Many writers are paralyzed at the prospect of pitching their stories, but Script’s editor, Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, wants to push you past those fears with concrete tips on how to successfully pitch agents at pitching events.
I’ll never forget my first pitch. It was at a Writer’s Digest Conference in 2007. Most agents at the Pitch Slam represented novelists, but there was one table for the lone screenwriter’s agent. Hey, we can’t get everyone to come to the dark side. Not only was said screenwriting agent completely unknown to me, but I also had no prepared pitch whatsoever. I dove in anyway. I figured it was time to pop the pitching cherry.
What did I have to lose?
As I stood in his line, I eavesdropped on the pitches coming his way, trying to get a read on him. The woman directly in front of me had his undivided attention. He was on the edge of his seat and enthusiastically invited her to send him her script.
Cool. This guy was great. I could do this. He loved her, why not me?
Completely unprepared, I took my allotted five minutes and proceeded to lose his attention in 15 seconds flat.
As I lost focus on a coherent pitch, he lost focus on me, his eyes drifting around the room. He might have even yawned, or maybe that happened in the post-pitching nightmares I had. It’s all a blur.
So, how did I finally master pitching?
Practice. I got back on the horse and did it again, and again, and again, at any conference I could get to. I have pitched over 200 executives over the years at pitching events, and with each one, I learned something more about the art of the pitch.
It’s not about the sale of one idea; it’s about creating a relationship with agents and executives, submitting polished work that knocks their socks off, and making a great first impression to show them you’re a pro. There’s a great TED talk on how body language changes who you are. It is a must watch for anyone, regardless of profession.
I don’t care how seasoned you are, there’s prep work involved in presenting your story for a possible sale. Practice your pitch, but don’t sound too polished. Strive to have an organic conversation about your story. Know the theme, your character’s evolution, and if the exec asked the ending, tell them! Don’t keep secrets and try to be coy. Show them you’re team player.
Do your research.
Have knowledge of the agent or editor hearing your pitch and what their clients already write. Be able to show them how your story fits into their wheelhouse. By taking this extra step, you’ll be sure to be pitching the right executive for your project and also impress them with your knowledge of their work.
What to bring.
1. Business cards: Typically, I put my name, email, website URL, and cell number on one side, and on the back, the name of the project I’m pitching. When we pitched Slavery by Another Name, one side of our card had contact info (as if it were the front page of the script), and the other side, this haunting image…
There’s no way they’d forget what our story was about when they sorted through their stack of cards at the end of the day. But no worries if you don’t have a picture that speaks 1,000 words. Just keep the card simple.
2. One Sheet: In screenwriting, we have what we call a “one sheet” as an important tool to leave behind in a pitch. We also use one sheets when crafting query letters. Novelists might want to create one, too (click here to learn how). There’s no way an executive will remember every pitch they hear. Why not help them remember your pitch accurately?
The only time I don’t leave a one sheet behind is if, in the conversation, I learned of an angle the executive preferred over what I had written. This is why it’s critical to shut up and listen when the executive talks during your pitch. You might discover they want a female protagonist instead of a male, or someone 20 years younger. If you hand over that one sheet with the wrong protagonist on it, it’ll end up in the “pass pile” when you could have easily switched up your characters and possibly gotten a “recommend.” Tell them you ran out of one sheets and will email them one… which gets you their valuable email address. See how this works?
3. Notepad: As I walk away from each executive, I scribble notes as to what was discussed and what follow-through they wanted. When you’re at a pitching event, potentially seeing dozens of people, you need to be organized. Of course, you can use a phone app for this, too. Whatever works.
Side tip: If you want to pay it forward, share what you learned with other attendees. You should take the attitude that this event is not a competition. It’s a community of writers all trying to succeed. There’s plenty of room on the bookshelves for all!
4. Water: Dehydration leads to writer roadkill. Drink up, Buttercup!
Doing something right is better than doing something right now.
You might want to read that last line again. That also holds true for pitching a story that isn’t ready. If you do, and they ask for it, DO NOT SEND IT! Instead, rewrite it. You can usually get away with sending it three to four weeks after the event. The reality is, they’ll be inundated with requested stories. They won’t notice yours isn’t in the pile.
Trust me, they’d rather read a great story than an unpolished one. They’ll be more than happy to wait.
Also, even if my story is ready, I do not hand them a printed copy. No one wants to lug it around, plus you want their email address for your files so you can follow up. You won’t always get that if you slip them the manuscript or screenplay on the spot. They’d rather read on their iPads anyway. I know I would.
Stay an extra night.
This way, you can celebrate the success without having to race to the airport. When my schedule allows, I tack on a couple of extra days to take meetings and connect with my existing network that wasn’t at the event.
Invest in your career.
Writers who know how to pitch with passion and clarity are what separate the novices from the pros. I hadn’t even realized how proficient I had become at pitching until I had the big meeting. You know the one… when you’re in the VP’s office at a big network. Oh yeah, that meeting.
I waltzed in with my writing partner, and we proceeded to naturally talk with them about our project. It didn’t feel like a “pitch” at all, but rather, a conversation among friends about a pretty cool project that just happened to be ours. Thirty minutes later, we had built an incredible relationship.
That is what pitching is really about – building relationships.
My past pitching experiences have been so instrumental to my current confidence, that if I were an agent or a manger, I’d make attending a pitching event mandatory for any new client coming in, or any old client who pulled their hair out at the thought of being “in the room.”
One day of non-stop pitching is the cure for writer’s stage freight. Frankly, it’s the cure for a lot of fears we have as humans, from fears of rejection to public speaking.
The more comfortable you are with pitching, the more confident an agent or a manager will be that you can close a deal in a room. Because whether you have representation or not, you will have to go into the room and pitch your scripts. No way around that.
If I had my way, all writers would go to pitching events. No, this is not a sales pitch I’m giving you. I’m talking to you, writer to writer. Getting comfortable pitching is the best investment in your career you can make.
If you’re terrified of pitching, then take the pressure off of yourself and don’t think of it as “pitching” or as selling your story. Instead, think of it as a Master Class in getting comfortable talking about you and your work, live and in-person.
The only way to learn is to do!
The first one is the hardest, but after you speak to executive after executive, you’ll get in a groove. What’s the worst that can happen? They say, “no.” Big whoop! If you stay home, you won’t get your projects read either, and you won’t get any practice pitching.
Invest in your career. Invest in yourself. Face your fears, and get yourself to a the Pitch Slam. I promise, if you pass out, I’ll fan you awake, and we’ll have a good pep talk before I throw you back in the lion’s den to keep learning.
Conferences and pitching will leave you reenergized and excited about the possibilities for your writing career. We need to drag our unshowered selves out of our caves and into the light.
Live your life. Put yourself out there. Meet other writers. Enjoy the highs and lows this crazy career brings. Celebrate your successes and your failures. For I truly believe it is in failure we learn our most valuable lessons.
Hey, if I can survive a pitching event, so can you!
If you want even more tips, come to the Pitch Perfect event at Writer’s Digest Conference that I’m teaching with debut author Tiffany D. Jackson, who is also having a book signing at WDC! Hope to meet you in person in August!