Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pitch 101 - Part 5: Common Pitch Problems

This is part 5 of an on-going series.

You've come far in this series. We started off learning about the mindset and the basic building block of pitches, the USP (Unique Selling Point), we learned about pitch styles, then the velcro theory and last week we autopsied a pitch to see how one is built from the ground up.

I could end the series now, call it the most popular thing I've ever put on a blog and move on to talking about something else. And, yes, as some of you emailed me, maybe I should. But there's one more stretch of road to talk about, and if I'm going to end this series on the high note I think it deserves, then we have to talk about problems commonly found in pitches.

Yes, I know, there are TONS of variations on the ideas I'm exploring here, but I'm asking you to distill your problems down, concentrate them and strip out the subjective circumstantial material and find the flaw-nugget at the heart of the problem.

I believe there are 6 core problems with pitches, and that the majority of rejections, critiques and thumbs-down all stem from them. I'll outline each, give an example, and a solution.(Yeah this could be a long post, buckle up.)

Note: These problems are not offered in any order of common to least common, or easiest to hardest, they're just....six possible problems.

I. Not getting to the action fast enough. A good pitch uses an economy of words (we'll revisit this idea a lot today), usually between a range 200 and 300 (I like to aim for a sweet spot between 250 and 280), but you can always use fewer if your phrasing is tight (I've seen great pitches done in 60 words). Even with that range, which sounds like a lot (it isn't, it's about a page worth of text, 4 paragraphs maybe), if you don't engage the audience (either evocatively or dynamically), they're not going to want to keep reading or listening to whatever you're saying.

Example: In 1984, Sarah was adopted by Louise and Greg, who lived on a small farm outside Wichita, where they raised cows and grew wheat and lived well. Louise and Greg were a happy couple, never fighting too loud or feeling trapped under some big terrible bills. The farm was successful without being prosperous, and Sarah was very loved and popular and a good student at school. Everything is just great about Sarah, except that she's really a time-traveling death robot sent back in time to prevent the next American Civil War.

Okay, so it's 1984, and these two people adopt a girl, and they live on a farm. I'm already yawning but I'll keep reading, just one more sentence. Oh, they're a happy couple without flaws? That pitch is better than Nyquil. Chances are, the audience checks out about half-way into that second sentence. The fact that she's a death robot is lost. The fact that there will be a second Civil War is also lost.

Solution - Lead with a strong punch. If you have a lot of USPs, this isn't difficult, as you have a lot of options to plug in throughout your pitch. If you're a little thin on USPs, and you can't generate any more, then make sure they're front and center in the pitch. Hit the audience with them, hook them, and get out quickly, before people realize you've only got the two good bullets.

II. Not getting the audience to a character/vibe/POV fast enough. It's not enough to have action (otherwise most pitches would be like those action-sound-effect words from campy Batman), you need to tether the action to something else to make it matter. Who's doing the action? What's the tone caused by the action? What's the tone caused by the consequences of the action? If it's unclear, and leaves the audience scratching their head more than shaking it along with you, then you're going to face rejection.

Example: War! Two raging clans battle in post-apocalyptic Ohio, salvaging whatever raw materials they can to survive the cold nights, radioactive animal attacks and the on-going blood feud between their families that has gone on since before the first mushroom cloud bloomed. No one remembers what started the feud, but people suspect it had something to do with love.

Yeah, that's the whole pitch. If I had to describe with a single word, I'd call it "vague", because even though it's got some racy language (there's a war and a blooming cloud and love), it doesn't actually say anything.

Solution - A two-part strategy - Engage & Lead. Using a combination of USP and evocative language, get the audience's attention and steer them along the path that leads them progressively deeper into your creation and closer to saying 'yes'. Provoke them into thinking and feeling, and tie your actions to characters (and motivations), and make the conflict or goal feel real. Make it interesting! Make the audience care and want to be a part of the experience you're proposing. You can even go one step further and treat the pitch like a movie camera, zooming and racking us into hard focus with a character or scene to immediately connect the audience with a character or idea.

III. Giving too much setup, not enough payoff. Pitches are a tricky balance between informing and intriguing the audience, no matter the media. And the more invested you might be in something, the harder it is for you to have a sense of what is or isn't working in a pitch.

Note: I did not say what's 'good' or 'right' in a pitch because you cannot think of a pitch in terms of the binary good/bad or acceptable/unacceptable or worst (and most vague) okay/not okay. Pitches are more variable and dynamic than that, and there are lots of ways to accomplish the goal - it's more a matter of efficacy and ease for the pitch-giver.

By giving a lot of extraneous detail, and not providing any hooks (remember your Velcro theory) gives the audience nothing to pay attention to or care about. The result is a lost audience.

