Series on Persuasive Speakers: Connecting with the audience

The ability to speak and persuade your audience is one of the most important weapons you need in your arsenal if you want to grow as an entrepreneur and succeed. This is the story of Adam Braun, an ordinary person who followed his passion, defied the skeptics, conquered paralyzing stage fright, mastered his pitch, and created something extraordinary.

Every ninety hours the nonprofit Adam started with $25 — Pencils of Promise — opens a new school in developing regions. Today Adam’s organization has broken ground on 200 schools and delivered 15 million educational hours to children in Laos, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. It all started when Braun turned 25, left a six-figure job, and decided to create a life story worth telling. But first he had to overcome a terrifying fear of public speaking.

“The ability to captivate another individual through storytelling is essential to the early stage growth of a company,” Braun says. “I spent a lot of time refining how I presented our work through thousands of conversations. I learned the parts of our story that got people’s eyes to light up and their heads to nod. I also learned when they started to fidget or their eyes glazed over. Through persistent communication we refined the language through which we describe the organization. It still remains the most critical part of driving the growth of the organization.”

Braun wasn’t always a confident speaker. “You can’t find someone who was more scared of public speaking than I was. My heart raced, my hands were shaking, and my eyes would burn like I had just cut an orange and rubbed my eyes with it. My body would literally shut down,” he acknowledged. Braun realized he had to grow in confidence, refine his public speaking skills, and hone his pitch if he hoped to attract the really big donors required to take his nonprofit to the next level.

Three little girls that Braun met in the small village of Pha Theung, Laos, would prove to be his muse and they remain an essential component of his pitch. In March 2009 Braun was scouting the location for the organization’s first preschool. In the tiny village where the average family makes under $300 a year he met the girls who would become his first students. Braun took out a simple Canon point-and-shoot and recorded a short video. Adam shows the 40-second video in his presentations. “There’s an authenticity to the footage because it’s not super high quality and it’s in the first person. You feel as though you are witnessing a special moment. The video is less than one minute long and it’s a powerful element for drawing out an emotional response.”

Once the video is over Adam advances to a photograph taken four months later showing the same girls sitting in their seats in the first Pencils of Promise PMSEY school. “Showing the before and after is incredibly powerful and allows people to go on an emotional journey that elicits a lot of reaction,” Braun explained.

In one speech Adam was incredibly nervous and “consumed with anxiety.” His voice began shaking. His body was shutting down. “But when I showed the video of Nuth, Nith, and Tamund [the three preschool girls] I was reminded of why I was there and began to speak more confidently.” Braun received a standing ovation that day and his confidence was strengthened immeasurably. Braun learned two important lessons. First, the more you speak publicly the more confidence you’ll gain. “Put yourself in the arena. When you do it often enough you overcome personal challenges that lead to fear.” Second, confidence comes from talking about what you know, telling personal stories, and speaking from the heart.

Braun is a student of persuasion. He knows the human brain has an emotional and a logical, or “rational,” side. “The rational center leads us to make conclusions and the emotional center leads us to action,” says Braun. “A great pitch must acknowledge the viability of the product or service, but the focus must be on igniting the person’s emotional core. ”

After thousands of pitches, Braun has also learned a valuable lesson about one-on-one conversations. “I made the mistake early on of thinking I could win people over by giving them a compelling reason to change somebody else’s life. What I learned over time is that as humans we naturally have self-interests. The most powerful way to engage someone is to provide them with an avenue through which they can change their own life and feel good about doing so by changing another.” Braun achieves this goal by listening for 75 percent of the conversation and talking for the other 25 percent. “It’s not about the presenter; it’s about the chance that the audience has to become the hero by completing a well-defined task,” Braun suggests. “When I do a one-on-one pitch, I’m more interested in understanding the person on the other side of the table than in getting them to understand me.”

I believe that you cannot inspire others unless you’re inspired yourself. Braun is living proof of my theory. Although Braun refined his skills of persuasion over time, his energy and enthusiasm comes from his unshakeable commitment to make a difference and to design the life of his dreams. “Every person has a revolution beating within his or her chest. Regardless of age or status, if you’re not satisfied with the path you’re on, it’s time to rewrite your future. Your life should be a story you are excited to tell.”