It’s all about the shoes.

That’s Charlie Lehman’s secret ingredient for stepping into success with his startup company Convex Minds.

Lehman, a former U.S. Navy officer, is familiar with pulling himself up by the bootstraps.

So, when the young entrepreneur had to pitch his startup idea in just two minutes before a 850-strong audience at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Lehman came fully equipped with the drive and discipline to put his best foot forward…in a beautiful pair of brogues.

Said Lehman: “It sounds silly, but putting on those shoes and visualizing where you’re going to stand helps you enter into the appropriate emotional state to deliver your presentation.”

The Georgia Tech grad student was participating in a groundbreaking program, called CREATE-X. The brainchild of Professor Raghupathy Sivakumar, the initiative provides entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills, and experiences to realize their dreams, plus a healthy amount of funding, both in-kind and direct.

Lehman says, when it came to convincing a crowd of strangers to buy into his idea, his footwear was the secret strategy to appear confident and professional on stage. That, and knowing where to put his well-clad feet spurred him on to a performance that wowed the packed audience of investors, movers and shakers.

He says being put together well from head to toe galvanized his sense of self confidence, which ultimately convinced his audience that he could get the job done.

Before pursuing a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech, Charlie Lehman served aboard USS Blue Ridge in Yokosuka, Japan, as the Electronic Warfare Officer. He transitioned to the US Navy Reserves in 2015, before enrolling at Tech.

We sat down with Lehman recently to discuss how he prepared for his big presentation.

Tell us more about your venture Convex Mind?

My children were 2 and 5 when I got involved with the program CREATE-X. I was teaching my older son to read and reading to my younger son. We realized it was a real challenge selecting books that were beneficial for them, and we thought our background in machine learning might help give parents the tools to accelerate literacy for their kids. That’s how we came up with our interactive video game product called “Percy’s Travels” that aids childhood development.

How did you get involved with CREATE-X? Talk us through the process?

CREATE-X is a course offering at Georgia Tech that helps engineers bridge the gap to starting a business. I thought it would be great opportunity to develop beyond my current technical skills into more general business skills that would be useful in the future. I joined the summer program “Startup Launch” which offered the necessary tools to start a business. It culminated in “Demo Day” which is a presentation at the Fox Theater in front of 850 people, when you have just two minutes to pitch your idea.

How important is it to get access to investors and mentors?

Having access to mentors is secondary to the opportunity to hone your communication skills. Learning how to connect and be organized and methodical is how you go from an idea to a business.

How much experience did you have of pitching to a large audience?

Absolutely none. It was quite the journey from where I started, to where I am now. Throughout the program we received training from the communication coaching firm Speechworks and its President Joey Asher. We went from being engineers with very technical, detail-oriented presentations (which Joey Asher proceeded to tear apart!), to a crafted, simplified presentation, more suited for the general, diverse audience we would have at the Fox Theater.

The process was very structured and methodical. We started by presenting the motivations and ideas for our business and ended with a call to action. Practicing was also super important and working with Joey for that final presentation really gave us the confidence and the organization to be able to convey our ideas effectively on that stage.

How important was it to convey passion for your initiative?

If you’re not excited about your idea and confident that it’s going to go well, that lack of enthusiasm will be reflected by the audience. If you’re very excited and you show that emotion on the stage, that’s what will be reflected back. It’s very important to show the emotions you want reflected in the audience. It’s like if you tell a joke but the delivery is off, no one is going to laugh.

Is it fair to say “techy” people are more challenged when it comes to connecting with people?

Oh yes. Engineers are not the best suited for this kind of presentation work, which is why the CREATE-X program bridges that gap. Without this program I don’t think I would have been able to deliver this kind of pitch and convey the message I wanted in front of such a large audience.

How difficult is it communicating complex ideas to people who may not have a full grasp of what you’re talking about – especially in just two minutes?

I think the goal here isn’t to convey all the aspects and details of your idea. You want the audience to be motivated by your motivation. If they can associate themselves and their emotions with the problem you’re trying to solve, then you’ve succeeded. You can do that by telling a story – something they can latch onto.

How important were stories?

