Jackie Miller, founder of Bespoken

Six Tips to Prepare for Your Big Pitch

When you pitch your project, your goal is to connect with your audience and have them leave that room seeing what you see as possible and believing what you believe is possible in their hearts as well. This is according to communication and public speaking coach Jackie Miller in her Master Class, Own Your Voice - Pitch and Present with Confidence. Miller is the president and founder of Bespoken, which focuses on teaching communication and presentation skills to professionals and teams across many disciplines.

Pitching your idea for a project can be a nerve-racking experience as you juggle connecting with your audience and presenting your hard work and complex story clearly and concisely. Fortunately, Miller has many tips and techniques for how to best prepare so that you are empowered to shine when you have the exciting opportunity to speak with potential collaborators and financiers.

1. Understand Your Communication Style

Miller believes, “Knowing how you communicate [and] relate to others is the first step towards understanding what your strong suits are and any weaker areas that you want to work on strengthening.” She goes on to explain how various communication styles play out for different people. For instance, some of her clients, “don't mind one-on-one or groups up to five, but put them in a room beyond that number, and they are really off their game. I've also worked with people who feel safe in the anonymity of being in front of a hundred people, because they don't know everyone in the room, but then when they're in front of four people they know well, that's when the sweat starts.”

Miller reflects, “I've heard from a lot of people I've worked with who trend on the more introspective, quieter side that it's exhausting to have to use this muscle in this way [to pitch] and completely shift gears.” This, however, does not have to be the case, because Miller’s techniques are, “engineered to help reduce that fatigue and hopefully make you feel empowered so instead of having this kind of blanket panic of, ‘Okay, now I have to be on.’ If you use some of the tactics Miller shares in her class, “It's going to hopefully be a more metered, deliberate and thoughtful rollout...for the brief amount of time you need to be on and pitch your project.”

According to Miller, the principle to keep at the forefront of your mind needs to be, “connect, don't convince.” She elaborates, saying, “I really truly believe if you are focused on forging a connection with your audience that is authentic and coming from a place of understanding how they need to hear what you want to say, you will avoid talking at someone versus to someone.” Knowing your communication style will help you make these connections in a genuine way by allowing you to be more cognizant of how you might be showing up. Then you can practice in a targeted way to strengthen your weaknesses and gain the ability to adjust your pitch depending on the situation.

The impression that you are externalizing is what people will take away from you.

Jackie Miller

2. Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Ninety-five percent of the professionals that Miller works with experience some form of imposter syndrome. In response to this large statistic, Miller says, “If you are ever feeling like it's a fluke that you're in the room, or that you are shooting way above your pay grade and don't deserve to be doing this work, I want to encourage you to turn the volume down on that voice as much as possible and know that you're not alone.” While this seems easier said than done, her solution, “to combat this internal, cerebral manifestation of self doubt is actually through external choices with how you use your breath and your body to communicate.”

In high pressure situations, it is easy to forget that people will not be able to tell if you are feeling nervous, as long as you present confidently. As Miller explains, “The impression that you are externalizing is what people will take away from you.” This means that faking it until you make it is a completely viable strategy.

One way to do this is to “play a character” during your pitch. Miller thinks, “There is a great power in playing the character of a screenwriter, and believing you are exceptional at what you do and will succeed. Everyone will catch up and realize soon enough, if you believe it first.” She describes this concept as embodied cognition. In order for it to work, “The physical choices you make with your body certainly inform the impression you will give to your audience and also it's how you feel about yourself. When the two work in sync, it provides this ability for the ‘fake it till you make it’ adage to take hold.”

3. Be on Your Spine

The first strategy for actively practicing embodied cognition that Miller highlights is “being on your spine.” To do this, “The first step is to place your feet flat on the floor, and this will automatically encourage some alignment to occur in your spine. The second is to picture your spine in space. It begins at the base of your tailbone and then actually extends all the way up to between your eyes.“ She adds, “If I could come through the computer screen and pull an invisible string out of the top of your head, and you're a little taller and a little lighter, how would that make you feel?” Miller encourages you to try to contrast how this makes you feel versus how you might normally sit. There is a greater power and focus that comes from being on your spine.

Your breath is your intention, energy, and power. Before you speak your idea, you need to nourish it with your breath.

Jackie Miller

4. Control Your Breath

The next technique that Miller teaches is a breathing one. She explains, “Oxygenating the blood through taking deep rooted breath into the diaphragm is a surefire way to get a handle on anxiety.” When practicing, “Put one hand on your upper chest and one hand over your abdomen or your belly button.” Miller teaches, “The diaphragm is a muscle that exists behind the lungs and when we use it to full capacity, it acts like a plunger and it helps the lungs inflate to their fullest point.”

