7 lessons I learned about public speaking as a startup founderby@hc_adria
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7 lessons I learned about public speaking as a startup founder

by Adrià HernándezSeptember 6th, 2016
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… so you can avoid my mistakes

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… so you can avoid my mistakes

1. Make sure to arrive very early. Just in time isn’t enough.

Arriving just in time is enough, right?

I was completely wrong, and I learned it the hard way…

Early this year, in my first keynote for Startup Grind Barcelona, I arrived in a hurry, with less than 2 minutes to get to the stage.

I was sweating, disoriented, I fell in the street on my way to the place (hurting a hand and a knee in the process), nervous, and I felt a suffocating amount of pressure.

This lead to my worst start ever for a presentation that was on the edge of being a complete failure.

Lesson learned: make a habit of always getting to the place at least 20 minutes early.

2. Always have a back-up personal story.

We all love to hear stories, nothing gets our full attention like a good story.

I always heard this, but never truly experienced it like in that same first presentation I gave at Startup Grind of the first point.

It was by far the worst start ever for all the presentations I have done, even though I already had some previous experience.

I was completely paralyzed on the stage, with a blank mind, and near a panic attack from the embarrassment of the moment.

I took a deep breath, and I told myself that surrender wasn’t an option.

Then I started automatically telling my entrepreneur story, just like I lived it. Once I was calmed after talking for a minute or two, I started feeling powerful and comfortable again, with my confidence growing every second of the presentation.

It culminated with an amazing Q&A with the Startup Grind Barcelona community, that later continued at the networking part of the event.

I still remember that special presentation as my worst start ever, and one of my best finishes ever at the same time.

Lesson learned: always have a personal story you can quickly recall in case you get stage paralysis and find yourself with blank mind, near collapsing or getting a panic attack.

3. Use body language to your advantage.

After that horrible start experience from point two, I began to search for a solution so it never happened again.

I found it in controlling my body language and use it to my advantage.

I was skeptical at first, but since it’s so simple and easy to practice the power poses, I gave it a try.

What happens is that your testosterone levels go up (boosting performance), and your cortisol levels go down (the stress hormone). Plus, it feels good (even if it’s a little bit weird at the beginning) when you’re doing them.

Now power poses have become a stable not only for getting ready for public speaking, but in my everyday life.

For my second keynote at Startup Grind Barcelona, I got on the back of the hall (to do it discretely) and lift my arms high, trying to expand myself and occupying as much space as possible.

This second time at Startup Grind, I had a much smoothly presentation start, without any negative feeling involved.

When this is not possible, and I can’t get up from my seat, what I do is expand my chest and widen up my shoulders as much as possible. This posture isn’t as powerful, but it’s a good second option.

Lesson learned: find a way to solve an issue in presentations that works for you. I found my solution in leveraging body language to my advantage.

4. Always make a shorter presentation.

This was the most obvious mistake I made in my first ever startup pitch contest: preparing a presentation adjusted to the time I was given for the pitch.

I was given 5 minutes, and I made a 5 min presentation. Everything looked on point, until I was called to the stage, and the remote controller didn’t work.

The organizer quickly got a person on the computer to change slides when I gave her a signal.

Without any error margin in my presentation, this distraction was enough to kill my presentation rhythm, and when I hit the 4-minute mark, I had to rush to finish the last slides.

Lesson learned: always leave at least 30s at the end in short presentations (2–3 minutes), 1–2 minutes in average presentations (4–7 minutes), and 3–4 minutes in longer presentations (8–15 minutes).

Fortunately, and despite this mistake (and others), I ended up winning the most innovative startup award.

5. Make every day pitches your real practice.

I have one confession to make: I never practiced a presentation before going into the stage.

Well, at least not the way everyone will tell you should always do.

Instead of doing specific practice for each presentation in front of a mirror or with familiar people you’re comfortable with, I made my everyday pitching of my startup to everyone I met, my real practice.

