The art of speaking American

Because I tried so hard to bury the memories, the exact words are hard to remember now. It went pretty much like this: “Urgh. Diabolical. Are you kidding me?!”

There were a few weeks to go before the ten startups in our accelerator cohort had to stand on stage and pitch our respective businesses to a theatre of press and investors. My co-founders and I were in front of a pitch coach who had flown in from New York to add some polish to the presentations. We weren’t 15 seconds in before hostilities had commenced.

“YOU’RE COMPETING WITH THIS!” he yelled, waving his smartphone at us. “TRY AGAIN!”

It’s customary for such talks to start with a short narrative. Ours began something like: “In only twelve months since the…”

“STOP. WHAT AM I DOING? SEE? I’M LOOKING AT MY PHONE. IT IS MORE INTERESTING THAN YOU. START AGAIN.”

“In only twelve months…”

“PHONE. BORING. Try again.”

“In…”

“PHONE. BORED, BORED, BORED.”

We pretty much ploughed our own furrow after that. The demo day went OK and the press liked it. So I figured that the underlying problem was that the pitch coach was crazy and then I forgot about it.

Recently, however, I had an experience that made me view the episode differently. Armed with this new information I see that the real problem was that the pitch coach was American. Or let me be more specific: the real problem was that we weren’t American. This became apparent when I spent a session with a public speaking coach. After incremental progress during the day, Esther Stanhope, ex-BBC and very British, pulled out her secret coaching weapon: “Now do the whole thing again but do it in an American accent.”

All of a sudden, my voice hit new decibel levels and the windows shook. And the equivocation, conditional statements and uncertainties vanished.

“It happens all the time”, said Esther. “People suddenly start talking in a new language where everything is global, prospects are golden, fortunes are giant, success is guaranteed and doubt has left the world.”

This reflects my experience of working with European and US startups. American startups need only to possess half an idea to become drenched in Obama levels of oratorial confidence. The rest of us hesitate as we anticipate the holes in our arguments. This may seem trivial, but the idea that simply by speaking American you suddenly become louder, more confident and persuasive may have more bearing on startup success than at first seems likely.

Take this example of a US startup, which had successfully resolved a fundraising deadlock to get its business up and running. Each time founders presented their deck, the investors probed the numbers as you’d expect. They duly updated their deck with more detailed forecasts, ratios and market analysis in order to be better prepared. The next set of investors dived into these new details and asked for yet more details… and yet more. Data begat data. But it didn’t beget investment. So they took out all the numbers. The new presentation deck was exclusively about the promise and the vision. The investors were sold on this pitch and shortly afterwards, the company raised the money it needed.

“We realised,” they explained, “that the strength of investors is their left brain analysis of numbers. They are better at it than we are so they kept asking questions that we couldn’t answer. When we switched exclusively to vision, we were speaking to the right brain. Here we could explain the world as we saw it and our opportunity within it.”

Even the smartest, most cold-blooded investors are swayed by vision, confidence, determination and all those qualities that are touchy-feely, hard to measure and become apparent in the first few seconds of opening your mouth. And this is why it might be reasonable for a US startup pitch coach to recoil in horror as a non-American merely begins to speak. They know that it’s the dream and the conviction that raise the money.

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