Miller believes that “Your breath is your intention, energy, and power. Before you speak your idea, you need to nourish it with your breath. If anybody's gotten to the point where they've lost wind at the end of a sentence, when they're nervous, that's because you didn't take a deep enough breath in order to support your thought to its fruition. The way to engage the diaphragm the most effectively is to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. When you exhale, don't deflate like a whoopee cushion. Maintain being on your spine as you come to empty.”

Miller goes on to explain that if you breathe from higher up, less fully, which Miller calls the, “fast food of breath,” it is often from a rushed place of, “I want to get the breath in so we can get the idea out.” When you do this, there is a tightness to getting your words out versus breathing lower down and more deeply there is greater ease and control. If you are in a meeting and getting off track or nervous, focusing on your breath can recenter you and slow you.

Another instance where you may need to use your breath to realign yourself is if you are using modifiers, fillers and apologies in your pitch. Miller explains, “These can swoop in when you're in the middle of a presentation and lose your way as a crutch and can really distract your audience and undercut your power and your persuasion with them.” Instead, try just pausing and taking a breath as a much more effective strategy for regrouping. Miller points out, “We often feel an unrealistic sense of anxiety around space, not being filled the entire time we're speaking, but in reality, it hasn’t even bumped for the audience at all.”

We aren’t always cognizant of these unconscious behaviors that could negatively affect our live pitches. Identifying the many ways they sneak into our speech brings us a step closer to having power over them and being in control while pitching. Miller explores this more deeply in her Master Class, to aid you in that practice and so that you are equipped to stop the unconscious behaviors from creeping into your pitch and undermining your hard work.

5. Practice, Practice, Practice…

“Communication skill truly is like a muscle. Changing a muscle takes time, and it can be uncomfortable at points.” Miller says, noting, “Even the most accomplished performers need to practice, and embracing the practice is key to success when it comes to communication.”

It is one thing to, “think about your pitch in the car or on the train on the way to the meeting, but it is not the same as embodying it and actually practicing in a safe space with an outside eye and changing the rhythm. The way that you typically prepare when publicly speaking about your project takes mindfulness, effort, and deliberateness.” Another effective tactic to do this is recording yourself, and studying it to become aware of how you are showing up.

As you approach practicing, it is important to consider, very specifically: who is your audience? How many people are in the audience? And who holds the power position? You should also envision the size of the room you are presenting in, and your physical position (sitting, standing) in that room. The more you can mimic and envision these circumstances while you practice the better.

While you plan for your audience, Miller advises you should also figure out, “What do you want your audience to do or feel after you've communicated with them? And by this, I want to encourage you to think beyond the surface. So beyond ‘I want them to give me money’, or ‘I want them to support my project with in kind resources or be a collaborator.’ Do you want them to be inspired by you? Or shocked at your idea, if you are a documentary filmmaker, trying to bring light to a point of injustice?...That specificity will help you practice and will help give context and shape to how you want to prepare for pitching your idea.”

6. Embody Your Goal

Once you’ve decided how you’d like your audience to feel, you’ll need to work on evoking that feeling in them. Essentially, how would you like to show up for your audience? Miller describes a technique called “playing an action” that is often used in theater and can help tremendously with this aspect of pitching.

Miller teaches, “The first tenant of playing an action is that it must be active. Something that you can do. This puts you in the driver's seat and forces you to be really honest with yourself about what you want. Do you want to excite them, to inspire them, to promote your idea?” Miller adds, “I feel strongly that keeping it to a positive action will also help engender a positive interaction.” Miller also believes that this action should be very specific, and in the class she includes a list of playable actions.

These actions are especially important because as Miller explores in greater depth, over ninety percent of what people remember is how you make the audience feel and your action is meant to evoke that feeling. She likens these playable actions to background levers to pull or watercolors to accent your pitch. If a certain action isn’t working with a particular audience you can shift gears to another one.

Miller acknowledges, “It's never expected that you're going to do any of these techniques full on, right in the middle of your pitch. These are all isolated things to try to get the muscle stronger, so that when the big day arrives, you are centered and in command.” In her Master Class, Miller also delves into the factors that may come up once you’re actually pitching live and strategies for managing them. By taking these all into account, you can develop the skills needed to pitch your work in an impactful way and bring your project to fruition.

Watch the full Master Class: Own Your Voice - Pitch and Present with Confidence