Put Your Best Pitch Forward

When you only have 5 minutes to make your presentation, to persuade busy, influential people that your idea is the best, the only entrepreneurial idea worth supporting, you’d better sound as good as you believe your idea is.

Five Minute Pitch Competitions are a great opportunity for would be entrepreneurs to be heard by a venture capitalist who might be willing to fund their startup. So let’s think about what needs to be heard, and why.

1) Your passion.  You need to be heard as a professional entrepreneur who cares about your potential company, and your product.

2) Your conviction. You need to persuade the audience that you are convinced your idea, or product is excellent because you have done the homework, and your research is thoroughly tested.

3) Your commitment. You need to convince everybody that you are in this for the long haul, and that you have the courage to make it your first priority.

4) Your understanding. You need to share the specifics of your product or idea clearly, succinctly and entertainingly.

Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that if you just write it all down, memorise it, and then speak it out loud, that you will be doing all you need to do.  And you would be wrong, very wrong. Because in the words of the song: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”.

Sounding genuinely passionate and dedicated with conviction is not as easy as it… sounds.  It is easy to sound like an infomercial salesperson, because we hear them on the telly and we know how to imitate them.  However, pretending to sell something, over-enthusing about it is a real turnoff, and many a brilliant potential entrepreneur has disappeared over the horizon as a result of a poorly presented pitch. At the other extreme are the “um-mers” and “er-ers”, who may be very passionate and well-prepared, but who simply do not hear themselves accurately, or do not have enough innate confidence in themselves to allow their speech to flow naturally and easily.

For a thoroughly excellent run down of the kind of things you need to include in your presentation, check out this blog posting by Bill Cunningham, “The Pitch Doctor”.

Then think about your voice, the physical means by which you will share those excellent facts and that passionate conviction.

You ARE your voice.  The you that exists in the moment of speaking is the one that is heard. So if you are tense, nervous, aggressive, shy, arrogant, insecure or a combination of some of all of these, that is what your audience hears. Your words may be full of confidence, but if your voice is apprehensive then that is what the audience perceives.

And that is one extremely vital element that stands between you and the fulfilment of your entrepreneurial dream.

Have you ever taken part in a Pitch Competition? Are you comfortable with the sound of your own voice? When you are irritated by a particular speaker, are you aware how much the sound of his or her voice contributes to your response?

Join the conversation, and leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your views on this topic. And please share with your friends and colleagues.

Mumbler Jumbler Talk

Mumbling is just a way of describing unclear speech, or speech that cannot be easily heard or understood. It’s annoying if you are the listener, because it requires extra effort to translate the bits of information you can glean from what you hear into something wholly intelligible.  It’s also annoying for the speaker, who is often asked to repeat what they have just said.

While it may be a mild annoyance in a social situation, it can be quite damaging in a professional situation.  People who speak clearly and audibly are much more likely to get the job than those who don’t get their message across first time.

getting the message across

There are many, complex underlying causes for mumbling.  In physical terms, the muscles involved in articulating, or shaping the speech sounds are simply not activated adequately. This could be because the speaker is tired, or holding back because of shyness, or insecurity about the situation.

Let’s look at the last one: insecurity.  If you are not comfortable that you know what you are talking about, either because you haven’t done your homework, or because you don’t have faith that you have the right to be talking on this topic, it may well be that you are unconsciously restricting the muscular effort in an attempt (misguided!) to protect yourself from criticism.

Whatever the underlying reason, speaking is a physical act, involving muscles, and if the muscles are not positioning themselves accurately or powerfully enough, the speech will be unclear.

Now, let’s be very clear about which speech sounds we are talking about.  The most popular remedy for mumbling is to do lots of tongue twisters.  These are phrases involving complicated sequences of consonants, that require a relaxed jaw, an agile tongue and accurate placement.  For example,

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

Thirty thick thistle sticks

She sells sea shells by the sea shore.

In my opinion, heading straight to the tongue twisters is putting the cart before the horse.  You Doing them does not address the underlying problem, which is a tense, immobile jaw and a tight, inflexible tongue.  First you have to learn how to relax the jaw, creating more space in the mouth and providing more room for the tongue to be more flexible, and agile.  A relaxed jaw also means relaxed facial , mouth and throat muscles, including the lips and the soft palate, so that they will be in a better position to allow for more accurate placement of the combinations of lips, tongue, teeth, jaw and palates.

So if you have a problem with mumbling, start working on relaxing your jaw. That means actually letting it go, letting it drop down until you can slip 2 fingertips between your teeth without straining. This takes time.

Be kind to your jaw. It’s been working hard all your life to keep you safe behind its guardrail. Give it a break. Send it to the Bahamas for a rest.  It will thank you for it, eventually.

I’ll pop some jaw relaxation exercises online in a day or two, on the Products page.

Where Do You Start?

The question “where do you start” with regard to training the voice, has to be preceded by another question, “why would you start?”

It’s a simple fact that nobody thinks about voice training unless something occurs to make them suspect their voice is inadequate, or unhealthy.

