The #1 Rule of the Telephone Pitch  -  by Michael Hauge

Without question, the single biggest mistake writers make in pitching their work is this: they try to tell their entire story.

Let’s say you’ve signed up for the Great American Pitch Fest this June, or the Pitch Xchange at the Screenwriting EXPO next October, or for a one-on-one session with an agent or editor or development executive at a writers’ conference or book fair. You know you’ve only got five minutes to get this potential buyer to look at your book or screenplay. So talking as fast as you can, you launch into the opening scene, then go on to detail, step by step, the plot of your story.

Here’s what’s going to happen: you’ll barely be into Act 2 (or Chapter 2) when a friendly hall monitor will come over to announce that you have 30 seconds left. Now panicked, you’ll quickly try to penetrate the glazed expression on the buyer’s face, summarize the ending, and get him to say yes.

He won’t.

If you’ve got a story that can be told in five minutes, you’ve got a story for a five-minute movie. There’s simply no way you can do justice to the plot of a novel or feature film in that amount of time. And even if you could, you’ve left no time for the buyer to react to your story by asking questions or giving suggestions or expressing his interest.

Telling your whole story is even worse when you have less than five minutes. Let’s say you’ve managed to get a potential agent on the phone, and she’s willing to hear your pitch. Literary agents’ phone lists average at least a hundred calls a day. They simply don’t have time to listen to you detail all the elements of your story. They want to know in an instant if this story will be worth their time to read (or more accurately, worth the time of the reader they’ll pay to do coverage on it).

So what can you do if you don’t tell them your story?

Simply put, you get them to read your screenplay or manuscript by making them feel something positive about it. The goal of every screenplay, every movie, every novel, every story of any kind (and ultimately, every work of art) is identical: to elicit emotion.

We go to the movies and we read books so we can feel something positive or fulfilling, something we can’t feel as frequently or as intensely in our everyday lives. The storyteller’s job is to create that feeling for the mass audience.

When you’re pitching your story, you must provide buyers with a positive emotional experience. And you must convince them that when your movie is made or your novel is published or your play is produced, your story will create an even stronger emotional experience for the people who buy tickets and books and DVDs.

In other words, your goal is to get your buyer to think, “This is a novel (or movie) I’d like to see,” or more important, “This is a story that will make a lot of money.”

Like it or not, the 60-second pitch is a sales pitch. Even though the immediate goal is just to get your story read, you’re ultimately asking every potential buyer to invest her time and money representing or producing or publishing your story. The only way you’ll get her to do that is if she believes the end result will be a big profit.

Even if you’re pitching to agents or executives or assistants whose own money isn’t on the line, these people know that they (or their bosses) will have to convince dozens of other powerful people that this story will make a bundle. If they don’t consistently do that with the projects they take on, they’re out of business.

A pitch fest pitch, or a telephone pitch, is very much like a TV ad for a movie that’s about to open, or for an upcoming TV episode. A 30-second TV spot doesn’t try to show every scene or character or plot element - that would be impossible. But it will reveal something funny or sexy or suspenseful from the film, in order to convince viewers watching the commercial that the movie or TV show itself will be a wonderful emotional experience.

Even if your allotted pitch fest time is five minutes, you still want to keep your pitch to just a minute or two, so you’ll have time to answer questions, or to pitch a second project if they’re not interested in the first one.

Your job is to select the elements of the story that will excite potential buyers, and make them eager to get their hands on your work before anybody else does. In just a couple minutes, you need to convey the emotion elements of your story: Who is your hero? Why will we empathize with her? What is her everyday situation at the beginning of the story? What new opportunity is presented to her? What compelling desire is she desperate to achieve? What makes winning that contest, or stopping that killer, or walking off into the sunset with that true love impossible? And what are some other successful movies in the same genre that prove that your story will also make money?

If your 60-second pitch conveys just these elements, told succinctly and passionately, you’ll have greatly increased the chances that buyers will want to read your screenplay or manuscript. And if your script or novel really has commercial potential, and delivers on the promise of your pitch, you’ll be well on your way to getting a deal.


This article is edited from the book Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read by Michael Hauge, published by Michael Wiese Productions © 2006. Copies of all of Michaels books, DVDs and CDs can be ordered through his website

MICHAEL HAUGE is a story consultant, author and lecturer who works with filmmakers and executives on their screenplays, film projects and development skills. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network.

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