How to Pitch a Story to an Editor (or a producer!) - Julie Kenner/J.K. Beck

How to Pitch a Story to an Editor (or a producer!)

Picture of a bookThis article came into my inbox a few years ago. It was written for screenwriters, who do an obscene amount of oral pitching (yet another reason I prefer writing books…most of the time your pitch is on paper!). But with summer conferences such as RWA (Romance Writers of America) approaching, this seems like a great time to share an article like this that focuses on the oral pitch. (At RWA and many other writers conferences, writers have the chance to pitch a story to an editor or an agent.)

Some great tips in here. Hope it helps!

“13 Steps For Constructing A Strong Verbal Pitch”
By Melody Jackson, Ph.D.

You love to write, right? You wish that you could just write and have someone else do the dirty work of marketing for you, right? Most writers feel this way anyway. In fact, most professionals in every business would rather just do their business than market themselves. Dentists and chiropractors would rather fill teeth and crack backs than worry about how they’re going to get their next patients. Marketing wasn’t in their vision of their dream job. But it is necessary!

No matter how much you prefer writing to marketing your script, if you ever want to see your script become a movie, you have to market it.. One aspect of that oft-dreaded task of marketing is pitching. This article is meant to ease your pain.

The first way to give yourself power is to really know yourself as the Storyteller that you are! As a screenwriter, you are the modern-day incarnation of the storytellers who used to sit around the campfire and tell stories to the community. When you prepare your pitch, somehow you have to bring your story to life and captivate your audience. Pitching is an art that can be mastered. To Master anything, you must practice. Here are 13 steps to head you in the right direction.

1. Tell the minimium that you need to to get them to read your script.

Tell your story in the shortest way possible to get the job done well. Once you have gotten the exec sufficiently interested in reading it, don’t tell much more. If you overtell, you oversell, and it could backfire . An exec first listens to see if they like your idea at all. Then if they do like it, they want to save themselves the trouble of reading it if it is not very good, so at that point, they are listening to see if there is anything that ruins it for them. Once they are really excited to read it, leave your script, and get out of Dodge.

2. Work out an opening that HOOKS them right from the start.

For example, open with a question that draws them in: “What if you woke up one morning and discovered that your wish had suddenly been granted, and overnight, you had changed from a 12-year-old boy in a 12-year-old body to a 12-year-old boy in a grown man’s body? Can you imagine the fun you could have?!”

Or “Imagine this: You’ve been working at a company for 23 years. Tomorrow is your retirement party. But there’s a sudden hostile take-over … by sadistic aliens! Would you stay and help fend them off? Or would you escape through the secret trap door in the back that only you know about and let the others figure it out on their own? This is the question that Bobbie Trunkman has to face as he . . . . ”

The idea is to get a visualization jumpstarted in the audience’s mind. Get them to SEE your movie.

3. Set the stage, the mood, as you start to tell it

If you can create a strong hook at the beginning that sets the mood, then great. Other ways to open could be something lke: : “This is the story of Bobbie Trunkman, a middle-aged man who suddenly …” Or make a statement that draws them in to create the mood: “When you’re a teenager, everything matters. To Cher Smithers, it mattered more. At 17-years-old, Cher has just . . . .”

4. If you have a special location or time period, be sure to mention it, otherwise you may lose your listener.

Let’s say you start pitching about someone living in a commune – it would be one story if it’s the 1960s and a very different story if it is 2008. Same thing goes for the genre. Mention up front what the genre is. You’d be surprised how most stories could be pitched in several different genres. To test this idea, pitch your script to yourself first as a drama and then as a spoof and see what you come up with.

5. Bring your story to life by adding words that suggest taste, sight, sound, smell, touch, and feel(ings).

“When he touches her face and looks into her eyes, he is overcome with love. He reaches over and picks up a juicy red strawberry and feeds it to her. She savors the moment and the strawberry, but suddenly, a FIRE ALARM goes off. Startled, they both dash over and ….”

The more you can use words that stimulate the senses without being mechanical, the more you will create the picture and the experience in your listener’s world.

6. Use short, simple sentences.

You’re not writing a literary piece here. Your telling a campfire story. Being too literary will distract from your writing. Don’t use too many big words in your scene descriptions. Don’t use complex academic sentence structure that you can prove is grammatically correct from rules in “Strunk & White.” Use simple sentences. Ones people can grasp quickly. Easily.

