From Center Stage to the Boardroom: A Learned Love for Public Speaking
I moved from Guadalajara to Dallas when I was 3-years-old.
In an effort to help me preserve my Mexican culture and Spanish language, speaking English in my household was strictly forbidden. Therefore, by the time I started school in the USA at the age of 5, my English proficiency was far below average for a kid my age. Although I was young, it was not lost on me that I had a much harder time making myself understood than the other children. Frustrated by my lack of communication skills, I often refused to engage in conversation. This tendency quickly became a vicious cycle that chipped away at my confidence. I decided then and there that speaking in public was not for me.
Luckily, my mother fostered an early intellectual curiosity in her children, and I found great refuge in reading. The pages were patient with my sounding out complex words and tolerant of my difficulty grasping distinct literary styles, elements, and vocabulary. Books became my safe place to learn how to make the English language my own.
However, it was not until I was 12-years-old that I developed a love — that’s right, love — for public speaking. The game changed my first day of theater camp.
I dreaded the idea of speaking in front of an audience. Although I spoke English fluently at that point, having people stare at me as I tried to illustratively recite a line loosely committed to memory was a nightmare scenario.
A group of around 30 kids, myself included, sat in a circle on a stage waiting for our director. Out of nowhere a tall, elegant, and eccentric looking woman made her entrance into the middle of the circle. She exclaimed with the lungs of a professional thespian, “Helloooo children, how many of you are terrified to be here?” We all awkwardly refused to make direct eye contact and stayed silent. She continued, “You don’t have to say anything because your body language says it all”. Taking a dramatic pause, of course, she persisted, “Well, that ends today because instead of fear you are going to feel power!” Her confidence was infectious as she asserted, “Children, there is nothing more powerful than the spoken word, and how you communicate is just, if not more, important than what you communicate. That’s the magic of theater — let’s begin”.
In a month’s time, my perspective on public speaking shifted from “please don’t make me speak; I want to disappear” to “I have something to say, and it’s time for you to listen”. My theater director flipped the narrative on public speaking from one of fear, forced perfectionism, and judgment to one of experimentation, discovery, and impact. I felt powerful! The stage gave me the freedom to begin to discover my voice, craft an identity, and make mistakes in a non-threatening environment. Through various theater techniques, I learned the art of two seemingly contrasting yet complementary elements of communication — preparation and improvisation.
My love for theater evolved into 22 theatrical productions, a national competitive debating hobby, an excitement for consulting Fortune 500 companies, and eventually a career in venture capital investing. Throughout my life, I have found that regardless of my situation, a comfort with public speaking has been the most valuable transferable skill in my tool kit. As a VC investor, I am put in the position of public speaking everyday, multiple times a day. Whether I am speaking to a founder, pitching my board / investment committee on an investment opportunity, or negotiating a valuation — I am putting my public speaking skills to work.
As investors, I believe it behooves us to spend time refining this skill; however, the environment we work within can make the concept sound very intimidating. That’s missing the point! The reason I enjoy public speaking is not only because it is useful, but also because it’s fun! It’s an incredible chance to both share and learn; to hear and to be heard — that’s powerful!
Let me be clear, this doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous when having to speak in front of others in a cogent manner — I still get nervous! However, I have developed some strategies to help me translate those nerves into excitement as I prepare to speak in public.
- Prepare, Prepare, Prepare: Whether I am questioning a founder, sharing an opinion in a board meeting, or giving my professional perspective on a podcast — I prepare. Invest the time and effort to be thoughtful in your articulations, understand your audience, and practice voicing your opinions out loud — just like a thespian would when preparing for a rigorous role. I have always considered preparation to be the best catalyst for confidence. So do the research, tap into the WeInvest community, practice in the mirror, and ask the dumb questions! Do whatever you have to do to feel prepared when the time comes for you to speak in public because this will boost your confidence.
- Listen, Listen, Listen: You can‘t always be prepared — that’s life. If you are a type-A personality like me, that is a fact you are unwilling to succumb to easily. However, if there is anything I learned from improvisational theater it’s that ultimately the winning strategy is getting comfortable being uncomfortable. Sometimes, on the spot, you have to improvise appropriately to asks or questions from your LP, founder, or partner. You won’t always have the right answers, but you always have the power to listen. When someone else is talking, don’t think about what you want to say next. Listen, that’s the key! In the words of Greek philosopher and theatrical influencer Epictetus, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
- Master Body Language: Experts profess that 93% of communication is non-verbal. In other words, only 7% of what you are saying is actually coming out of your mouth. Therefore, it is imperative to focus on elements like eye contact, hand gestures, posture, appearance, stance, tone, etc. These things matter — this is theater 101. Here, I recommend you record yourself and watch it back. It might make you cringe, but you will uncover things you never knew about your communication style. With that as a starting point, look towards people you admire as public speakers, and study their style. How do they communicate without speaking?
- Be Yourself: Although it is good to learn from those you consider fantastic public speakers, don’t try to copy them. That always feels inauthentic. Be yourself — which means invest the time figuring out who you are as a public speaker. In theater, one character will be interpreted a hundred ways by a hundred actors — there is no right way. In investing, phoniness in founders and funders alike is easily spotted and little appreciated. Instead, find your unique voice and own it!
- Have Fun: There is so much pressure to be perfect when public speaking, and it’s counterproductive! I’m also guilty of taking myself too seriously sometimes. However, looking back, the best public speaking engagements I have ever been a part of are the ones that were the most fun — that’s what is memorable for an audience, joy and passion! In theater, actors learn not to overly stress about missed lines or entrances — oftentimes the audience doesn’t even notice. As an actor, you are taught to seamlessly react to the hiccup and move forward. So laugh at yourself when you mess up in public and keep going — the show must go on!
Ironically, as I write this blog post, I am facing my own crisis of confidence with public speaking. I spent decades trying to master public speaking in English, and now I spend 75% of my day public speaking in Spanish as a LatAm focused VC. Although I am fluent in Spanish, I am much more confident in English. However, I try everyday to see this challenge as an opportunity to become a better holistic orator. I am far from perfect, but I know I have the skills to make it work. Ultimately, it is just a matter of more preparation, more listening, and more laughing at myself.
If you are seriously interested in enhancing your public speaking skills, I encourage you to take a class at your local theater. Although at first you might feel foolish or even fearful, who knows, you might just end up feeling powerful.
Natalia Gonzalez Vela
Board Member, WeInvest
Investment Manager, Clout Capital