Pitching

Pitching, in creative circles, is presenting ideas and work to others who might be interested in working with you on them. It’s a sales pitch where you are selling to a collaborator1 rather than a consumer.

I’ve gone pitching exactly once, but I still have some observations about the process that I wanted to share. What I’m not going to do is try to teach pitching, because I am not an expert and there is already a great deal of information out there.

… although, having said that, the first thing I wanted to say is how profoundly much of this information conflicts. I’ve seen people say that you should have a scripted pitch, and to avoid being too scripted. I’ve seen some people suggest leading with the character’s central dilemma, while others suggest leading with a mash-up question2 and yet others say that opening with a question is stale.

One of the areas where pitch advice tends to conflict is in pitch length: some suggest filling all the time available, while others say to only pitch for two or three minutes and leave the rest for organic conversation about the project. It’s true that you should have a very short version of the pitch to use in chance meetings (the famous “elevator pitch”) but that shouldn’t be your only pitch or you’re going to have a lot of very short conversations.

What I found comfortable was to write a script, and rehearse the script, but to approach the pitch much more improvisationally — basically how I run roleplaying games, truly. I aimed for a 3-5 minute presentation, which left space for conversations around the story.

I’d also highly recommend practicing your pitch on people. Not necessarily writing people, but definitely those who will tell you if it doesn’t work for them. This will teach you not just how to tell your story in front of others, but also how to read your audience and vary what you’re saying accordingly. Are the pitchee’s eyes glazing over at your intricate description of alien architecture on the newly discovered space station? Maybe skip that part and get on with the plot.

The single biggest thing I was surprised by in my pitching was how much I learned about my story. Going in I thought I had a good handle on the character, but I only had a good handle on the plot on the setting: I didn’t really understand what it was the main character wanted until I had to explain it to someone else under pressure. So, of the three pitches I made at Willamette Writers this year, the third one was the best.

So, apart from obvious things like practicing and asking questions, the three pieces of advice I would offer are:

  1. lead with the main character’s motivation – this connects the listener with the story, giving them a reason to listen to the rest of it. Then you can talk about what is stopping the character from reaching their goal, and the arc of the story.
  2. be flexible – adjust what you’re saying to your audience. This doesn’t mean telling people what they want to hear: it means telling them about the parts of your story which will be most interesting to them.
  3. don’t hide things – you’re trying to sell people on working with you on your story, not trying to capture readers. Don’t hide the plot twist.
    Note that there is a plausible exception here with mysteries, but if your pitchee asks for the solution then tell them: they can’t evaluate your story without it.

Pitching is undoubtedly stressful, but it’s an opportunity to talk about your story and that is something to celebrate.

[1] that is, an agent, publisher, producer, or even another writer.

[2] “Harry Potter meets Kierkegaard”3 or “The Flintstones in space”4 are two terrible examples; “Harry Potter in space” is something more interesting. Hmm… space wizards…

[3] … of which more next week.

[4] ie The Jetsons.

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