7. Warm it up with guttural kinds of words, not concepts.

Stay away from psychological terms and labels, and instead show it in the actions of the character. For example, “Sally Bally is co-dependent and this has been hurting her in her life with her friends,’ is psychological. Instead, more on the court would be, “Sally Bally cannot stop herself from trying to do things for everyone around her, and it is driving them crazy.”

In the second example, you get the visual of how it plays out literallly in her life. It’s not just an assessment.

8. Tell your story basically in the order it shows up on the pages of your script, using connector words to dramatize selected moments and to keep your story flowing.

This rule of thumb helps you to organize your pitch because writers sometimes go all over the place with their pitches. As you craft it and choose certain parts to tell, first tell things in the order they happen on your pages. After that, you can craft and tweak the pitch to dramatize the story.

Use connector words like “and then,” or “meanwhile,” and “but finally,” or “However, back at …” to keep your story flowing and building from point-to-point .

9. Know your story inside and out.

Know your story well so you don’t get lost in the middle of your pitch. If they ask you questions, you must have answers. If you prepared your pitch a long time ago or haven’t read your script for a while, get it out and read it again. Then practice your pitch to make it fresh.

10. Keep in mind that when you are on the phone, they cannot see you, so your voice inflection becomes ultra-critical. [JK Edited to Add: this was written before Zoom. So I would add that you want to remember to look at your camera, not the little box with their face. That gives the illusion that you are looking at them. Also, you can have your notes up on your computer if you want! Handy!]

If you manage to get yourself the opportunity to pitch to someone, remember there are hundreds of different things they could be looking at while you are pitching, and they may be doing two or three other things. They are distracted from the getgo and can easily be further distracted, so you must do all you can to engage them. It may be a big moment in your life when you get a Hollywood agent on the phone to hear your pitch, but they are basically looking for a reason to hang up on you. But knowing this, you can go in armed with a mesmerizing pitch that you have perfected the telling of.

11. Speak to them intimately – not at them. Listen to them listening to you.

Don’t talk at people. Speak to them in a conversational tone. Not too softly, not too loudly. Match the other person’s level to a degree. Try to connect with them energetically.

Think of it this way: Is it just me, or have you ever been talking to someone on the phone and gotten the distinct feeling they are not listening to you? That’s what I’m talking about. Listen to them as you pitch — it is an art to be able to do it. When you are speaking with an exec, you are listening for them listening to you. If you think they aren’t paying attention, you have to change it up to get them to listen again. How you do that is a whole other discussion on communication, but you can start by listening for their listening.

12. Be careful about comparing your script to other films and mentioning actors that could be right for your movie.

Comparisons can have positive and negative connotations, not to mention they can seem pompous and naive. Being a marketer myself, I love “postioning” things for the market, meaning telling the buyer how something fits into the marketplace and what it is “like.” However, if you do it with your script, you have to have a very strong sense of how things will occur to your listener.

I’ve heard more than one writer say, “My script will be bigger than Titanic.” As soon as those words fell out of their mouths, they lost credibility. Even though it may prove to be true, saying it shows a lack of savvy and it shows that you don’t understand the audience you are pitching to. A producer doesn’t want to hear you say that about your own script. It’s not that you can’t compare your script to other successful films or suggest actors who would be right for it, but you need to tread those waters very lightly and carefully because of the implications. If in doubt, leave it out.

13. Practice, practice, practice, and practice.

Write out your pitch. Read it out loud. Rewrite it. Practice it over and over. Keep doing that till you have nailed just what you want to say. Then practice your pitch in the mirror like the person in the mirror is your audience! Record yourself and see what you think. Practice with a friend till they say, “Wow, that sounds really good.”

If you haven’t done much pitching or verbal storytelling, it may be a challenge at first. But just keep at it. Practice your storytelling skills by dramatizing every anecdote you tell. If you go to the store and someone almost hits you backing out, go tell someone about it and dramatize it. Make it entertaining. Make it interesting. Paint a picture for them. See what they respond to. Have fun with it. Then practice with your script story, and you’ll get better and better. And at some point, we’ll never be able to shut you up. And that’s what we want. Kind of.

Story on!

Republished with permission per: Melody Jackson, Ph.D., publishes “Plugged in Hollywood,” the Bi-weekly E-zine on Marketing for Screenwriters. She has helped thousands of screenwriters polish their scripts and get them read by top agents and producers in Hollywood. If you are ready to jump-start your career, finalize your script for marketing, and have more fun pursuing Hollywood success, get your free subscription now at
© 2008 Smart Girls Productions, Melody Jackson, Ph.D.

Are you going to RWA or another writing conference this summer? Got any plans to pitch? What about pitching tips? Anything to add to the above list?


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