Speaking in public: 10 golden tips to dominate the stage

Fact: speaking in public sucks! All the preparation seems to go down through the drain when you pitch to a large audience. Some say it’s a gift… for those lucky 1%, they can just put their natural abilities to use. For the rest of us, mortals, we need to turn it into science!

Good news is that pitches are not public speaking competitions. There are tons of people like us, who get a bit shaken in front of a large audience, and that’s ok. There are a few tricks you can do that will make you sound like a pro:

1) Preparation is the biggest confidence booster you can have


There’s no silver bullet when it comes to delivering your pitch… The closest thing, though, is preparation! Practicing your pitch to exhaustion will not only help you shape it, but also will bring you a lot of confidence!

I recommend you to record (video) yourself, always. When you start, you’ll probably be taking twice as much time as you have; don’t worry, that’s normal! Keep recording yourself and fixing/ adjusting your speech every time.

When you watch your recording, make a technical analysis of your presentation. The analogy I make is that you should manage time as if you were managing investments. Write down how much each segment is consuming of it and check if you’re investing time wisely. For example, Problem + Solution is the most important part of a pitch; if you’re taking more time to talk about business model than problem/solution, you have a yellow flag.

Once you have trimmed down your pitch to the needed time frame, it’s time to record yourself “in action”; standing up and simulating a real life presentation. If you’ll be using a microphone, hold something pretending to be one. Even walk the “stage”, so your training is as close to reality as possible.

One word of caution, though: do not expect to feel 100% ready; feeling 100% prepared is an illusion.


2) Redundancy will feel much safer!


You should replicate your obsession about your company’s product to your pitch. Having backups and redundancy will make you feel much safer and will eliminate fears you don’t need to feel.

I remember 2 years ago when I was going to pitch at a competition organized by UKTI, UK’s trade and investment department. The event was happening in Campinas, a 1.5 hour drive from where I live (São Paulo, Brazil). I planned to get there 1 hour earlier, so I had plenty of time to check the projector, microphone etc. Travel took 2 hours, and I spent more 30 minutes trying to find the auditorium. No one I asked knew the place, the mobile stopped working… To make matter worse, I was supposed to be the first to pitch. Luckily I found the place and got there 5 minutes before it started. However, damage had been made: I was stressed, tired and didn’t have time to concentrate. It was a nightmare! Somehow, against the odds, I managed to deliver a perfect pitch, but I learned an important lesson: preparation in loco, backups and redundancies will remove the unknowns from your presentation.

Since that time I’m obsessed with checking everything, in loco, one day before. Since I use a Mac + Prezi, those tests usually find issues… but I’m always prepared, and that doesn’t affect me anymore.

More than this, I carry another laptop and have all the files in both computers, on the cloud and on a thumb drive. Oh, and I have a PDF version of my presentation as well.

Having so many redundancies allow me to not spend a single second worrying about what to do if something goes wrong; no matter the scenario, I’m covered! That makes me feel much safer!


3) Charisma is a powerful tool

Charisma is a gift, most people think… well, I kind of disagree. While some people are naturally charismatic, others, like myself, can shape their speech to sound more charismatic.

You need to position yourself at the same level of your audience. Let them put themselves in your shoes. People, however, tend go the other way, trying to show a more powerful/ stronger profile when pitching…

I always mention a real life case of a young group I was advising for an university-backed competition. One of the founders (an 18 years old student) was really confident and felt comfortable speaking in public. However, his presentation was too strong; so strong that he looked like to be on cocaine! He was trying to appear something he was not, and that was evident; excess confidence played against him!

On the other end, I like to mention the example of StayFilm‘s pitch at U-Start Brazil Conference (below). It was the company’s first public pitch, and the cofounder (Douglas Almeida) wasn’t a fluent English speaker. He started off by breaking the ice, sharing how hard this pitch was to him, in a very humble and funny way. That instant he won the audience! His presentation, after that, was tough… he was reading the text, had a poor accent… Truth to be told, it was awful! However, those first 30 seconds made sure everyone went an extra mile to understand him. He captivated the audience to a level we all were rooting for him!


Here are a few tips on exploring your charisma:

  • Put yourself at the same level of the audience;
  • Demonstrate energy and passion, but watch out to not be seen as arrogant;
  • Make jokes about yourself – a bit of self-depreciation is the easiest way to level out with the audience;
  • If you’re nervous, tell people about it and ask them for their patience and help;
  • Don’t call yourself CEO, CFO, CTO… odds are you work in a 5 people startup, so, at most, you’re the “janitor in chief”;
  • Share personal experiences and stories;
  • Don’t take yourself too serious and laugh!


4) Don’t read or memorize the exact words

If you follow our tips, you will be repeating your pitch dozens of times. Naturally, you’ll tend to repeat the exact same words. I recommend you not to try to memorize the exact sentences; instead, you should remember the topics and ideas.

When you’re pitching, you’ll probably get a nervous; we all do. That’s when mental blackouts happen. When you memorize sentences and you forget a part of it, even a small sentence, odds are it you won’t be able to recover. That happens because when you memorize sentences, they only make sense together.

cue cards

Instead, if you focus on remembering topics and ideas, you won’t feel that lost. You’ll be able to adjust your speech, even if you forget part of it.

