Every time a startup entrepreneur asks me how to get over stage fright, I’m reminded of the old joke about the tourist in New York City who asked a friendly cop, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” To which the cop answered, “Practice, practice, practice.”
True enough. Practice is a necessary but insufficient prerequisite to developing a stage presence. Practice what? Most, but not all, entrepreneurs are inexperienced and have little if any stage experience. Starting a new business is demanding. Most startup entrepreneurs devote years to developing a unique product or service, and there’s little time left over to develop stage performance skills. As the startup becomes a reality, the need to develop these skills becomes more and more pressing.
My own stage crafting skills benefited in two ways: first, well before I initiated work on our Govlish® startup, I was a salesperson in a business-to-business enterprise. Very early in that career, I came to realize that every customer contact is a performance. Or, if not, it had better be. I was on stage whether I was before an audience of one, a small group, at a networking event, or giving an interactive presentation before 35 people. Clearly, I needed a reliable way to develop my performing skills. “Inspiration” alone would not be enough. It is too fleeting, slippery, and ephemeral to rely on, and I needed to perform on a daily basis.
I found that the only way to develop performing skills would be to learn from the best—professional performers—and I studied improvisational performing arts for a year at Second City in Chicago, my home town. The students at Second City came from a variety of backgrounds, not just those aspiring to a career in acting, but also teachers, lawyers, and business people of all sorts. The lessons I learned in improv transferred easily to the work I needed to do to present our Govlish startup to potential equity investors and customers.
What are the components that go into performing, how do we rehearse them, what are its methods and objectives, and how do we put it all together to make it work for an entrepreneur? Every customer performance is improvisational and cannot be scripted. The first task is to initiate and sustain dialogue. This requires “active listening” and the ability to direct and move a conversation forward, two skills that I learned in improv.
In a number of important ways, actors actually have it easier than entrepreneurs as performers. Audiences enter the theater with what is called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” We enjoy no such luxury. Professional actors benefit from having a prepared script to read before their performances. Because all our performances must be improvisational, we enjoy no such benefit and never know how any scene will play out until it’s over. In the theater, the stage is always set for the actors, and the spotlight follows the actor wherever her moves take her. Not so for the business performer. Clearly, we need all the help we can get.
To overcome these disadvantages, improv teaches us the importance of building a character and how to “get in character” before entering the stage. Start with the physical and build on your strengths by observing others whom you admire and build into your character whatever features work for you. Then, rehearse them, preferably before a live audience, but in front of a mirror if that works.
Work from your own talents, emotions, skills, experience, and other native attributes. But keep it real. You cannot be something you’re not. If, for example, you have limited formal education, it is probably too big a stretch to portray yourself as an intellectual, even if you wish you were. On the other hand, many intellectuals wish they could be “one of the boys” or “one of the girls.” This may be equally unlikely and unbelievable.
Then there is the elusive matter of charm, or charisma. We possess it in varying degrees. Whatever its true nature, it can be defined, in short, as the power to attract, hold, and captivate the performer’s audience. For those who possess a ton of it, it needs to be used with prudence, wisdom, and modesty to enhance the character you created—not as an exhibit on display. For those who are blessed with only moderate amounts of it, charisma can be developed with intelligence, imagination, and practice. For those who possess none, the best bet may be to tone down unattractive shortcomings.
The goal of these exercises is to build confidence. To perform successfully, you need to portray confidence. Keep in mind that confidence cannot be forced, but it can be coaxed out of hiding. As an improvisational performer, you are your own director and playwright. As an entrepreneur, you’re used to wearing many hats.
Along with these confidence-building techniques, bring your expertise into your performance, and approach it like the expert you are. As a startup entrepreneur, you have spent years developing and refining your product or service and can reasonably assume you know more about it than anyone in your audience. An important part of your performance lies in teaching people about your field of expertise, thereby motivating them to act.
Not long ago, I was interviewed for an article about our Govlish startup, and the article appeared under the headline, “Meet the World’s Foremost Authority on Government Terminology.” When I first read it, my jaw dropped. But then I thought, “Gee, I guess it’s true!” Assume the posture of an acknowledged expert in your field, communicate that to your audience, and it will put you in the driver’s seat. Again, building confidence is your goal.
We can also learn from those accomplished performers who reached the heights through their craft. My favorite role model is Cab Calloway, the band leader who entertained the public with his rollicking music and showmanship for 50 years, from the 1930s through his appearance in The Blues Brothers in 1980.
In his autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, Cab describes his own sense and understanding of performing: “Sometimes I think that if I could only be out on the stage, performing, all the time, life would be perfect. When I’m out there my total concentration is involved; nothing else in the world exists except me and the audience. I become so tuned into an audience that I can sense their mood.
“I can tell just from the feel whether they want up-tempo stuff or slow, moody, sentimental stuff. And I adjust my program to meet their desires. I can read an audience like the palm of my hand, but it takes complete concentration. Maybe I’m so sensitive to an audience because the worst feeling in the world for me is to flop. When I go out on a stage and the audience doesn’t respond, it’s like something inside of me dies. Maybe I’m so afraid of that feeling that I tune totally into an audience to make sure that I’m giving what they want.”
As startup entrepreneurs, it isn’t necessary for us to reach the heights of passion and craftsmanship of a Cab Calloway, but it is informative. In the business world, perhaps the closest analogy was Steve Jobs.
What we are seeking here is to empower the startup entrepreneur with performance skills that are realistic, practical, reliable, and applicable to the work at hand. We must be prepared to perform when necessary, not just when the mood hits us. Those times include when we meet with potential partners and clients, at networking events, in managerial meetings, and making a presentation before small, interactive groups. With all the other responsibilities and task that the typical startup must attend to, striving for more can be put off for another day. Stage fright over performing behind a podium in an auditorium full of thousands of people is probably a healthy emotion if you have little performing experience. One step at a time.
With practice, the difficult becomes easy, easy becomes habitual, habitual becomes natural, and the natural becomes the surest, most reliable road to success. When you’re ready, go break a leg.