As screenwriting consultant and author Robert McKee once said, “If the story you’re telling, is the story you’re telling, you’re in deep sh*t.” What McKee means is, if your story is just a series of occurrences or a set of strung together facts, then the odds are high that your tale isn’t audience worthy.
The goal of any compelling story – short or long – is to evoke emotion and spark imagination while sprinkling in bits of tension and suspense along the way. As a communication strategist specializing in story, I’ve coached hundreds of entrepreneurs on the fine art of the pitch. Every time I do, I’m dazzled by how much story can be packed into a 60-second pitch.
Before we jump into the fine art of pitching yourself and your screenplay, let’s clarify what a story is. As a self-taught writer, I myself had to look up the definition. Here’s what I found:
A story is either the retelling of something that happened or it is used to entertain. It can be a true or fictional event, or series of events, in which the listener learns something by merely hearing the tale. It begins in one place and concludes in another.
The Purpose of Story
Now that we’ve defined what a story is, let’s move on to its purpose.
Storytelling is probably the oldest human art form. We’ve been sitting around fires telling stories since we were dwelling in caves. Stories became a valuable currency. In fact, studies have shown across cultures the person who tells the best stories has greater success in business, career, and in love.
Stories bring life and meaning in a way facts, figures, and data never will. They make the abstract concrete. They also help the audience get a sense of your spirit – if you’re fun to collaborate with, like your work, if you’re rigid or agile, or if you’re disciplined. Of course, most audiences can’t articulate what they feel; instead, they form opinions on what they sense. That’s how we humans are wired. So choose and craft your stories wisely.
Another advantage of story is the personal connection it creates. When an expert shares a story instead of relying on industry jargon and data, it’s as if a drawbridge to their castle has dropped allowing access to their inner world. Most people who invite you into their home want you to be comfortable, and when you are inside, that’s when stories flow and true connection happens. Conversational storytelling makes us feel connected, and when we feel this way we’re more likely to feel compelled to collaborate, and collaboration is the key to success in any creative endeavor.
The Dynamic Duo: Your Screenplay & You
When it comes to pitching, keep in mind you are not only showcasing your screenplay but yourself as well. So if you want a stellar reputation as a screenwriter, it’s essential that you take the craft of writing, practicing, and iterating seriously. In the long run, learning to pitch like a pro is one of the best time investments you’ll make for yourself and your business.
Make no mistake, it’s a daunting task to distill 125 pages of dialog into a 125-word pitch.
However, even seasoned professionals with years of experience take time to craft a strong pitch. They’ve seen firsthand how it can pay big dividends. If you’re serious about screenwriting as a profession, do the work. There are no shortcuts.
Whether your pitch is short or long, the objective is the same — to grab the audience’s attention within the first sentence, set the scene, give a nod to the genre, touch on the struggle, and land the story somewhere promising without giving away your plot points. Keep in mind your screenplay is not your pitch. Your minute-long story is a tease to entice the audience to want to know more.
Since you’re a screenwriter, you may be under the mistaken belief that pitching should be easy. After all, you know your screenplay backwards and forwards. But if it was easy, I’d be out of a job. Happily, my position is secure because most experts are lousy at editing their own work, their baby. It’s a bit like asking a parent, “Which parts of your child do you love the most?” You’d be hard-pressed to hear one say, “Oh, I love her right eyebrow, left elbow and belly button most.” She’s your baby. You love every itsy adorable bit of her. But you only have 60 seconds so make each one count. How do you even begin to choose between your favorite parts to make up a tiny whole?
Here are a few points to consider to help you get to the heart of your story:
Before You Write: Watch Movie Trailers
A director friend of mine said her best pitch writing happens after watching short movie trailers. She’ll watch a trailer a few times to map out the story beats and flow. Following her lead will help you identify what’s important from your screenplay in your chosen genre.
Writing Your Pitch: Length
While I’m focusing on a one minute pitch for this article, keep in mind these guidelines, no matter the length, will help you separate the wheat of your story from the chaff.
The math of a 60-second pitch boils down to approximately 125 breathable words. When you practice if you find you’re over the word limit and still coming in at a minute, you’re not breathing. No breath means no emotion, no suspense, no rise and fall. With only a short paragraph of story, every word, and pause counts.
Writing Your Pitch: Foundation
The written pitch is your foundation. Start by letting yourself play, but avoid writing over 200 words because you’ll just end up making more work for yourself. Start fresh, don’t grab something old and try to adapt it.
As you craft your pitch, begin with a sentence that gives context and identifies the genre. Then identify the heroine or hero and follow it up by revealing the conflict. The final sentence should summarize the rest of your story with a cliffhanger. The goal is to entice your audience to lean in and ask, “What happens next?”
Now that you have a general idea for drafting a compelling pitch, let’s take a look at what you’ll need to consider as you prepare for delivery day.
Know the Room
Before delivery day, do your homework to find out who will be in the room. Once you have a name or names, research their industry experience. Read articles to discover what they hold dear to their hearts in terms of career moments and life in general. Be specific. Creatives (even money men and women) love to hear when someone has been emotionally touched by their work. Avoid the urge to be clever. Instead, honor the saying, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
The Show Begins When…
Are you ready for this? Your performance actually begins the moment you enter the room, perhaps even before you enter. Speaking is a sport. So in order to be ready for the big game, prep by practicing deep breathing exercises, as well as stretching out your neck, lower back, and hamstrings, places that often hold mental tension.
Practice with friends, grandma, or strangers, but preferably those without industry experience. At this point, it’s fine to read your pitch. But as you read, pace yourself and take cues from the audience’s faces. Let their puzzled looks and glazed over eyes be your teacher. Use their reactions to generate a list of intuitive questions. Did you feel the suspense? Was it compelling? Did the cliffhanger close make you want to know more? Ask what they liked about the pitch as well as which parts need improvement or clarification.
Humorist, writer and gifted orator Mark Twain once quipped, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Boy, was he on the money. When it comes to creating a solid pitch, you can expect to spend a minimum of 20 hours writing, practicing, rewriting, repeating, and rehearsing before delivery day.
To avoid sounding robotic, memorize your pitch and practice, practice, practice. When you’re sick and tired of practicing, practice 10 times more. A former major league baseball player I once coached said to me, “Your technique reminds me of a practice we call, hitting through exhaustion. By hitting the ball so many times in a row we wear down the brain’s ability to think about how we’re swinging because thinking slows down the ability to hit well. However, once we tire out the brain, all that’s left is the ability to feel. Batting improves because we’re now relying on intuition. We’ve become one with the bat and ball.” Be sure and hit through exhaustion with your pitch – it will not only help you feel the feelings of the words on the page, but it will also create a more conversational tone.
You Are the Emotional Epicenter
If you don’t feel the words you say, neither will your audience. Iterating helps identify the emotions of the story. Consider your pitch done when you consistently practice it and you get goosebumps.
In the end, it’s our job as writers to make storytelling look seamless and easy, to transport the audience to other realms and make them feel. The main way we do that is to share our passion and enthusiasm every time we have the chance. That’s what pitching gives us the opportunity to do – to get to the heart of the story, the heart of you.