Forget about your TED talk. That’s one piece of advice from Stuart Paap, founder of Pitch DNA, a Boston-based coaching service that helps startups perfect their presentations, keynotes, and pitches. Paap, who has a degree in anthropology and economics and a background in finance, never expected to become a communications guru. But Paap honed his speaking skills doing stand-up comedy and he has a gift for helping others refine their messages, captivate audiences, create slide decks, and, as he puts it, help avoid “booka chooka bunka plunka.”
“I get a little tired of the expression ‘pitching,’ because it implies a simplified sales pitch where someone just talks about the benefits of the product or service at a loud and fast clip. I believe it’s much more about having a nuanced and meaningful conversation with the right audience,” says Paap. He’s worked with universities, nonprofits, incubators, and others and says “you can never have enough confidence – and you can never practice enough.” It’s a lesson he learned from his five demanding years as a comedian. The first time he went onstage, he was so nervous he almost passed out. He toured on the road working on his craft in clubs. He once camped out in front of the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles for a three-minute audition for a major TV comedy channel. He knew his lines cold, even though he was sleep deprived and anxiety-ridden. He didn’t get the gig but he never forgot the truism that practice makes perfect, a constant recommendation he passes onto his clients.
Paap, who works in the financial field during the day, honed his public speaking skills by taking lessons, learning from mentors, and videotaping himself talking. “I had to learn the hard way,” he says. “It’s not like I took a weekend course in pitching.”
He spoke to the Globe about Pitch DNA and his personal experiences.
“I didn’t set out to form Pitch DNA — it came out of left field for me. I wanted to get more involved with startups and the burgeoning technology scene in Boston. I volunteered at the start-up accelerator MassChallenge and gave a few talks at night. My focus was on helping people learn how to pitch and present their ideas. I figured they had the business and technology expertise and I had presentation and delivery know-how, so I thought we could learn from one another. I worked with 30 teams that first summer. Then out of the blue, I got an e-mail from someone who had seen me speaking, asking if he could hire me to teach presentation coaching. My first reaction was to say no, but I agreed, and haven’t looked back since.
“I always say the only reason I have any authority to help people with their presentations is because I have made a thousand more mistakes than they ever will, so learn from my mistakes. Like the time in Lake Tahoe where the atmosphere was like a train wreck — people talking, TV blaring. I completely lost my audience, and learned that I always need to prepare for the unexpected. Or when the power went out — fortunately, I had paper copies of my slides. Or when my microphone died. Joking helps: ‘I thought my mom booing me was awful, but this is even worse.’ It’s important to get buy-in from your audience and make them your ally and friend.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and the number one thing that helps me deal with nerves – beyond my standard breathing exercises – is to realize how pretty much everyone in the world today is involved in some form of selling. Before any presentation, I bring my trusty bag with a few Sharpie pens, a box of pencils and large 4×6 index cards.They’re good for note taking, creating scripts, and are easy to hold. I also bring clipboards because they help me feel grounded and organized when I work with materials.
“The world has changed; it’s not enough to be the smartest person, but to put it in a way that is interesting and entertaining. Pitch DNA is all about simplifying language and being part of the conversation, not killing people with content and going through 58 slides in your slideshow. Speaking in front of groups is an ancient and valuable art. l love helping people, and make a meaningful difference. It’s really about having a passion that occasionally turns into clients. It’s far better than making toilet paper jokes in the middle of Phoenix.”