Stories are so important. One of the goals for me as a parent was to reflect my personal connection with the problem I was trying to solve. Trying to help a 2 and 5 year old learn to read is something that most parents can associate with. So, in my pitch I painted the picture of a parent struggling to help their kid learn to read, instead of being glued to the TV. I showed several pictures of me testing out my product on my son and shared photos of him reading a book. This sent a strong message to the audience and got a great response, because it was something they could relate to.

A big audience at the Fox – were you nervous?

I absolutely was nervous! Knowing beforehand how large the audience would be, and understanding the magnitude of what we were preparing for, motivated me never to miss a single practice. I really listened when our coaches were crushing us. When they gave us very harsh criticism I understood they were doing it to help us. It felt miserable at the time but being able to get over that initial emotional response and be methodical about absorbing that information was the first step.

The second big step took place in the theater before the event. Standing up on that stage and seeing where you’re going to place your feet was such an important detail. Coach Joey Asher told us to go to the stage and pick a few spots. He told us to look at one person, make eye contact and hold it. Then move to another spot and make eye contact with another person and deliver your message. He explained if you don’t plan where you’re going to put your feet, you’ll be meandering around the stage, making strange hand gestures, creating confusion for your audience!

On the subject of feet, I understand you wore special shoes too?

Yes. Some great advice that I really took to heart was to decide which shoes I was going to wear beforehand and wear them to practice. It sounds silly, but putting on those shoes and visualizing where you’re going to stand helps you enter into the appropriate emotional state to deliver your presentation.

Knowing where you’re going to be on that stage and having that image in your mind, helps you focus on the message and get through the pitch, hitting all your points. When you get up there you experience this sense of time compression and you tend to go faster. Repeated practice helps you get the timing right. It helps you pause and not rush through everything.

You mentioned eye contact – but you couldn’t see your audience?

That’s right. There are very bright lights on the stage so that the audience can see you. But all the presenter can see are blobs, shadows and silhouettes. You have to decide where in the audience you’re going to look. You don’t just scan. We were taught to make eye contact with one “blob”, them move onto the next “blob”. Ultimately, your goal in these two-minute speeches is to make a personal, emotional connection. I looked at three shapeless “blobs” and made a connection with them! That’s going to resonate far more than me scanning out into the nothing.

How important was your energy level?

If I didn’t believe in what we were doing it’s hard to fake that energy. If you don’t believe in your idea, you shouldn’t be giving a pitch on it. If you have strong emotion, let that come through. If you’re excited about your venture, that’s going to convey confidence and excitement to your audience and encourage them to come talk to you afterwards. That’s what you want.

If you’re not motivated, you’re going to get a lukewarm response and that’s not what you want.

Do you think the program boosts the confidence of would-be entrepreneurs?

It absolutely boosted my confidence, but it’s more than a superficial boost. The confidence comes from the ability to methodically approach the problems of building a business. Going through that evidence-based entrepreneurship program is very important because it gives you confidence in every step you make. That knowledge helps you convey your ideas clearly and approach new problems strategically – so you can handle any surprises or pitfalls that come up. Things that may trip you up end up building even more confidence, because you know you have the tools in your tool bag to handle them. Without the tools that CREATE-X gave me, my confidence would quickly erode. But when you know you’re prepared, you’re able to get up on that stage and convey your message well.

What would be you ultimate advice to someone who is getting ready to pitch right now?

Practice, practice, practice. That one word is so important. It’s also important to get feedback. Throughout my practice, I received critiques from my coach. Those critiques were very important to help build my presentation. You can memorize your first pitch perfectly, but it could still fall on deaf ears. If you practice with a coach and understand the flow and structure, you’ll be ready. If you have someone to help you, take advantage of every opportunity to do that. They can help provide the context for you, and then never miss a practice.

Julie Lindsay

Julie LindsayJulie Lindsay draws on a long career in television news to help clients speak in a way that is simple and persuasive. She began her journalism career with the BBC in London, reporting on everything from terrorist attacks and natural disasters, to war zones and revolutions. Next, came a move to the U.S. as anchor and editor on CNN International.

She also served as Chief Managing Editor with WebMD in the U.K. and then programming editor of Global Health Frontline News, making documentaries about kids fighting curable diseases around the world.