A small Seattle startup helps take the anxiety out of big presentations with digital coach, Yoodli
written by Cathy Carroll
In October, Madrona Venture Group of Seattle announced an investment in Yoodli, a startup that uses artificial intelligence to help people with public speaking. Madrona expanded on why it was excited to be a part of this journey, noting that public speaking is rarely taught effectively in a classroom setting, and almost never beyond the C-suite of a corporate environment, yet studies show that the fear of public speaking affects more than two in three people.
The venture group seems to be as impressed with the talents of Yoodli’s creators, Ehsan Hoque, Esha Joshi and Varun Puri, as it is with the technology. Since their first meeting at the AI2 Incubator, an initiative of Seattle’s Allen Institute for AI, they recognized the energy the team brought and the genuine, inspiring passion they have around Yoodli.
The three founders came together over personal experiences in public speaking. Puri, a former nationally ranked debater, teamed up with Joshi while she was an Apple engineering lead and regular Toastmasters attendee. Together, they brought on Ehsan Hoque, the co-lead of the Rochester Human Computing Interaction group in New York, who adds decades of academic experience to the problem space.
Madrona also saw that the Yoodli concept is capitalizing on broader trends in the coaching and betterment space. “Individuals are increasingly demanding self-serve options for upskilling and betterment,” according to Madrona’s announcement. “Rather than a full HR suite integration, they want to be able to use a lightweight (and often) web ‘app for that’—and in today’s remote team management world, soft communication skills have become an integral part of our daily jobs.”
Yoodli, also based in Seattle, has fewer than ten employees and yet-undisclosed revenue, as it is still in beta testing. They are hiring for growth marketing and full stack engineering roles. We caught up with Varun Puri, Yoodli co-founder and entrepreneur in residence at the Allen Institute for AI, to see how AI could cure presentation anxiety.
As a former nationally ranked debater, you gave the commencement address when you graduated from Claremont McKenna College in 2016. Have you experienced the cringe-worthy pain points you’re trying to help others prevent with Yoodli?
I was eleventh at the U.S. National Championships in 2015. I’ve struggled (and have seen countless others struggle) as I prepare for any speaking engagement. Most times, I have the content and know what I need to say, however, figuring out how to say it is the hardest part. I try to practice in front of a mirror, use a stopwatch and ask a friend to give me feedback. However, it’s uncomfortable to stand in front of a mirror or ask friends to watch your half-baked speech. Hence the idea of an AI-powered coach.
How does the platform work?
Yoodli provides real time analytics as you’re speaking. It also shows you a personalized dashboard with insights about your speech. Through Yoodli, you can connect with coaches and asynchronously collaborate on speeches with teammates.
Famous entrepreneurs such as Tim Ferriss tout the importance of public speaking in business success, whether it’s a presentation for funding or a TED Talk, etc. What are your thoughts?
I couldn’t agree more. We all know dozens of people who are extremely smart but don’t get the recognition they deserve because of the way they present their ideas. I experienced this first hand at GoogleX, where many of my engineering colleagues would do the hard work behind the scenes. However, when it came to explaining the work to a large audience (which, in turn, affects outcomes such as your promotion review), they’d either opt out or present in a way that didn’t do their work justice!
Yoodli offers AI-powered feedback, analytics and insights to improve your presentation skills—without the pressure of an audience or rehearsing in the mirror.