business pitching advice

I’m a former opera singer turned entrepreneur. When I left the field of opera, I never thought my musical training would be relevant outside of the music industry. I thought it would be relegated to a fun fact at corporate icebreakers or deployed as my secret weapon at karaoke.

Soon, I landed my first job outside of opera and learned I would have to give speeches on behalf of my organization. I was terrified. But then I realized that my ability to perform on stage actually made me a powerful public speaker. I was comfortable in front of a group of people; I knew how to use breathing to project my voice; I had stage presence, which I learned to convert into executive presence.

Over the past sixteen years, I’ve realized just how powerful those musical techniques are in a professional setting. My team and I have worked in dozens of industries and countries, with people at every stage in their career, by adapting those musical techniques to meet business strategies. And nowhere are these skills more needed than in entrepreneurship.

Below are five tools from the world of opera that I’ve seen improve my clients’ pitching:

1. Center yourself before walking into a room

Opera singers are “on” the moment they walk out on stage, which means they have to center themselves beforehand. As an entrepreneur, you are “on” the moment you walk into someone’s office.

Actually, you are always “on” because you never know when you are going to run into that big investor—on an airplane, on the Acela between New York and Boston, or at a conference. Take some time to yourself before walking into a room and remind yourself why you truly believe in your business idea—speak it out loud to yourself—and that sense of purpose will help you walk into the room with much more confidence.

2. Pay attention to your breathing

Think about that last time you made a big pitch to an important investor or supporter. Were you nervous? If so, I bet the first thing you forgot to do was breathe. When we get nervous, we stop breathing and our voice becomes flat and monotonous, often trailing off into vocal fry.

Focusing on your breathing is a relaxation tool that literally counteracts the “fight or flight” response that happens when you get nervous. Let yourself pause and breathe before you start and in between sentences. This slows you down and makes you sound more thoughtful—it also gives your audience time to jump in with questions, which makes the pitch more collaborative.

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3. Speak to one person at a time

Singers don’t perform while looking at the floor or at their script. They look out at the audience in order to create an emotional connection with everyone in the room. It’s the same thing when you are pitching.

Put your notes to the side and speak to one person at a time, completing a full thought before you move on to the next person. For those of you who identify as introverts, this means you’re not talking to a large audience—you’re simply having a series of 1:1 conversations with people around the room. As a result, each audience member feels more personally invested in the presentation which makes them engage more fully.

4. Build your confidence

A singer’s confidence comes from a combination of factors, including their years of study honing their craft, their preparation for this particular performance, and their deep love for the music. You can use the same confidence-building measures: invest in your skills, spend time preparing for your presentation, and remind yourself why you deeply care about the topic you are presenting.

Confidence in presenting shows confidence in your ability to adapt in the face of surprising consumer feedback or changing market conditions. Investors are investing first and foremost in you and your team, based on your passion and dedication which tell them you will stick with this as the idea changes.

The final tip doesn’t come from the field of opera. In fact, this tip reminds me why I left opera. Twenty years ago, I spurned a career in opera and stopped singing for 10 years, convinced I wasn’t good enough to make it. It wasn’t until I learned to play the guitar that I realized I have always been a folk singer at heart. I’ll explain how that’s relevant to pitching in the next tip.

5. Focus on authenticity over perfection

An opera singer can seem like this magical creature who we place on a pedestal for their otherworldly singing ability. We listen and appreciate the perfect honing of their craft, but we never think of joining them on stage. Compare that to a folk singer, who is someone we want to sing along with (think “Blowing in the Wind”).

Investors aren’t looking for a technically perfect pitch. Sure, they want you to know what you are talking about and have a clear understanding of your material, but they are not looking for the perfect speaker. They are looking for someone genuine and confident, someone who can be the best version of themselves at the front of the room instead of trying to sound like someone else.

Music—both opera and folk—has quite a lot to teach entrepreneurs about pitching. Try the five techniques above before your next pitch and you’ll find a greater ability to speak with impact. If you’re looking for more resources on delivering a pitch that lands you angel or VC funding, check out the Bplans pitching guide.

AvatarAllison Shapira

Allison Shapira, CEO and founder Global Public Speaking LLC, a communication training firm that helps leaders speak clearly, concisely, and confidently, is the author of Speak with Impact: How to Command the Room and Influence Others (Harper Collins Leadership, 2018) . Along with her 15 years of experience coaching and training at Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and non-profit organizations around the world in the art of public speaking, Allison teaches public speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School. In addition, she travels around the world with the nonprofit Vital Voices Global Partnership, helping women leaders grow their business, run for office, or launch non-profit organizations. Allison holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, is a member of the National Speakers Association, and is an internationally-renowned singer/songwriter who uses music as a way to help others find their voice and their courage to speak. She lives in Washington, DC.