How stand-up taught me the art of crafting a successful pitch: devising a story that the listener can emotionally relate to...
At the age of 26, I found myself just one year into my entrepreneurial career and way out of my depth. I was presented with an exciting opportunity to pitch for an international software development project in New York that would certainly set my business up for life. But, for various reasons - fear, anxiety, and an unfortunate twist of fate involving a split pair of trousers, a bare bottom (mine) and some paper clips - I failed to land the deal.
Although I now refer back to the incident fondly as #peachgate, at the time it was a hugely challenging period for me. My situation grew increasingly dire; I was faced with the frightening prospect of losing my business, as cash ran out and the order book of new clients dried up fast. One December night I found myself alone in the office, casting a forlorn figure by the window. Staring out at the city night, I was shocked at what I saw looking back at me. My reflection revealed the truth: I had become a deflated, scared and defeated version of myself, far amiss from the successful and confident entrepreneur I had envisioned.
Some hours later, while wallowing in self-pity, I reached to close the lid of my laptop when an email hit my inbox; I recognised the name, "Sam Avery" as an old friend from school. The email read: "Are you suffering from a lack of confidence? Could you benefit from learning to present better to rooms full of people?" Would you like to overcome your fear of public speaking?" Yes, yes and yes, I thought to myself. Moments later, I rubbed my eyes and scratched my head. It soon became apparent that I had just signed up for a six week, intensive stand-up comedy course, culminating in a fifteen minute performance in front of 300 strangers. What on earth had I done?
The next six weeks flew by, as I immersed myself into the offerings of the course: writing, performance, delivery and timing. I soon learned the value of brutal honesty; having a peer tell me that a certain joke was terrible came as a relief not an insult, since the alternative was to crumble on stage in front of heckling strangers. I journeyed on, taking in as much as I could.
Before I knew it, the big night was upon me. I sauntered onto the empty stage before the audience was let in, closed my eyes and visualised my performance for the night. I was overcome with a wave of confidence that I hadn't felt in a long time. I had studied, learned, practised, failed and got back up again. The reality of the situation went far beyond a mere stand-up routine; if I failed now, I was sure I would never achieve my dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur.
Standing back-stage, the first few acts passed in an ephemeral blur, and before I knew it I was heading out into the unknown, giving myself up to the mercy of the moment. Palms sweating and heart pounding, I took a deep breath and walked out into the bright lights; I took the mic in stride and brought it up to my mouth: "Don't worry; I have no idea who you are either." With a loud burst of laughter, I was off.
That day marks one of the most defining moments of my career, and, in essence, my life. Sales meetings seemed to flow with much more ease, while networking events gave me an opportunity to actually enjoy the company of others, rather than doubt my own insecurities. The transferable skills I gained for business presentations were a welcome surprise. Stand-up comedy taught me how to structure a story, communicate a message, read an audience, and consequently engage and time my message to have the most lasting impact.
On a basic level, I learned how to control my nerves and appear calm and deliberate in everything I did. Funnily enough, the formula for planning a joke is the same formula for a successful pitch or presentation - it's about crafting a story that the listener can emotionally relate to. If you aren't connecting to someone on a personal level, it's almost impossible to create a degree of tacit trust that is essential to successful business relationships. In reality, the experience didn't just make me a more skilled presenter, it made me a more confident and self-assured human being. This truth has been with me ever since.
I enjoy public speaking and it has become a vital aspect of my business. I've since spoken to audiences in excess of 2,000 people, and here's the real kicker - I've loved every minute of it. By taking a slightly different route in life, you usually end up with a good story to tell, and I believe the same holds true for business.
Over the years I've grown as a person and a professional by asking myself, "What if I go to the extreme? How can I push myself to the limit and not cower from adversity, but face my challenges head on?" My advice to others would be this: conquer your limiting beliefs by diving headfirst into your fears, because only by facing them directly will you ever be able to overcome and, hopefully one day, master them.
It all returns to the same fundamental truth: the biggest obstacle holding me back in life is me. All the fear, limiting beliefs and insecurities weren't solved because I learned how to tell a joke, but because I made a conscious decision to stand up to myself. Today, I weave these truths into all my business practices, which has not only allowed my company to flourish and grow, but has made me a more self-assured and confident person.