How To Pitch Like A Pro (And Avoid Sounding Like A Rookie)

Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today's guest blogger, Stephanie Palmer helps creative people learn to pitch, persuade, and sell. She is the author of the book Good in a Room and has been featured by The Today Show, NPR, Variety, and the LA Times. She leads the American Film Market's annual Pitch Conference and has presented workshops for Google, William Morris Endeavor, Merrill Lynch, and Disney. Previously, Stephanie was Director of Creative Affairs for MGM where she heard over 3000 pitches. She gives pitching advice at goodinaroom.com and is teaching a Pitching Essentials online class starting on February 4, 2013.

I thank Stephanie for her contribution.

Enjoy!

RB

One of the amazing things about Stage 32 is that, with so many creative people in one place, you're very likely to interact with potential collaborators and partners. But will these interactions develop into valuable, long-term relationships?

A lot depends on how professionally you pitch your ideas.

The first time I stepped on a movie set, it was as an unpaid intern on the movie Titanic. I was a senior in college and though connections at Carnegie Mellon, I had arranged for an internship with a producer. It was my first time visiting Los Angeles, first time doing anything in film, and I felt lucky to jump into the deep end of the pool.

But the truth is, I was also pretty scared. I felt like I didn't belong and I really didn't know how to act on a film set. I didn't want them to know that I was totally green, born in a small town in Iowa without any family connections, and the only things I knew about Hollywood was what I had read in books and seen on TV.

My first task as an intern was to drive boxes of "undisclosed materials" from Los Angeles to the set in Baja, Mexico. In retrospect, I never should have driven boxes that "you are not to open" across the Mexican border, but remember, I was pretty innocent and wanted to succeed. I certainly wasn't going to challenge my boss on my very first assignment.

I put the boxes in the back of my grandmother's Toyota Corolla and drove to Mexico. I didn't ever find out what was in the boxes (and I don't want to know), but I did get to be on set and the first day was an experience I will never forget.

It was dark by the time I got to the set and the Titanic looked like the real ship, all lit up at night. Cameron was shooting and hundreds of people were in motion. It was beautiful.

I knew, even at that age, that people make quick judgements about whether they like you and want to work with you. And it was VERY easy to see who Cameron respected and who he dismissed.
When I dropped off my packages at the production office, I was told, "It will be a while. Sit there." This turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences I could have had. I got to hear everyone interact, pitching their ideas-not about new projects-but about how this or that aspect of the production should be managed.

It became apparent to me that the people who were the most successful in getting others on board with their ideas projected confidence but also humility. They pitched succinctly and without bragging.

In contrast, the people who were much less successful at persuading the more senior producers consistently used a particular tactic at the beginning of their pitch: they hyped their own ideas.

This is the same mistake that rookies in Hollywood make when they introduce themselves to someone new and pitch their work for the first time: starting their pitch by hyping their own ideas.

Here's what I mean: I recently received an email from a writer (details changed to protect his identity) who had a question, the gist of which was that he was getting meetings all over town, and everyone was passing on his project. He wanted to know how this could be happening because, in his words, "My script is amazing and my pitch will blow your mind."

Now, without reading his material, it's impossible to know why everyone is passing. But right off the bat, I get the sense (and you probably do as well) that this writer isn't paying attention to the negative feedback he's receiving. After all, if everyone in town is passing, why would he represent to me that his work will blow my mind?

Typically, when someone hypes their idea before pitching it, it means that they are only willing to hear positive feedback. They aren't professionals who can adapt and improve their work. They're rookies.

To sound like a professional, when pitching your idea for the first time, don't:

Make predictions about financial success

  • "This will be a big hit."
  • "It has great international appeal."
  • "Everyone is going to want to see this."
  • "My project is a guaranteed moneymaker."
  • "It's commercial."
  • "This will be #1 at the box office."

Make predictions of other kinds of success

  • "The lead role has Oscar written all over it."
  • "This script will change the world."
  • "This project will inspire people."

Tell the listener how they will think or feel

  • "You're going to love this."
  • "You'll be laughing out loud."
  • "This is the best thing you'll read this year."

Give your own positive opinion

  • "I've got a great idea for you."
  • "I have an amazing project."
  • "I love the story in this script."

What's The Problem?

Isn't this just harmless self-promotion to communicate confidence and enthusiasm?

Not in this case. When you rave about yourself and your project, you're intruding on the listener's turf by telling them what to think, how to feel, and what their opinion should be.

Imagine a couple circumstances where you're the listener...

Watching American Idol

An American Idol contestant gets up, and before she sings, she says to the audience:

"I just want to let you know that I love the way I sing this song, I think you're going to love it the most out of all the performances tonight, and after I'm done, I know you're going to vote for me."

Or would you rather just have her sing and decide for yourself?

On A First Date

You meet your date at a coffee shop, and right after you sit down at a table together, he says:

"Before we get started getting to know each other, let me just tell you what a great date I am. I have some excellent personal stories that will make you laugh, and I'm confident that you'll be in love with me by the end of the evening. I'm also terrific in bed."

Or would you just rather go on the date and decide for yourself?

Irritating the Listener

The truth is that most listeners don't want to hear your predictions about success, and they don't want to be told how to think and feel.

o You say: "This will be a #1 hit movie." They think: "Oh, good-you're a fortune teller now. Can I get some lottery numbers?"
o You say: "You're going to love this!" They think: "Really? I'm so glad you know how I'm going to respond."
o You say: "I have an amazing idea for you." They think: "You've concluded that your own idea is a winner? I'm stunned."

Listeners want to decide for themselves-just as you do when you're the listener.

Communicate Confidence in Three Steps

I hope you can see that when you hype yourself and your work in a pitch meeting, it doesn't demonstrate the confidence of a professional.

Instead, act like a pro by following these three steps:

  1. Let other people say great things about you.

    Other people can talk about your work and say, "This is a great idea," or "This is the best script I've read this year."

    Validation of you and your work from a third-party is much more credible.

  2. Let your pitch have the focus.

    Here's what communicates confidence: just pitching your story. No hype, pre-qualifications, "pumping up" the listener, or raving about how great it is in advance. Simply tell the story.

  3. Let the listener form their own opinions.

    Give the listener the space to think, feel, and form opinions on their own. Let them be the judge. After all, they are.

An Example Of A Pitch That Worked

Here's an example that's not about a Hollywood screenplay-to give us some critical distance:
I was at a strategy session for an angel investing group, and we were listening to pitches from different start-up companies to see which ones we might want to finance.

When it was his company's turn, a young man (the CEO) stood up and surveyed the room while waiting for total quiet. He told us his name and thanked us for allowing him to be there. Then he said this: "My team and I believe that we can cure diabetes in 7 years."

No hype.

Believe In Your Ideas Enough To Let Them Stand On Their Own

If you have a great idea, believe in it. Have the confidence to state it simply. You'll be seen as a professional, and the people you want to work with-they'll want to work with you, too.


Remember, Stephanie is available for remarks or questions in the Comments section below.

Part I: ACTOR MUSCLE: Handling "Rejection" & "Failure" & Surviving Yourself
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