Example - My board game, 57 Chances To Murder Your Spouse, is a collaborative story-telling game of alibis and plotting where players take turns crafting the best way to receive insurance money without the pesky court trial and corpse discovery. This game was created after my eleventh argument with my spouse, and if you're like me, you're probably wondering why they don't listen to a damned word I say either. I mean all the time, I just asked them for help. Would they swallow this pill and tell me what happens? Could they take this hair dryer into the bathroom with them? Where did they leave the keys? You know, spouse stuff. I've been trying for eight years to get this game produced and I'm sure my hard work has created a product that will absolutely revolutionize Family Game Night. 

Solution - Stick to what matters. What matters are the USPs and the emotions you want to instill in your audience. The path you took to reach the point where you could pitch may make for interesting anecdotes or great personal revelations, but it is not a factor for an audience, as nearly everyone can/does spin their story to be the most emotional. What should be emotional is the game (or product) experience itself.

IV. Expecting the audience to "get it" If you've developed something, it's assumed that you're telling interested parties. If you've got a script to sell, you're probably not telling the clown at your son's birthday party. If you've written a novel, the guy who puts the price tag on the pork chops is not going to publish your book. You know who your audience is, but there is a further assumption underneath that - that they will understand what you're talking about.

Specifically, you're not giving them the details relevant to your pitch's concept, because you're assuming they've heard it all before.

Example - My novel is 95,000 words, and has to do with a man, a shovel and his desire to own all the Twinkies. The lonely guy is going to do this because of love. And stuff.

Solution - Now, yes, maybe they have, but the big problem here is that you're doing the thinking for them. Stop assuming the audience has enough information to make the conclusions you need or want them to make, and guarantee they'll connect the dots the way you want by giving them crystal-clear and precise details, without preamble, fluff or excessive sentiment.

V. Beating the dead horse. If you've got few USPs, and even one or two USPs that are much stronger than rest, it is very tempting to use them over and over again to make multiple points. Even by stretching or altering the language, you're still trotting out the same idea to serve many masters.

Example - In my movie, Fisheyes McSweeney 2: Make Easter My Bitch, our hero Fisheyes is released from jail, two years after trying to murder Santa Claus at the suggestion of his black adoptive grandmother. Now Fisheyes is out, and he has to save his buddy Stu from a horrible fate - Easter Dinner. Fisheye's rollicking quest launches him back into action, better than the time he tried to kill Santa. In the end, you'll say, "Fisheyes, I believe in you."

Solution - Remember that there's more than facts to a pitch. Yes, (Dragnet-style) just the facts is a good approach, up to a point, but without emotion to guide and intention to lead, facts are bland and easily worn out. Your facts plus how you want people to feel plus how you feel crafts a good body for your pitch. There's no wrong way to do what you're doing, so feel free to includes facts of all sizes great and small to serve your ends.

VI. Sounding desperate - Pitching is tough and scary, I know. It gets worse when you start thinking about how little speaking experience you may have or just how important this pitch is or how long you may have to wait to get another opportunity and the next thing you know you'reracingthroughallyourwordsandtryingnottosayum.

Example - My novel, Arrow To The Knee, is the story of a man's adventure cut tragically short after an archery accident. It's available in 10 parts on my blog and it's a prequel to my upcoming series 'Now I Guard a Jarl' and I really think you'll enjoy it because it touches on themes we all like, like guarding and Jarls and knees. This is my first attempt at publication, because normally, in my day job, I'm a professional data processor, I process professional data, and my librarian friend said that I should totally talk to you about my book and writing because I'm a writer and you're someone who works with writers and I think this is a great relationship to have. 

Solution - Remember that you have more than one chance, ever. When trying to get things published or produced, or when trying to improve in whatever field you're in, you're going to face some adversity and get rejected. People are going to say no, not because you're a horrible person deserving punishment, but because your pitch didn't make them want to say yes. And if person A, B or C reject you, you still have D, E and F to talk to. Even if you run all the way through the list of people, you can always go back to your project, make changes and resubmit again. Remember Rule #3: You're never stuck/trapped, you always have options.

We've reached the end of Pitch 101, and if you go through this series and make good use of the material, you're prepared to tackle a lot of opportunities. Yes, for the curious, there is a Pitch 201, which will very likely end up on this blog eventually, but for now, I think I've drowned you in enough words. The real work begins now.

What are you going to do with this information? That's what matters. Will it help you? Will you shrug it off because it sounds complicated? Will you ignore it because ten other sources have said similar things?

I end today with a reminder of Rule #1 - Writing is the act of making decisions. That includes the decisions about whether to write or not or whether to pitch or not.

Make great decisions.

Happy writing.