Have you ever spoken aloud only to think to yourself: Wow, that sounded better in my head

Dr. Laura Sicola of Vocal Impact Productions knows how to solve that problem. 

“I help you close that gap between your brain and your mouth,” Laura says. “You’ve got the genius in your brain. You’ve got the passion in your heart. But are you able to convey that in a way that makes people want to help you turn your vision into reality?” 

Laura runs Vocal Impact Productions, where she offers vocal coaching to help founders and executives become confident communicators. “Commanding the room, connecting with the audience and closing the deal,” she says. “Those are my three C’s of vocal executive presence.” 

On an episode of How I Raised It, Laura shared her top communications tips for entrepreneurs, whether you’re trying to close a round, rally your team or nail your next speaking engagement. 

Why you need to learn how to speak like a CEO

“Founders like to build; they like to create; they like to experiment. They don’t realize that part of being a founder is being a CEO,” Laura says. 

But venture capitalists want to invest in founders who can lead people. “Can they see you five years down the line running a company of 10,000 people?” she asks. If you pepper your speech with “ums” and “ers” and you can’t engage with your audience, the answer is unlikely to be “yes.” 

She likes the expression “it’s the jockey, not the horse” to explain why a product alone isn’t enough to win over investors. 

“It doesn’t matter if you have an amazing, world-class, thoroughbred horse,” she explains. “If you’re an inexperienced jockey, VCs don’t believe you can get the horse to the finish line.” 

Laura adds that coming across as a leader is important for more than just attracting investors. Customers and employees want to know and trust the person behind the company logo. “People will not buy into your product or service until they buy into you,” Laura explains. 

Captivating an audience doesn’t come naturally to every founder, but Laura shares simple vocal coaching skills and presentation tips to cultivate executive presence. 

1. Establish your goal

Whether you’re pitching on Sand Hill Road or leading an internal all-hands, Laura recommends having a goal. “Start with the end in mind,” she says. “What do you want people to think, understand or feel when you’re done?” 

She describes these as three levels of impact: cognitive, behavioral, and emotional. Once you’ve decided which level of impact to aim for, you can reverse engineer your presentation to achieve it. 

“You wouldn’t get in the car and ask Siri where you’re going,” Laura says. “Think of this as putting the destination in your GPS so you can figure out the best route for your presentation to take you on this journey.” 

2. Figure out which qualities you want to cultivate

Founders are often told to be authentic — but what if you’re not a natural communicator or leader? 

Laura rejects this question as being too black-and-white. “It’s not a coin toss,” she says. “People are not that monochromatic.” 

She points out that everyone naturally behaves differently depending on the situation or audience. “What are you like when you’re with your grandparents or grandchildren? Or hanging with your best friends?” 

Laura describes these changes in personality and demeanor as “your prismatic voice.” Just as you wear business casual to the office and workout clothes to the gym, you can be confident and authoritative in some situations and laid-back in others. 

“Which color in your prism needs to shine most brightly in a particular context to make sure that your message lands as intended?” she asks. In other words, which qualities do you need your audience to see in you? 

Think about the goal you just set. If you aim to land a term sheet with a top-tier VC, you should strive to project maturity, passion and trustworthiness. 

“Think about what those qualities look and sound like,” Laura says. “What’s ‘mature’ enough to make investors trust you with a $10 million investment?”

3. Measure your baseline

Once you know how you want your audience to perceive you, you need to assess how well you convey those qualities already. 

Laura insists that all her coaching clients start by watching themselves on video. “The video camera is the great equalizer,” she says. “It will tell you exactly what you did well and exactly what you did horribly.” 

Video reveals the kinds of habits that can undermine even the most compelling pitch, such as saying “um” every few seconds, fidgeting and staring at your notes instead of making eye contact with the audience. 

Likewise, being a great speaker won’t help you overcome lousy content. Laura notes that language matters: “If your words are all over the place, or you’re swearing when you shouldn’t be or not being tactful, it’s not going to support your messaging.” 

4. Get to work

Laura shared some of the presentation tips she uses in her private vocal coaching sessions and workshops to help speakers improve both content and delivery. 

Meet people on their level

One of the most common problems Laura sees is what she calls “the expert’s curse.” 

“You’re passionate about the problem you solve,” she explains. “You’ve spent years fixating on it. So it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world isn’t as passionate about it as you are. And you don’t think about what they do or don’t know.” She finds speakers tend to talk over their audience’s heads or get lost in the weeds. 

Take a step back, Laura says, and think about who you’re talking to. Why are you speaking to them? What do they need to know? 

Explain the ‘why’ 

“Convey the story of your company in a way that touches the head and the heart,” Laura advises. “That’s a direct line to the wallet.” 

Laura sees many founders focus too much on the size of the market or the technical details of their product. 

“If you don’t inspire people with your vision and your passion, they’re not going to bother investing in it,” she says. “You have to have a personal story that helps me understand why you care beyond the fact that it’s a $20 billion market.” 

Don’t forget your punctuation 

“If you have great content, but you deliver it lousy, that’s like dipping a pearl in mud,” Laura says. 

Common issues include talking too fast, mumbling and “uptalk” (the vocal pattern that sounds like you’re asking a question even when you’re not). 

“Uptalk is usually a sign of insecurity,” Laura explains, and it can undermine your efforts to come across as authoritative. “You give away all your power when you do it.” 

She also notices that many people tend to speak in run-on sentences. “If you listen to yourself, can you tell where a period would go?” she asks. “Or are you just using a lot of commas and ‘ums’ and ‘sos’ and question marks?” 

Speaking in run-on sentences can lead to another common problem: vocal fry, which is a creaky, gravelly tone. “When you’re in that stream-of-consciousness mode, you often forget to breathe,” Laura (who has a Ph.D. in educational linguistics) explains.

“There’s just not enough air in the tank for breath support. That’s where the physiology that creates vocal fry comes into play.” 

Simply remembering to insert the punctuation you would use if you were writing can help you control these issues. 

Ultimately, speaking like a CEO is about both content and delivery. If you can pull both levers to find your persona as a leader, Laura says, “That is the secret sauce. And when you can learn to do that, you can rule the world.” 

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

He is also the CEO of Fundingstack.com 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.