If there is any pain experienced while speaking, at all, the first step is not training, but some form of medical intervention. Get referred by the GP to a specialist, and make sure there is nothing physically amiss. If there is nothing actually wrong with the larynx (voice box) then therapy is usually advised to address the behaviour that is causing the pain.

Two common problems that bring people to the idea of voice training are quiet voice, and mumbling. While they are caused by specific and different behaviours, they also have much in common.

Someone who speaks so quietly that you have to constantly ask them to repeat what they are saying, is failing to apply adequate muscular effort to aspects of their voice, so that they create insufficient sound waves to be easily audible. It’s like trying to pick up an object with the hand, but leaving the fingers so floppy that the object slips through them. This is not because that person is lazy, or doesn’t care if you can hear them or not. It’s much more likely that they don’t have a strong physical sense of the energy needed to make themselves heard.

Often there’s a background of criticism, (possibly self criticism) in their lives that makes them reluctant to fully voice their thoughts. They may speak “off voice”, a kind of breathy sound such as we hear a lot in film and tv these days. That’s fine when there are powerful microphones and sound systems picking up and transmitting that soft sound – although I admit I find it intensely irritating and monotonous, even if I can make out what they are saying – but that’s another story.

When someone speaks consistently in this breathy, semi-whispered manner, not only do they fail to be heard properly, they are also potentially damaging their vocal apparatus.

Just speaking quietly is not dangerous to the voice, but it’s not good if you need people to hear you for your work. It’s a fairly simple matter to learn how to provide a more consistent supply of air pressure to the vocal folds, and to keep the upper chest, throat and neck muscles relaxed so that they don’t provide a barrier to sound waves leaving the body. Learning to relax the jaw, and open the throat more allows for more sound waves to be created for no more effort, and that means more volume.

Then, of course, the new behaviour patterns associated with making more sound have to be gotten used to. Learning to listen to oneself without judgement, observing the physical sensations of making a full-bodied sound, and being mindful of those sensations as well as the actual sound itself gives the speaker control over their means of vocal expression. When you know how to do it, you can modify your own behaviour, getting louder or softer at will.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to address mumbling.


Clarity of Thought and how to get it

I once wrote a poem about trying to write a poem. It goes like this:

It’s never enough

The words inside my head

Scrambling for freedom

It’s never enough

The space between the words

Inviting interference.

It’s not enough

To know, to have, to feel.

There must be


Outside my head

A clear perceptive silence

Room to manoeuvre.

Tony Brockman (Jerome) and Flloyd Kennedy (June)

Then I decided to include this poem in a play about an actor who was also a poet. It became a shared moment between the actor and her grandson, a way for him to demonstratte to her that he had read her work. But as soon as we (I played the actor) began rehearsing the scene, I realised that it was also highly relevant to acting itself.

The actor who is responsible for expressing a memorised text is especially challenged, dealing with words inside the head, all vying for their turn to come out.
Every moment the actor is not actually speaking, the challenge is to stay attentive and responsive, while yet more words flit in and out of consciousness, demanding attention, adding new challenges and sometimes even trying to change the subject.
A “clear perceptive silence” is something we have to earn, and yet it is also the very thing that makes the difference between a clump of chatter and a dialogue.
The answer, then, is to own that silence, to make the text that is expressed as much about the silence as it is about the semantics of the words and phrases. I’m not suggesting great big unnecessarily long pauses. I’m talking about the space, both aural and physical, that allows language, in the form of speech, to be wholly itself.
Silence, in spoken text, is the equivalent of rests in a musical score. Without the rests, there is no room for the listener. And if we don’t want the listener to be part of what we are doing, why on earth are we doing it?
I look forward to your comments.

Who Benefits from Voice Training?

Teachers – lawyers – writers – broadcasters – actors (film, tv and theatre) – journalists – doctors – preachers – counsellors – lecturers – salespeople – executives – committee members – public servants (including politicians) – entrepreneurs – and that’s just the start…

Writers? Why should they develop their vocal skills and potential? They just sit in a quite room and write, right? Well, sure, until they get published, and have to go on publicity tours, giving readings from their work in front of audiences of potential readers, and being interviewed on radio and tv. How many writers have you heard reading so fast, and in such a monotonous voice that you either fell asleep, or switched off?

Entrepreneurs? They just need to have a an idea, right? Wrong! Startup Pitch Competitions are all the rage these days, and if you want to win you need to be able to express your idea clearly, generously and attractively.

3. Pay attention to voice.
This one is a deal breaker at a tech conference: Don’t be the one with the slick salesman voice. Oversell your nascent product and you lose credibility real fast. “Be real, be conversational,” says Dave McClure, founder of the tech accelerator 500startups.

That is the advice from Lyndsay Blakely, Senior Editor at Inc.com. Being real and conversational in a high stakes, tense situation takes practice, and voice training gives you the tools to do this.

I can’t list all the walks of life that would benefit from a touch of vocal awareness and a program of exercises to strengthen and expand vocal power and quality. Basically, anyone who uses their voice to communicate with more than two or three people at a time would benefit from some voice training.