By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
When Cameron Crake of Raven and Lilly discovered that she, not the company’s founder, would be pitching at Incubation Station’s Demo Day, she was nervous. To begin with, she’s the background person, not the public face of the company. Also, she was the program’s youngest member and desperately didn’t want her youth to be what the audience remembered.
“I said ‘like’ a lot,” she recalls. “I also would get high pitched at the end of sentences…I had a tendency to cock my hip. A lot of women do that. It’s how we carry our weight. I had to practice standing with my feet planted, looking confident and unshakeable.” She also had to practice her pitch as if she were speaking to a kindergarten class, to overcome the monotone she’d adopted to sound more mature.
Her coach to recognize and overcome all these quirks was Monique Maley, founder of Articulate Persuasion, a company that helps leaders speak more confidently and effectively. A former actor and theater management veteran who worked as a production coordinator for a theater in London as well as an international talent firm, Maley understands the myriad subtle ways a tone, a posture and a gesture can communicate to an audience. But most startup founders don’t. So she’s been hired by Austin Technology Incubator and other groups to help the developers, engineers and other startup founders transform their nervous energy into effective pitches. She works with them on everything from messaging to delivery.
“Until your content is clear in your head, it will not be clear to anyone else,” she said. “You have to articulate it so clearly to me that it’s clear in my mind. It’s like somebody teaching someone to paint over the phone.”
Part of that, she said, is understanding your audience. Frequently, engineers struggle to communicate their ideas to groups of investors who lack their technical knowledge.
“A lot of times I’ll work with scientists and engineers who are going out to talk to VCs on the West Coast and they have a hard time getting it across,” Maley said. “One guy said ‘I really have to dumb it down for them,’ and I told him ‘If that’s your attitude they’re going to feel an air of condescension in everything you say.’” Sometimes, she said, it’s necessary to use jargon or technical terms. But if you’re talking over the heads of the people in your audience, don’t expect them to be moved by your pitch.
“Monique helped me with aspects of communicating more complex concepts simply,” said Stuart Rench, president of ihiji. “I tend to go very detailed, open too many doors during a conversation, leave too many people stuck behind trying to figure out what I’m talking about.”
Regardless of how polished your pitch is, Maley said, you have to connect with the audience. If someone is nervous while pitching, for example, that’s going to come across. The question is, is that person nervous because he lacks confidence in his idea or ability to carry it out? Or did he just have too much coffee?
“Nervous energy is the same as every other kind of energy,” Maley said, “it’s just about where your mind is choosing to take it. Being excited about a first date causes nervous energy but you tend toward positive thinking…it creates outgoing energy that makes a connection. But if your energy is negative because you’re worried about getting funded, that’s internal energy that’s spinning around in your head. I can’t connect with you if your thoughts are spinning around in your head.”
Maley’s life and career path have given her a broad tool set to help her clients. She grew up splitting her time between Houston, where her father was from, and Mexico City. Her mother’s family, originally from Spain, fled to Morocco after the Spanish Civil war, and then to Mexico when the U.S. invaded northern Africa during World War II. Her parents were cultured, supporters of the arts. Her father listened to opera, loved languages and taught her how to cook soufflés. They had such a different sensibility, it always left her feeling out of place among her peers. Her time in Mexico City suited her better. At the time, she said, the city was more cosmopolitan. Her cousins and many of her friends went to the French lycee where the children of the French diplomats studied.
Maley was drawn to the theater and did a summer program at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Afterward, she went to Tufts in Boston and studied English and clinical psychology. She did no acting in college but was involved in an a capella group and choir at the New England Conservatory of Music.
After graduation she moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. That’s where she got heavy duty training in how people could use their bodies and movement to express the physical lives of their characters.
“We studied why you would move this way, based on your age, or height or humps or corsets and what does that embodiment tell the audience that the text doesn’t. The physical and visual image of you is often more telling than what you’re actually saying to me.”
That’s a crucial piece of teaching people who pitch how to convey confidence to their audiences, like making sure you take up enough space…but not too much.
Engineers often come across very soft spoken and may not take up enough room. “At the end of the day the institutional investors will eat you for lunch if they think you’re soft and mealy. So how do you sound stronger? It’s a transformation over time. As you start sounding stronger, you start feeling stronger and that’s where the power is. If you have a great idea but you can’t articulate it, investors don’t feel wholly confident in you…they have to have trust in the individual and the team.”
But the main problem with most pitches, Maley said, is lack of practice. No one would come out to see a theater performance where the actors hadn’t rehearsed. They wouldn’t go to see a football team that hadn’t practiced. So why should they be expected to watch a pitch that hadn’t been practiced over and over?
Maley returned to Houston and acted at the Alley Theater. Afterward she joined a project in a warehouse at the University of Houston. That group of actors afterward formed the Urban Theater Company. At the Urban Theater, Maley not only acted but worked as managing director which threw her into the business end of theater and put her in a position to start soliciting sponsors for the company. After she’d been at the Urban Theater for close to five years, Maley said, she decided to return to London. She had no job but just started going to theaters to check them out and decided she wanted to work for the Almeida. One day she stopped in and said “I want to work here.” There was an opening. And she was in.
At Almeida, she acted and also worked as a liaison to corporate sponsors in New York and London to plan special VIP events and negotiated contracts with agents to hire designers, actors, and guest directors. Her next role was working with International Creative Management, a talent agency.
Maley, an only child, eventually decided she was too far from her aging parents and returned to the U.S. She was ready to try something other than acting, which she calls “a young person’s game” and opened a spa, Daya, which she closed just before the nation’s economy hit the fan.
After that she ran a marketing agency and worked for a leadership firm before founding Articulate Persuasion. Initially Maley worked with attorneys to improve their performance in front of juries. But soon she got a client who was an entrepreneur and needed help doing everything she had learned in the theater industry. Acting and pitching to raise funds.
The startup world, she said, is a lot like the theater world. People are close knit and collaborative and there’s instant gratification for what you do.
Both Rench and Crake said they felt like Maley cared about them as people.
“I’m a very protective person, I don’t like sharing my faults,” Rench said. “given my personal limitations on things like that, Monique was very thoughtful in what she had to say and knows how to boil things down very quickly. That keeps me from letting the ADD get very far down the road.”
“She really knew what she was doing and had a lot of great advice to offer,” Crake said. “She really cared about me being able to do a good job. She wanted me to represent my company well and I felt like she was on my team, wanting to see us succeed. She was a big part of making us succeed.”
Working with the startups, Maley said, “is a place where I feel needed, appreciated. The work I do is rewarding. Whatever you do, that’s so important. At least it is for me.”