If you’re afraid of forgetting things, you can have cue cards, with bullets for each topic, as most TV hosts do. Do not write sentences, but only keywords. They are all you need to remind the ideas.


5) Hacking time control


Managing time is the biggest issue in pitches. If you finish it too early, it will look like you don’t have much to say. If you delay, part of your presentation will be cut off (yes, people turn off microphones on pitch competitions).

But you can hack time management so those issues never happen to you:

a) Know how your pace changes on live pitches

Some people tend to go faster, when compared to their training. Others, tend to add sentences, making the pitch slower. You need to know which of the 2 you are, so you try to control this deviation when the time comes.


b) Define 2 milestones/ time checks in your pitch

I usually define 2 time checks in my presentation: one half way through, and one on the last minute. I ask someone in the audience to raise a small banner to let me know when I reach those marks.

I know in which slide I should be at each time check, and that allows me to adjust my pace. The first one will give you the chance to speed up/ slow down. If that doesn’t work, the second time check, will tell you to go for “plan B”.

Do not use a smartphone or tablet with large timer in front of you. It will get you distracted. Go old school, and just ask someone to raise a piece of paper.


c) Have a “Plan B” in case your timing is off

I always prepare myself for both scenarios in case I’m running out of time, or if I have too much time left, after the last minute time check.

If I’m running out of time, I already know what information/ slide to skip. If I have more time than I expected, I know what to add there. By planning ahead, people will never notice when your pace is wrong.

The worse you can do is try to speak faster, in order to cover all slides if you’re going late. People just won’t understand what you’re saying and you will look like unprepared. Unfortunately, that happens every time. If you plan ahead, and know what to skip, it won’t damage your presentation.



6) Choose 4-5 people to look at, and rotate clockwise

This sounds silly, but those who’ve pitched in front of a large audience knows what I’m talking about: you never know who to look at. Sometimes you end up trying to look at everyone, which makes you look like someone with a deep mental disorder. Other times, you end up staring at a single person, making everyone uncomfortable.

You shouldn’t have to think about this! But solution is easy:

  1. Pick 4-5 people in the audience, spread geographically;
  2. You will only look at those people;
  3. At every 20-30 seconds you switch, rotating clockwise.

This way, you won’t need to think about it and won’t look weird.

Combine this rotation with 3-4 stage crossing (side by side), and people will think you’re a pro!


7) Made a mistake? Don’t mention it!

No matter how many times you revise your presentation; sometimes you will end up leaving an error behind, just to realize in front of everyone. But don’t worry; odds are no one will notice it! So just pretend everything is ok and move forward.


8) Water bottle: your best ally


When you’re presenting, every second seems to last 10x more. The adrenalin released in your body makes you more alert, in such a way things seem to be in slow motion. Thus, any pause you take will look like eternity, for good or for bad.

You can use that to your advantage. If you’re too nervous and feel your voice shaking a bit, I recommend you to take a small pause, and there’s no better excuse than drinking some water. Those 3-5 seconds will feel like a minute, and will help you get back on track. That’s why I always carry a plastic bottle of water when pitching.

Having said that, avoid plastic cups! If you’re really nervous, your hands will be trembling you will probably end up spilling water all over you!


9) Say no to laser pointers

laser pointer

On the shaking matter, laser pointers are “no-go’s”: if you try to point at something, they will show everyone you’re trembling. If you need to use it, the best tip is to never try pointing at an specific point; rather, make circles around it, never leaving the pointer stopped.

That said, pitches and pointers don’t match. If you have 7 minutes, each slide (15-20 seconds) should be self explanatory; each slide must carry only one information. As such, you shouldn’t need to use a laser pointer. If you do, odds are your slide is not right…


10) What to wear?


You’re not alone: those who haven’t been to pitch events always have that sort of doubt. Rules here are: blend in and don’t pretend to be someone else. Ok, I know I haven’t helped much, so I’ll explore those points.

Each business circle has its own dress code. If you’re an investment banker, you will always be wearing tight suits and expensive ties. Luckily, on “startupland” you’ll only need to wear jeans and t-shirts.

Don’t mistake this dress code and as a “lazy pass”; no one want to watch the “Unabomber” present. You’re still expected to shower, shave, comb your hair… You cannot use that 1997 t-shirt and, of course, no flip-flops and shorts. Believe me, I’ve seen people wearing flip-flops on pitch events… more than once!

You should maintain your personality, though. If you’re 60 years old, wearing a mad Einstein t-shirt will just make you look ridiculous.

Here I can share my own experience. I’m 36 and had an executive career before; so I had a more formal wardrobe. My networking was used to see me like that. However, in startup events I’m older than average. In one hand I don’t want to look like the dinosaur in the room; on the other, I just don’t want to look ridiculous. To me, jeans + shirt + blaser combination is the perfect solution. It won’t shock anyone and it feels like myself!

Use some common sense: don’t overdress; don’t look like a beggar; don’t pretend to be someone else!


Public speaking is part of your job, so suck it up and work on it. With a bit of science and the “street” tips above, I bet you’ll nail it!

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