This week, I had the honor of being invited into a setting where aspiring entrepreneurs were pitching their ideas to venture capitalists. I don’t envy the pressure they were under one bit at that particular moment of truth, when they were given a center stage and a captive audience. One by one, they were given five minutes to explain why their idea was worthy of support. It wasn’t a far cry from the televised version you see on prime time television, in ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

Yet, there was one takeaway about their pitches that I’d like to share with you for your benefit, whether you’re trying to launch a brand or just enhancing the profile of your own personal brand.

If you want people to buy into you, you’ve got to sound like you have already bought into you.

What do I mean by that?

As I listened to one idea after another, and many of them on paper sounded promising, it was such a shame that some of the people had challenges with presenting. Think about that – it may not be their one and only chance for success, but how many more golden opportunities like this will they have? Whether it’s a prime client opportunity or a venture capitalist opportunity, when you can’t present like a star, you are kidding yourself when you just think that the idea will routinely overcome that.

I’ve been in the Advertising business for a decade and a half, where so many pitches are partly about the idea itself and partly creating excellent theatre, where you’re striving to get your audience to envision the mindset of the target audience prior to buying. The better you get at doing that, the better and easier the pitch goes.

It’s so very hard to sell an idea being a mediocre presenter.

And I saw some, unfortunately. I felt for them.

One person had a marvelous idea but she read from paper. Word for word. I’m sure she believed in her product, but did she believe enough in herself? Hard to say. And consequently, hard to buy off on. Glance at a few note cards if you must. But virtually no eye contact with the audience is a deal breaker.

Another person had a great idea but he really couldn’t project his voice very well at all. Hard to buy off on an idea when you can’t hear it.

A few others also had smart ideas but I don’t think they rehearsed their presentation once. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t confidence they showed but real nervousness, if not fear. Again, I sympathized with them because I’ve been there. But I’ve learned from that mistake that there’s nothing cool about “winging it.”

Another few still just didn’t show enough enthusiasm for their own idea. And we’re talking the kind of ideas that could’ve changed the way people communicated or purchased a property or found a job. Yet, if you can’t be excited about your own idea, why should I as someone potentially funding it?

So how do you prevent outcomes like the above?

This may call for you to do something really uncomfortable, yet great for you.

Take a public speaking class through Toastmasters, an improv comedy class, anything that forces you to tell a story to a crowd (whether a small private group or open-to-the-public one). Some of these classes will even videotape you, which may sound terrifying, but will often help call attention to those mannerisms you didn’t realize you had (“Why am I waving my hands around wildly as I present?”).

I am here to tell you that this is anything but easy. At least it wasn’t for me. I was a terrible participant in these classes. Absolutely horrendous. And I am still a work in progress who still gets “butterflies” with every pitch, every proposal, every prospect, every time. One strategy I am trying to do more of is to let imagery tell a story over PowerPoint slides because it is deathly to watch a presentation where someone reads the text…right off…of the slide.

It’s not about trying to be a performance expert here and now. That’s probably a little too unrealistic. Instead, work on how you can make each performance better than the last. What have you learned from the experience? What could you do better? What did you do well that you never tried before?

Working on your continued improvement is the difference between a presentation and a great performance. Naturally, your subject matter has to have extraordinary substance behind it – it can’t be all show without having any of that.

Yet, if you have that substance and work on making yourself into a compelling storyteller (rather than just delivering the expected without much enthusiasm), you’ll put yourself in so much better of a position to master the room. And win.


Dan Gershenson is a Chicago-based consultant focused on brand strategy and content marketing. Dan has guided a variety of CEOs and Marketing Directors at small to medium-sized companies, providing hundreds of strategic plans to help businesses identify their best niches and areas of opportunity. Dan blogs onChicago Brander, mentors advertising students and cheers relentlessly for the Chicago Bears. Dan graduated from Drake University with a degree in Advertising