I’ve pitched countless times in my career. Working in PR for nearly two decades, pitching is an integral part of the role.
I’d even go as far as to say that pitching is my key skill. I’m confident that I can create a pitch and present it to any client, current or potential, with confidence, whilst answering the brief. I’m proud to say that I’ve won 80% of pitches I’ve presented throughout my career. However, this wasn’t always the case.
I vividly recall a time when I was a student at Liverpool John Moores University, and it was my first year of my Media, Marketing and Cultural Studies and one if the modules was presenting. I had to speak to two minutes about a topic of my choosing (I can’t even recall what it was, I think I’ve blocked it out due to the trauma). I recall standing up, my mind going blank and panic sweeping over me. In my mind all I could think was ‘speak, Lisa speak’. I had beads of sweat forming on my head, my hands were clammy and the cards I was holding started to shake. I went into fight of flight mode and just started to speak, noting coherent I’m sure, a ramble or words coming out my mouth in quick fire succession.
The only thing is, in my hurry to get it over with, I’d also forgotten to breathe. I was running out of breath and could feel that I needed to take a breath but couldn’t’ find it in me to pause. If I paused, it would take longer.
Eventually I had to take a breath but then didn’t have the head space to think clearly so just started talking again. It was honestly the single most embarrassing moment in my life. I wanted to ground to swallow me up. As I sat down, I was shaking all over, my face was blood red and I also was so out of breath but didn’t want to draw more attention to myself. I few sympathetic glances my way only made me feel worse.
It was in that moment I decided that I was never, ever going to let this happen again. I made a promise to myself that I would make sure that pitching was the thing I would be best at.
I recalled times in the past when I’d been insecure about something, when I’d felt completely out of my depth. I remembered that when I felt this way, practice and practice and practice made me be in do doubt that I could take on the challenge and even excel.
The time when I did A-level dance and I had to perform Christopher Bruce’s Swansong as part of my assessment. It is a renowned contemporary dance, which is technical and 3 minutes long. In the classes I just couldn’t get it, so I made a choice to stay behind after college and watch the video of the dance repeatedly and piece it together bit by bit, move by move until I knew the dance off by heart. I went into the assessment a week later and danced my heart out and secured a near perfect score – I was elated.
This isn’t only specific to performance, I remember as part of my degree I had to pass a Strategic Marketing Module, which involved formulas and degree level math to calculate efficacy of campaigned. Again, I went to the library and did the formula over and over again, practiced with past exam papers until I was confident I could do it with my eyes closed. I ended up getting 98/100 on that exam which brought my entire point average up to secure a 2:1 overall.
I’m not telling you this to brag or to try to show how wonderful I am, I’m actually writing this down (as part therapy I mise concede), due to a scenario recently which took me back to that university lecture theatre when I was 18, it was like no time had passed, no lessons had been learned and I was petrified of failing.
I was pitching at the Spark Festival pitch competition with Startups & Angels. We had just one minute to present our ‘elevator pitch’. Whilst one-minute sounds easy, I would’ve preferred five ha! Condensing your mission, problem, solution, why you’re the best fit and secret sauce and your ask into 60 seconds isn’t easy!
Now let me disclose I’ve taken part in pitch competitions over the past five years. A couple of times I’ve won People’s Choice, such as the Fishburners’ International Woman’s Day pitch in March 2023. I usually thrive and am in my element as I tell my start-up story with authenticity and flair.
Not this time however, not even close. I was meant to be up first, but when they called the names, I wasn’t up until 5th (out of 11). Each time my name wasn’t called I got a little bit more nervous. The script in my head I was so sure I’d remembered had fallen out of my brain, I couldn’t even remember past the opening sentence. I also had my amazing co-founder Chris in the audience, so felt the need to make him proud too.
As I walked up to the podium, after 4 previous founder who had nailed it, I felt that old friend ‘fear’ creeping up. As I got to the platform and looked out to the crowd, the only element of my pitch I could recall was the opening line: “People Need One Another” then… Blank!
I did the same thing I did 20 years ago, I just kept talking, I forgot to breathe and I also forgot to click on the slides – It was a hot mess! I could feel my face getting redder, and my lungs getting emptier – I wanted (once again) for the ground to swallow me up and I also felt terrible for Chris. This was our chance to talk about our pivot, announce to a room of fellow entrepreneurs our pivot, and exciting new step into the world of CSR and supporting employees to connect with their communities via frequent acts of kindness.
As I walked back to my seat I felt like a failure in that moment.
Then the next person got up to speak, and I could see the same signs I saw in myself. The shaking hands etc and he started his pitch and the same happened, he had a mind blank, he couldn’t recall any of his script, the fear had got him too. I felt nothing but empathy, I knew how he was feeling, I could imagine the negative self-talk internally and the frustration and embarrassment I couldn’t help but feel respect for him also, he stood up there for the minute and kept trying. He didn’t give up and even acknowledged how it was much harder than it looked.
In that moment I had a realisation, that we are all only human – a message that I portray each and every day. I realised that by stumbling, and sometimes outright falling on our faces, this is when we learn our biggest lessons.
I don’t believe in failure, I am a huge believer in taking the positives from any situation (even sometimes when there doesn’t seem to be any), and utilising it as a life experience to refine, reflect and realise a fresh new approach.
After the presentation I made a number of connections with the other wonderful founders and realised that authenticity is the way forward. To be honest about my experience, and to my surprise, by being vulnerable and admitting I choked, it provided an opportunity for them to be honest about their feelings about their experience too.
So, my lesson here, in this embarrassing moment is to show up, above all else, authentically. Yes practice, yes ensure you’re prepared but above all else know what you’re trying to say and know your product, and yourself, the rest will follow!