This blog is part 1 of our 5 part Pitch for $1 Million Clinic series – where Ben Sand (who has raised $100M in funding) will be covering the 5 of the most important topics for startup founders.

Learning how to deal with stage fright and high stake meetings is a very important skill for founders. Whether you’re sharing your business idea with an audience, or pitching in a meeting with investors, you don’t want to be held back with stage fright.

My name is Ben Sand and I am a startup coach and advisor. After graduating Y Combinator in summer 2013, I successfully co-founded Meta, raising $100M in funding. I have hired over 70 great people, and now I coach founders of tech companies to be successful CEOs. During my time coaching, there has been multiple requests from startup founders on how to deal with stage fright.

Stage fright in high stake meetings, pitching for investment, or presentations, comes down to nothing more than a collection of hormones in our brain that correspond to this fear. To understand the background, we need a quick lesson in neuroanatomy.

No one seems to know much about the brain, despite that fact that what happens in our brain is exactly what makes us different from all other animals. The only part of the brain that really matters when it comes to fear is the amygdala. Amygdala is the Greek word for almond, and the two amygdaloid bodies are shaped like almonds. If you put a line directly between the ears, and connect it to a line straight back from your eyes at right angles, that is where you will find the 2 amygdaloid bodies. This is essentially in the centre of the brain.

The Amygdaloid bodies are highlighted in red

These structures have 1 job, to decide if you should be cruising along as normal, or if you should be in panic mode. If they decide you should be in panic mode, they create what is called an amygdala hijack. During the hijack, they dose the body with cortisol and adrenaline, essentially shutting down the higher brain function’s ability to control your decisions. This gives your lizard brain reflexes control of the situation. The amygdala have a lot of power and control and only have a nano-second reaction time in response to fear.

In today’s world, standing up in front of 400 people at Pitch for $1 Million isn’t going to kill you. But there are many situations in our ancestry where being surrounded by people, or someone looking at you funny, would have meant that you were going to die. Our reflexes are tuned to go into an extremely fast-reaction panic mode from these situations. These amygdala are extremely paranoid, extremely quick to react, and they have access to very little information. They don’t get the benefit of higher order visual processing, so they only see 10% of your vision BEFORE it has been organised into shapes and colours and objects. Based on this information, they dump chemicals into your body that completely change your behaviour. Historically this was to our great advantage, but today interferes with what we are doing.

We want to remove this type of panic response from our control systems when we are in important scenarios. There are 4 techniques we can use to minimise this:

  • Square breathing
  • Acknowledge the fear
  • Enquiry into the fear
  • Reframe the fear

Square Breathing:

Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. During this time you can also draw a square with your finger which helps to visualise and stay on track. You may find that you need to increase/decrease the number of seconds for each side of the square. After being doing for a few minutes this practise is proven to actually change the hormone levels inside your body. The problem is that adrenaline and cortisol take between 20 minutes to 4 hours to clear the body, so we ideally want to stop them getting in there in the first place. Once they are in there, your entire way of operating has shifted.

Acknowledge & Enquiry into the Fear:

Taught through vipassana and other types of Eastern meditation, the idea is to build up your willingness to cope with discomfort. Instead of resorting to blocking it out with activities like eating junk food, watching tv, drinking alcohol, finding a highly stimulating activity that stops us thinking. Instead, we go directly towards the feeling of discomfort of anxiety, and we try to understand it. Some part of your brain has fired off an emergency warning, an alarm system. If it doesn’t get acknowledged, it’s going to keep doing this louder and louder – its job is to be acknowledged and recognised. If you can understand where it’s coming from and literally say “thank you – I appreciate you alerting me of the situation” it gets addressed, heard and it stops sounding the alarm. You would be amazed how effective this can be.

This has been so effective it has even been put to use in the US military as MMFT (Mindfulness-based Military Fitness Training), based on similar techniques, the people delivering MMFT need to first do the 10 day Vipassana course shown below. It’s an interesting combination of ideas as Vipassana requires total non-violence during the course, however the same techniques are being used to improve battlefield capability. Make of that what you will.

Reframe the Fear:

This technique is a way of shifting your perspective on things, where you notice ways in which you experiences anxiety within your body and try to interpret these symptoms as ways your body showing excitement and signalling that it is very alive. You are actually feeling highly stimulated and excited as opposed to anxious. This gives your thought processes and alternative way to experience this. There are other ways to portray this – for example power poses as a way to shift you brain chemistry.

Can you be a natural?

Many people believe that they are either good in difficult, high pressure situations, or they aren’t. No one seems to understand that there are actually multiple physical techniques you can do to will change your brain chemistry, that will significantly impact how effective you are in situations that stimulate an anxiety response in you. If you are pitching at Pitch for $1 Million, it is well worth mastering these techniques so you can deal with any stage fright that you experience. 

If you enjoyed part 1 of our Pitch for $1 Million Clinic series - Sign up & enter your closest city for events near you!