Breather CCO Caterina Rizzi Shares How Women in Tech Can Conquer Stage Fright

Ever since the seventh grade, Caterina Rizzi has experienced waves of panic every time she thinks about speaking on stage.

She has good reason.

“In Grade 7, we re-enacted the play Ulysses,” she said. “There was another class doing the same play, and the guy who was playing the same role as me in that class was a professional actor. There were even journalists who came to see him. Then he fainted on stage and they had to carry him off. I didn’t screw it up like he did, so I felt great, but that might have been where my stage fright started.”

Acting was clearly not her career route of choice, but she couldn’t stay away from speaking on stage forever. As her career took off, Caterina found that she had more opportunity – and more responsibility – to present her ideas in front of larger and larger audiences.

Caterina Rizzi has worked in fashion and retail, leading a creative team for a major international retailer. She is now co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Breather, one of the hottest startups of 2015. And, now that she has showcased her leadership skills via the work she’s done, she knows she has to take the stage and speak. It still doesn’t make the job any easier though.

“It’s important to speak onstage, particularly as a women in tech leader. There is an inequality where there should be an equality. I’m not the kind of person to take that lying down. I’m the only female exec on my team. I don’t feel differently treated, but I do feel it when I’m out in the world. That’s the problem.

In order to do her job and lead other women, Caterina’s found she has to get out of her own way. She’s worked to find the right tools that help her feel calm and comfortable on stage, and has applied her techniques to quash the waves of panic.

Curious as to what they are? If you’re anything like Caterina and often feel nervous or scared, her tips will be the lifesaver you need to feel more confident on stage, and give an amazing, memorable talk.

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What To Do When the Spotlight Is on You

“I detest getting up on stage. It ruins my day. I’m so nervous and I’m worried that I’m going to screw up,” she says.

“My role has always been behind the scenes. I’ve always been more comfortable there. It’s quite a stretch for me. It takes a lot out of me to speak on stage.” Many of us can attest that we’re far more comfortable hanging out behind the scenes than we are with hundreds of pairs of eyes on us.

So Caterina has her way of dealing with this: Humor.

“My trick is if I can make them laugh, and I know they’re listening to me. Sometimes even my best jokes tank, but I have a 95% return rate of laughing.”

And, as with any other skill, practice makes it much easier. “I feel the same dread and fright each time. I’m a little calmer each time.”

What to Do When You Feel Overshadowed

Caterina met her Breather co-founder Julien Smith while they worked at a department store at the age of 18. Julien has since written three New York Times-bestselling books and is a paid professional public speaker.

When you prefer to work behind the scenes, your strengths can often feel overshadowed by those for whom speaking comes naturally.

“For me, my biggest hurdle to speaking is feeling overshadowed. I’m always confused why [events] picked me instead of him. My co-founder’s shadow is huge. He’s a three-time New York Times bestseller. He’s incredibly articulate. He’s the first person ever to get paid for doing a podcast, ever. ”

She just has to assure herself that her voice matters just as much as anyone else’s. “It’s just important for people to get themselves out there. People should go and network and get themselves in the public eye,” she says.

Caterina says that one way to ensure that you feel ready to step into the spotlight is to put your own unique, strong spin on your talk. “A lot of times, talks are dry and boring. I don’t feel like they’re saying anything new that I haven’t heard before. If you can find a way to be exciting or controversial, that’s what you do.”

While it’s tough not to feel overshadowed sometimes by her co-founder with respect to his speaking skills, he’s also been an amazing person to help Caterina. By looking to what he’s done, thinking about how and why his talks go well, and being able to ask him really specific questions about how he does it, she’s been able to learn a lot.

“Everyone gives talks about how you need to be the best. My co-founder, the last talk he did, said ‘Be the first. If you’re good at it, no one will ever catch up to you.’ He had something different to say. That’s what made it a great talk.”

Self-Awareness is the Key to Success

For Caterina, self-awareness is key. She knows her strengths and she knows her weaknesses.

“I get more nervous when I prepare a talk with friends. I’m perfectly comfortable getting up in front of people. It’s not about going up in front of everyone. It’s about forgetting what I’ll say.”

So she set about finding a solution to that problem, and it came in the form of an app. “It’s called PromptSmart. As you speak, it moves down your speech and stops when you stop speaking. A friend told me about it. It was $12, but it’s totally worth it.”

She learned these lessons simply by trial and error, and she learned what pieces of the general advice out there on speaking work for her, and which ones don’t.

Back in her retail days, she says, “I had to speak at a large sales meeting. That’s when I learned that it’s not a good idea for me to rehearse. Our boss made us rehearse and it was like he was ‘stage mothering’ me. I just knew that if I got up there, I could do it.”

“I don’t remember anything I said during that talk, but I was told that it was one of the most entertaining on the stage that day. If I force myself to do something, I’ll do it properly.”

That’s the kind of self-awareness and assurance that guides Caterina to career and speaking success.

She also assures other women that, if they feel this same way, panels and Q&As are a great route around the pressure of being a solo speaker: “Q&As on stage make me more comfortable. I’m not confident about having a really good memory. There’s not some bar to impress people with some message that’s so different.”

Caterina Rizzi (right) doing a post-talk Q&A at AccelerateOTT
Caterina Rizzi (right) doing a post-talk Q&A at AccelerateOTT

Pace Yourself

Caterina paces herself both in the number of talks that she gives as well as in her individual speaking engagements. It’s important to slow down and take it easy if this whole speaking thing doesn’t come naturally to you.

“Once in a while, people ask me to speak, and it’s a good fit, and I don’t feel like it’s superfluous. I do about one event per quarter. And then speaker panels don’t bother me because I don’t have to prepare.” She’s realistic about how much energy these talks take from her, and she plans accordingly.

When you get on stage, too, it’s important to be conscious of how fast you are speaking, to pace your words and know that speaking faster won’t make the talk end any sooner.

“Speak slowly. No one is in a rush. They all have to listen to you.”

It’s a hard lesson to remember, but if you can try to be conscious of how quickly you speak, it makes a world of a difference. “I ‘try’ to speak slower, but it’s hard to remember sometimes when you’re in front of a crowd or feel passionate about the topic that you’re speaking to,” she explains.

Just Aim to Resonate

For Caterina, she doesn’t aim to be the world’s best speaker. She does aim to showcase her expertise, get up there, and even the playing field.

“I never feel like I did a great job, but if I hear from someone that something I said resonated, that’s exciting.”

Speaking, too, proves to her that she can do anything. “The most gratification I get from it is that I’m delighted with how I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. Usually I’m the kind of person that doesn’t do anything they don’t want to do.”