi: “And make sure you have a source of water within reach to stay hydrated because when you feel nervous, you’re 97% likely to get cotton mouth. I use a dark grey Hydro Flask with a sip tip so I can quickly grab a drink during a talk (which has the added benefit of protecting my Neil Peart-level handlebar mustache from turning into a waterpillar).”

And if you can’t remember any of this amazing advice, just get up there and make it count.

Until next month!

Stuart & auGi
@StuartPitch / @auGiGarred

PS. Stuart’s hosting the MassChallenge awards night at the Boston Convention Center this Wednesday, October 17! If you’re in the Boston area and want to see incredible live pitches in action, join me here: MassChallenge Awards. #MCShowcase18