Remember when pitching your startup meant sitting with VCs in a sleek conference room on Sand Hill Road? Today, it often means putting on headphones and opening Zoom.

The worst of the pandemic may be over, but remote pitching is here to stay. And communicating effectively is just as important on video as it is in person.

Dr. Laura Sicola of Vocal Impact Productions is a vocal coach who helps founders learn to speak like CEOs.

“We’ve all heard the adage ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters.’ Bull, that is absolutely wrong,” says Laura. “It is the connection between the two: the alignment between what you say and how you say it.”

Over the past few years, Laura has developed some communications tips for entrepreneurs to maximize executive presence in any format — in-person or Zoom. On an episode of How I Raised It, she shared her secrets to nailing a high-stakes Zoom meeting. 

Executive presence matters — even on Zoom

Laura helps founders develop technically accurate and compelling pitches. “The big investors are looking for the next unicorn,” she says. “What does it take to convince them you could be it?”

It takes more than just building a great product. Laura points out that founders must prove they can represent their brand: “You aren’t just the brains behind the operation. You’re the face and the voice in front of it.”

The structure and words you use in your pitch are essential, but Laura’s presentation tips go beyond content. She encourages founders to consider the qualities they need VCs to see in them to make investments.

“What’s mature enough to make them trust you with a $10,000 or $10 million grant, loan or investment?” she asks. “What makes them think you’re trustworthy?”

Conveying maturity, confidence, and trustworthiness can be especially challenging in a virtual format, and Laura sees many founders make basic errors that undermine their executive presence.

Luckily, there’s usually an easy fix to these problems. These are Laura’s three simple steps to convey executive presence in a virtual meeting. 

1. Get the right camera angle

Laura recommends taking the time to set up your camera so that it frames you in a way that makes you look mature.

If your head is at the bottom of the screen and there’s a lot of ceiling or sky above you, you come across as disempowered. “It looks like a little kid sitting on a stool at the grownups’ table,” she says. “It certainly doesn’t look powerful or authoritative.”

Laura’s trick is to hold your hand up with your thumb and index finger about an inch apart. Place your hand on top of your head and adjust your camera so that your index finger touches the top of your screen.

“That’s how you know you own the screen,” Laura says. “The screen doesn't own you.” 

2. Create a flattering and professional setting

Connecting with your audience is already hard in a virtual setting — and bad lighting can make it even harder.

“You don’t want to look like you’re in the witness protection program,” Laura jokes. “Don’t sit in front of a giant picture window with the sun shining through it so you’re backlit.”

Your face should be well-lit, so bring in a lamp from another part of the house if necessary. It’s a small step that can make an important difference in the impression you leave on your audience.

“If bad lighting makes it seem like you’re hiding, it says to other people that you don’t trust them or you’re afraid of them,” Laura says. “That does not say ‘trust me with your money.”

Laura also recommends against virtual backgrounds. “The tech just isn’t that great yet,” she explains. “It makes you look like a 1990s video game character. I find it very distracting and amateur-looking.”

She says a white wall is not ideal, but it will do. For an affordable alternative, you can buy room dividers or folding screens that easily pop up and collapse. As a last resort, stick with the blur option if you have to use a digital background. 

3. Shell out for a quality microphone

“If you’re going to run a multi-million dollar company, you need to prove that you are willing to drop 50 bucks on a decent mic,” Laura says.

The built-in microphones on your computer, camera, and AirPods won’t cut it: they were built as an afterthought. Get an external microphone, whether it’s a headset or a standalone.

Laura recommends spending at least $50 to $60, but if you can swing it, she suggests going up to $100 to $150. “You don’t have to get the Lamborghini version I have, but you shouldn’t be riding on a skateboard,” she says. 

Lights, camera, action

How do you know if all of this is working? “You absolutely need to do some demo recordings with yourself and some friends,” Laura says.

She requires all her clients to watch themselves on video before she starts working with them. “Watch yourself do your pitch. What are you doing that isn’t coming across as confident, or passionate, or charismatic?” A test recording will reveal a too-dark room or an unflattering background so you can fix them before they affect an investor’s impression of you.

Of course, having the right equipment is only part of the equation. Laura spends most of her time helping clients craft a great speech and deliver it effectively. Here are a few of her top tips: 

Tell the story behind your statistics. 

Your pitch needs to include the right balance of substance and story. Make sure you’ve established your valuation, market size and scaling or exit plan.

But an effective pitch is more than just details and stats: “Is there a story as to why you’re doing this?” Laura asks. “Why are you solving this problem? Of all the zillions of problems out there, why are you investing your life in this one?” 

Find your authentic ‘professional’ self. 

“There are different parts of us that show up differently,” Laura says. We use the appropriate tone and manner for our audience: for example, Laura speaks differently to her six-year-old son than to a podcast audience.

“The question is: What aspect of you needs to come across when you’re trying to get someone to see you as confident, authoritative, in control and diplomatic?” she says. “What does ‘professional’ look and sound like to you?”

Stop the stream of consciousness (but don’t overdo the dramatic pauses) 

Laura says we tend to lapse into a stream of consciousness without noticing,  making it harder to speak — and more difficult for our audience to understand us.

“People have a much harder time processing what you’re saying because their brains are looking for a period,” Laura explains.

Speaking in a stream of consciousness can distort your voice in other ways. When you forget to breathe, you can develop the gravelly tone of “vocal fry,” or the habit known as “uptalk” ending sentences with a “question mark.”

Laura doesn’t recommend scripting, but she suggests you have a sense of when to take a breath. “A dramatic pause, when used effectively, is very powerful,” she adds, cautioning that pauses lose their drama when overused.

For more advice from Laura on cultivating executive presence in any setting, check out her communications tips for entrepreneurs here.

Nathan Beckord is the CEO of, which makes software for startups raising capital.

He is also the CEO of which is a platform for VCs and investment bankers to both raise capital and assist clients and their portfolio companies.

Users of these platforms have raised over $15 billion since 2016.

This article is based on an episode of Foundersuite’s How I Raised It podcast, a behind-the-scenes look at how startup founders raise money.