I hate doing repetitive things, and I love meeting new people, so by combining these two I found the perfect way of practicing and improving my presentation skills by pitching to almost every stranger I met.

This also taught me to always be ready, and allowed me to improve my pitch much quicker by trying different strategies frequently, so I could after analyze what worked best (and for who) and what needed adjustments.

Lesson learned: find your own way of improving your pitching and presentation skills, one that works for you and that you enjoy doing, as you’ll have to do it very often.

6. Personalize to win.

Another mistake I made in my first public presentations was assuming that I could do my presentations with tech entrepreneurs and VC investors in mind as the target audience.

I was wrong.

After a very successful short pitch I made at a Founder Institute event a year ago (I was asked by the organizer to make an improvised pitch), I analyzed why I got such a great response from the audience and so many questions and asks for meetings after the event ended.

I found two reasons:

  • Storytelling. My pitch was made around my personal story.
  • Connection. As there were so many similarities between my audience and I, without knowing it I successfully gave them a pitch that strongly resonated with them.

Shortly after, I gave another 1-minute pitch at another event which I especially designed to get the attention of the even guest (a key person in the Barcelona tech ecosystem).

Two weeks after I had a meeting with him.

Lesson learned: make a habit gathering as much information as possible about your audience, so it’s easier to connect with them. If your target is one key person, make sure you make your pitch as specific as possible to get her attention and land a meeting.

7. Be ready for d*ck investors.

Earlier this year, Physem was one of the 10 startups in Barcelona selected to pitch in a private meeting with a French investor from Paris, who represented one of the big venture capital firms in Europe.

The VC had barely a year of investor experience, but it’s by far the most arrogant, asshole VC I’ve ever met, with serious self-control issues, a complete lack of good manners, and a total ignorance of what respect is.

Context: the morning meeting started very late (for whatever reason I don’t remember), with the VC giving a (too long) introductory presentation (which was published online months ago) and with a brake midway, the meeting ended up well entered the afternoon.

It was interesting to see how the VC reactions and ‘feedback’ he gave to the entrepreneurs was scaling in aggressiveness after every single presentation, without nothing to do with the presentations themselves.

My guess was that he was getting hungrier, and that was helping increase his less than desirable personality traits, as he clearly wasn’t able to act professionally after the third pitch.

Unfortunately for me, I was the second last to do my presentation.

To show you the level of his responses, here are his two arguments against my pitch:

  • He didn’t see a reason for him to use the app (the app target are millennials/gen Z).
  • If everyone else in the industry (including himself in the past) do things a certain way, we should adapt and go the same ‘proven’ direction.

As you can see, there’s no need to go further with these ridiculous objections. Despite this, I made my best effort to respond his doubts and clarify my vision.

What was his reaction? Aggressively interrupting my response with a mad face, yelling and attacking me personally in front of everyone.

At that point I had two options:

  • Fight back and expose him publicly (I had previously researched him, so it would have been fairly easy).
  • End the Q&A right there, and don’t waste more time in a nonsense, useless discussion.

I chose the second option. Even though it could have been fun to embarrass him and leave him without words, it wasn’t worth it getting myself down to his level.

Fortunately, there are investors that genuinely care and want to help entrepreneurs succeed.

At my last presentation (the best I’ve done so far), during the Global E-Commerce Summit 2016 at Barcelona, the feedback from the public and the investors was awesome, very useful and constructive, especially from Startupbootcamp mentor Marc Wesselink (who was by the way the one who selected and invited me to pitch at the summit).

Lesson learned: d*ck investors aren’t worth your time, just make sure every entrepreneur you know is aware of it, so they don’t waste their time, and eventually, we can get rid of them. And remember to do the opposite, and let the startup community know who the good investors are.

By the way, if you’re a startup founder in Amsterdam, I strongly recommend you Marc Wesselink as both an investor and a mentor.


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Adrià Hernández