How I used my education stipend from CB Insights to take presentation classes and gain lifelong skills.

By Zoe Leavitt, retail and CPG analyst at CB Insights. 

A couple of months ago, I uncovered Amazon’s death star of e-commerce using the CB Insights patent search engine, and things went kind of nuts. Dozens of media outlets picked up on it, many within hours.

And then, Good Morning America called.

Yes – that Good Morning America. The popular morning TV show on ABC, watched by everyone from my roommate to my grandparents. And they wanted to talk to me about Amazon’s patent and drone strategy – and they wanted to talk to me right now.

Did I have time to change my clothes? No. Did I have time to write out a script? No. Did I have time to immediately enroll in and complete an in-depth class on TV reporting, starting right then? Absolutely not.

Luckily, thanks to CB Insights, I’d already taken such a class, and was ready to go.

It was very nerve-wracking, but I think I managed (here’s the spot on GMA). The reason I felt so prepared, and able to get up there on a moment’s notice, was the presentation classes I’d taken while at CB Insights.

How did I get there?

Here’s the backstory.

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When I started my job at CB Insights a while back, I was so excited. And I still am! I can honestly say I wake up every morning looking forward to whatever is on my plate that day. I get to read about cool companies all day, stay up-to-date on the nascent technologies that our grandkids will likely take for granted, and write about the future of of the retail and food industries. Sometimes, I even get to write Peter Thiel jokes.

Just a few months in, though, I realized I would need more than writing to grow in this job. I was gearing up to give my first webinar, and was realizing that I would need to practice a bit more than just listening to a few TED Talks on my commute. I need to strike that balance between sounding formal but not too formal, prepared but not overly rehearsed, natural without being nervous, and passionate while tying that passion back to cold, hard data. We’re bursting at the seams with data at CB Insights, after all – how could I bring these numbers alive in my presentations in an authoritative and organized way?

Wonderfully, CB Insights offers a generous education stipend to employees who have been there longer than six months, and I decided to use mine to improve in an area that would not only help further my career, but also my day-to-day confidence. I signed up for a series of classes at Embodied Minds, which offers group and private presentation coaching, and worked with an amazing teacher named Shira. The company works with people in the corporate and technology worlds, both to rehearse for specific presentations, and to improve speaking and PowerPoint skills in general.

I felt nervous getting to my first class, but the environment felt as soothing as a therapist’s office. We started simply – by practicing introducing myself. Over the next few weeks, we moved on to longer and longer exercises, mainly centered around Shira pushing me to make on-the-spot speeches about random subjects or pictures. She’d throw out a photo of a shipyard or a shopping mall or a box of chocolates, and tell me to start talking about whatever came into my head.

As I progressed, and got better at keeping eye contact with the (imaginary) audience rather than glancing back at the photo, I started to practice turning my improvised statements into more involved presentations. I ended up getting pretty interested in some of the ideas my off-the-cuff speaking inspired – one class, I ended up putting together a five minute presentation on the impact of human form on consumer product design inspired by the old lipstick case in my pocket.

Some of the things I learned were very specific. Things like, sometimes it’s ok to pause and take a breath instead of filling space with “like” or “um.” Ways to hold my hands when talking in front of a crowd – especially tough, since I tend to pick at my nails when I get nervous. How to keep your gaze on the audience while gesturing to slides projected behind you.

Other things were more general. I practiced trusting myself to respond calmly when Shira threw random topic after random topic at me. Why yes, I realized, I do have something to say about amusement parks, about the transportation industry, about Picasso. Even if my responses were thinly related to the specific phrase in question, I sounded collected and authoritative. No one will expect you to know everything about everything, I realized, but they will expect to see grace under pressure.

We also practiced structuring engaging presentations, using hooks and personal anecdotes combined with hard data. I worked hard to match my facial expression to the mood of different presentations, rather than letting nerves pinch my face into an awkward smile. Eventually, we even did some small mock TED Talks using the data I’d been analyzing at work, trying to practice moving slightly around a stage while presenting about trends.

After a few months of classes, I felt calmer and more confident in just about every situation, not just at work. Of course I still have a very long way to go, but I learned how important presentation (personal bearing as well as more formal presentations) are for every aspect of nearly every job out there. No job takes place in a vacuum.

With this new baseline, I’ve been able to take better advantage of on-the-spot opportunities as they arise – even a spot on Good Morning America after digging into Amazon’s patents in the CB Insights database and coining the term “death star of e-commerce.” I also gave my first webinar on the evolving state of retail, which you can check out and download the slides here.

These are the skills that – unfortunately – they tend not to teach you in school. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to work on my presentation skills with my education stipend, and I can’t wait to keep improving throughout the course of my career.

If you want to be on Good Morning America in front of millions of people, we’re hiring on the research team. 

Ok, we can’t guarantee you’ll be on GMA but you’ll be influencing billionaires, public market CEOs and the smartest VCs on the planet. 

 

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