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Funny Business

Actor/comedian helps execs find words when nerves leave them speechless.

 

What's your worst public-speaking fear? For some people, it’s forgetting their notes. Others dread unexpected slides. For Sammy Wegent, CEO and co-founder of Speechless, those fears are fodder for comedy, and fertile soil for growing a business that preps presenters for the spotlight.

Speechless’ genesis dates to 2011, when Zynga, the maker of FarmVille and other games, hired Wegent, a comedian, actor and teacher, as a game writer. As his new colleagues stumbled through PowerPoint presentations, he wondered, “What if that was a show format, where improvisors pretended to give business presentations and really didn’t know what the next slide was going to be?” The answer was the comedy show Speechless Live, which Wegent launched in San Francisco in 2013 with Anthony Veneziale (of Broadway’s Freestyle Love Supreme) and Scott Lifton.

Soon after, Wegent and his team made inroads into Silicon Valley, building on their unique show format and performance backgrounds to help executives engage audiences. Their methods clicked with Google, Microsoft, Salesforce and other tech juggernauts. “In Silicon Valley, language and even mentalities are very similar to the world of improvisation,” says Wegent. “You’re prototyping; you’re iterating; you’re getting feedback from your audience. ... I think that’s why the companies we work with get a lot out of what we do.” Among Wegent’s repeat clients is Maria Yap, vice president of digital imaging at Adobe Inc., who first worked with Wegent in 2017 to prepare for a keynote presentation in front of 12,000 people. She succinctly sums up Speechless’ power: “These sessions give you the tools and techniques to be your best self, to connect with your audience in the scariest, most unnatural situation of public speaking.”

Today, Speechless Live is going strong in San Francisco and is licensed in multiple cities, countries and languages. Training services have also expanded beyond Silicon Valley. And new projects are afoot, including a boxed party game, What’s Your Point?; a co-authored study with UCSF neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb focused on improv’s effect on the brain; and a soon-to- open San Francisco training and coaching center. Wegent anticipates virtualizing the training to further broaden Speechless’ impact. “As I try with my very small team to grow our company and diversify all the different services and products that we have, at the root is something very universal,” says Wegent. “It’s people being able to have their voice heard in situations that go far beyond—and are much more personal and unique than—a PowerPoint presentation.”

 

Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley

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