The Power of the Pitch

Have you ever had to pitch an idea to someone?

Of course you have. We pitch ideas to other people all the time, whether we realize it or not. Whether you get what you want out of it is a whole separate question.

Authors know this as the “querying” process. You write up a compelling cover letter, a synopsis of your book, perhaps even a marketing plan, and you hope that whoever reads it will give you the time of day. And then you hit “send.”

I know the drill very well by now. So well that the adrenaline rush of hitting “send” has quite worn off. No doubt part of my calm is because of familiarity with the process—but another part of it has to do with the safe nature of written submissions. The agent, publisher, or general big-wig does not know how apprehensive I may feel. They cannot see my face. They cannot hear my voice or see the pre-submission jitters in me. There is no way for me to feel intimidated by my judge’s presence, because the judge is simply not present.

The world of the pitch is a much more dangerous place, but one worth dipping your toes in as a writer.

In the film-making world, screenwriters have to physically sit down across from the producer and unpack the story in a handful of minutes (at least they did before covid). A query letter accomplishes basically the same thing, but the difference is that your demeanor becomes part of the pitch itself. Your level of confidence in your own story will come through in the way you talk about the plot. Your understanding of your own story (or lack thereof) is suddenly laid bare.

I recently submitted a video pitch for a short film contest, which meant I had to record myself explaining the script in 60 seconds. Actually, it meant I first had to condense my story to one sentence (a.k.a. the logline) and use that sentence as the foundation for my synopsis. I found this a challenging and revealing exercise as a writer.

You don’t have to be a phenomenal public speaker in order to make a clear pitch—but you do have to be precise and concise.

This means you have to shave off the extra layers of flab that surround the muscle of your idea. In short, you have to tone your story up. Writing a one or two-page synopsis of a novel is hard work. Orally summing it up in a couple of minutes is even harder.

Depending on your writing niche, you may never have to explain your story face-to-face with a publisher—but the very act of condensing the plotline forces you to rethink what is crucial to your story and what is not.

If you find you are comfortably able to summarize the main points of your 500-page novel in under sixty seconds, you are either really good at summarizing or you might want to do some manuscript trimming.

This doesn’t mean that every non-crucial part should be cut. Some elements, while not essential to the plot, add a depth and richness to the story’s development. But if you find that the nonessential elements are taking up more pages than the essential ones, you might want to rethink your page distribution.

Regardless, honing your ability to cut to the chase on your story is always a good idea. Just like everyone looking to advance their careers should have an elevator pitch prepared, I suggest that every writer who plans to publish practice boiling their stories down to a couple of minutes’ oral explanation. You may never have to present this pitch to a publisher, but at the very least it will give you a better understanding of your own creation—and it prepares you for selling your book later down the road!

Have you ever had to present an idea to a decision-maker? What helped prepare you for that moment?

Do you find it difficult to explain your creative ideas to other people? What do you find most challenging about it?

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2 Comments on “The Power of the Pitch

  1. We give our pitch all the time. You’re absolutely right about that. Although that was going to be my answer when you asked if we ever had to pitch our idea, the realization of it is pretty profound. Public speaking is something I enjoy, although, I don’t get to really do it at this present time. There’s always some sort of stage fright, but it never stopped me from presenting. However, when it comes to pitch ME, it’s a whole other story. Suddenly, all of me seems so… average. There are so many other people better than me. Plus, shouldn’t people be able to see all my good qualities by observing instead of me having to tell them? It’s definitely something I struggle with. I evaluate others by what I see instead of what they tell me (Did we forget about “actions not words?” Are we not aware that people lie? Especially when trying to lend a job?) and I want others to do the same. But it’s not how it works…

    OK, enough self pity. A written pitch is definitely different from face-to-face. They tell you to prepare an elevator pitch and have it ready in case you meet someone in the elevator. Well, when I’m in an elevator, I am looking for piece, not others to mob me and pitch.The written submission is more respectful in my eyes.

    After this rant, let me try to answer your questions.

    1. Pitching to a decision-maker. Yes, of course. I think what prepared me the most was knowing the decision-maker; what they like, what they don’t, etc. (Unfortunately, sometimes people change their minds and what they didn’t care about now is something of utmost importance to them….)

    2. Yes. I am my worst enemy. I dissect my idea and see how it is less than perfect. Also, I find it difficult to find the balance between sharing a complete story vs. leaving them guessing, but not confused.

    • I love your rant! That’s exactly how I feel about”selling myself” as opposed to selling an idea– talking about ourselves in a professional/job-seeking setting is terrifying, even though most if us live talking about ourselves in more personal/social settings.
      I think it also makes it harder for more timid folks, because so many employers pay more attention to communication skills than job qualifications, giving chatty people an advantage. Oftentimes it is the more timid folks who have the best, most creative ideas. It’s not that communication skills aren’t important, but you are right that the written pitch is more objective because it mitigates the intimidation factor and allows the judge to more objectively evaluate the person’s idea, rather than their speaking skills.

      That’s interesting that you like public speaking too! I have the same thing, where it feels great when it’s over and even while it’s happening, but the pre-performance jitters still come every time.

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