Do you get nervous when you’re in a high-stakes pitch meeting?
Feeling nervous before (and during) a pitch meeting is totally normal. When the stakes are high enough, it happens to everyone—even experienced writers who have worked in the business for a long time.
I have pitched hundreds of times, delivered keynote speeches, and led workshops at big companies. I still get nervous—especially when I’m using new material in front of a large audience.
The process I’m about to share with you is how I prevent anxiety from getting in the way of my performance, and how I help other people prepare for some of the most important meetings of their lives.
That’s the key word: preparation. It’s what you do before the meeting that determines how confidently you can perform in the meeting.
Step 1: Be Kind To Yourself
When you deliver your complete pitch in a high-stakes meeting, you’re expected to be “off-book.” That means you’ll be pitching for 5-15 minutes without notes, notecards, or anything written on your hand.
As well, you can expect to get interrupted during the pitch. You’ll get asked tough questions, the decision-maker may have to take a phone call, or someone important comes into the room late and you have to start again.
This is a hybrid performance of telling a story and being interviewed at the same time, and it’s not easy to do well.
So give yourself a break. Okay, you’re feeling nervous. That’s completely understandable. Instead of beating yourself up (and making the problem worse), acknowledge that it takes time to learn how to confidently deliver a compelling pitch.
Step 2: Write Out Your Pitch By Hand
This is a time-consuming process, but it’s worth it. Research shows that writing things by hand boosts your recall. It’s also a good way to edit and polish your pitch to eliminate extraneous words.
Step 3: Memorize Your Pitch As An Outline
It’s easy to get nervous if you’re afraid of losing your place in the pitch and forgetting what to say next. The answer is memorizing your pitch as an outline.
For example, recently I gave a speech at the American Film Market. I spoke for about fifteen minutes in front of 650 people—and I was a little nervous (but just a little).
My speech was about 2000 words long. However, I didn’t memorize it as a one unit of 2000 words.
Instead, I structured the speech in four parts. Each part had 2-5 sections, and each section had 2-5 paragraphs. That’s a total of 4 parts, 16 sections, and 80 paragraphs.
When you’ve “chunked” your material in this way, it gets easier for your brain to remember each chunk. This is important because in a pitch (as opposed to a keynote speech) you may have to skip around in your pitch and present ideas in a non-chronological way.
Step 4: Use Notecards To Practice (And As Backup)
Using notecards (one card per “chunk”) has three benefits.
The first is that you will probably have to rewrite certain notecards where you’re having a little trouble, and that helps your memory.
The second is that notecards can be shuffled, and this can help you memorize aspects of your pitch both in and out of order. This way, if you’re asked mid-pitch to “skip to the end” or “tell me the first act-break again” you won’t be thrown.
The third benefit is that, in the event that you have to give your pitch and you’re just not prepared, you can use your notecards as backup. It’s not ideal, but notecards are small, easily concealed, and are far less distracting then a sheet of paper, legal pad, iPad, or laptop screen.
Step 5: Practice On Video
If there’s one thing you can do to improve your pitch, it’s to record yourself on video… and watch it.
Seeing ourselves on video can be uncomfortable. But your pitch will improve immensely.
You’ll see where you don’t make eye contact. You’ll be able to tell when you’re talking too fast. And when the pitch lags a bit, you’ll know.
Step 6: Take A Practice Meeting
If you have a big pitch meeting coming up, see if you can create an analogous circumstance to give you a chance to practice.
For example, earlier this year I spoke at Google. As you probably know, Google employees must pass a challenging interview process and are incredibly smart.
Two weeks before my speech, I invited a group of people over to my house. I asked my friends who are engineers, computer programmers—the smartest technical people I knew. I gave my 30-min speech, then listened to their feedback.
Then I did a new draft of the speech, and invited a different group of smart, technical people to my house the following weekend, and had another practice session.
For those of you pitching a film, TV pilot, or novel, I recommend doing a practice session with people who can replicate the kind of environment you’ll be in and the questions you could receive.
Step 7: Develop Your Answerbank
It’s easy to get nervous when you’re afraid of forgetting what you’ll say if you get interrupted and asked a tough question.
The answer is to prepare for questions in advance. You can anticipate certain questions. Others will come up in your practice sessions. That’s one of the key benefits of practicing.
When you’ve identified a question that you could get in the meeting, prepare an answer that you can deliver in a seemingly improvised, conversational way.
Those answers comprise your Answerbank. It’s one of the most important tools you have as a writer. As you take meetings throughout your career, your Answerbank evolves to contain more polished and compelling answers.
Step 8: Use A Meeting Strategy
Just like screenplays are typically structured in three acts, meetings are structured in five stages. If you know what’s expected of you and have tactics prepared for each stage, you’ll be far more confident.
This is the meeting strategy used by Hollywood professionals, and which works in Silicon Valley, Washington D.C., and anywhere ideas are pitched in high-stakes situations.
Step 9: Focus On Communication, Not Entertainment
This nervousness-decreasing tip comes from comedy coach Judy Carter. She uses it when she works with people about to perform stand-up comedy for the first time.
“Don’t try to be funny,” she says. “Instead, communicate your ideas.”
This works for pitching as well (and even if you’re not pitching a comedy). The point is to focus on communicating your ideas clearly—not being entertaining.
In other words, you don’t want to be thinking, “Are they enjoying my pitch?” You want to be thinking, “Do they understand my idea?”
Pitching Can Be Fun
When you’re prepared, pitching your ideas can be exciting and fun. You can walk out the door flushed with adrenaline, happy with your performance, excited to have done well.
Sure, you’ll have some ideas for how you can improve for next time—and that’s a good thing. The people who are best at pitching learn from every experience.
It may seem hard right now, but if you keep preparing and practicing, soon you’ll be pitching with confidence (and just a couple butterflies).
It’s what you do before the meeting that determines how confidently you can perform in the meeting. [click to tweet]
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