Today’s post is an excerpt from Pitch Like Hollywood: What You Can Learn from the High-Stakes Film Industry by Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis pp. 297-310 (McGraw Hill, February 2022).
You’re an actor. You kiss your wife and three-year-old daughter goodbye and push aside your daughter’s toys so you can climb into the minivan. In 20 minutes, you’re going on stage as a homicidal maniac. You’re about to burst into a bedroom with a meat cleaver. How do you make the transition from hubby and dad to maniac?
Actors use bridging to prepare themselves to inhabit a role. They must make a mental transition from the dad who drove to the theater in a minivan to the maniac who steps onto a stage with the cleaver.
Walking into a pitch, you don’t just turn on a switch; you transition. You have to clear your mind and summon the pitch you’ve prepared.
Make a good first impression before your pitch
The first moments you enter a room can determine the role you’re placed in. Your attire, your posture, the way you enter the room, the type of eye contact you make, and your handshake are what people notice first. And they still haven’t heard your first word.
Smile as you open with a statement or question that grabs attention and provides a hook that prompts your listener to ask questions. You don’t have to be funny or loud, and you should never be the smartest person in the room.
“There are quiet people who are fascinating,” says Academy Award-winning producer Jana Memel. “If you love the story you’re telling, you’ll get over. Be the best you. You don’t have to be Peter Guber who used to jump in people’s laps. You can be soft-spoken and make me want to lean in and listen to you. It’s all about getting your passion across.”
The eyes have it
Make eye contact from the moment you step into the room. If there are two or more people present, make as much eye contact with each person as you can. Research shows that with one person, the optimal eye contact length is around 50 percent of the time. If you make less eye contact, you seem overly shy, scared, or disinterested. If it’s much more, you’ll make people uncomfortable. You don’t want people to feel as if you’re wearing a white lab coat and they’re the experiment.
An effective strategy is to look away from people more when you’re talking. This makes you look pensive. Make eye contact when they’re talking. This lets you see and interpret them as they’re presenting their ideas.
There are additional incentives for making eye contact. We look at people we like more that those we don’t. Dominant people are looked at more, so giving them eye contact in your pitch is taken as a sign of respect. People who make eye contact are thought to be more interested and attentive. Extroverts make more eye contact. Avoiding eye contact is taken as a sign of anxiety. People who make more eye contact are also believed to be more trustworthy and sincere.
Never begin with an apology
The worst way to begin is by employing a self-handicapping strategy, like announcing how nervous you are. The thinking behind self-handicapping is the mistaken belief that you’re lowering the performance bar, limiting people’s expectations of you. Because their expectations are lowered, when you’ve completed your pitch, the catcher(s) will tell you, “You didn’t look nervous. You looked like you were in control.”
This is not what happens. The moment you announce that you’re nervous, you’re redirecting the audience’s attention away from your pitch and toward your hands to see if they’re shaking, or to your voice to detect a quaver. If you’re nervous, let the members of your audience figure it out for themselves. They rarely do. Don’t guide them to it.
Another common example of self-handicapping is to say that you’re inexperienced. “I know what I majored in has nothing to do with finance, but…” There’s a strong chance that the pitch rolls over and dies right then and there.
“Really?” the people you’re pitching to are wondering. “Then why are you wasting my time?” They may even say it out loud. You wouldn’t have gotten the meeting if someone didn’t recommend you.
Interaction: fools rush in
You will rarely walk into a room, give your pitch from beginning to end, say thank you, and leave. Your listeners may want to collaborate with you, question you, or criticize—but they will interact with you. They’ll be observing how you absorb changes or challenges to your ideas and how you react on your feet.
Here’s a little test of your intuition: Do you think it’s better to respond quickly or slowly to these challenges?
This question has been examined. You may think that it’s good to react quickly to a new challenge placed before you because it makes you look smart and imaginative, but you’d be wrong again. Two groups were presented with the same physics problems. One group consisted of physics professors and advanced graduate students, and the other group was made up of first-year physics students. It’s not a big surprise that the more advanced group did better at solving the problems, but we’re looking at timing here.
The takeaway was that the young students jumped in and quickly tried to solve the problem, while the more experienced group took much longer to engage. They studied the problem for quite a while longer, looking at it from multiple perspectives, before coming up with the solution. While their solution time was longer than that of the novice students, their answers were more correct.
It’s advisable to take your time and think things through instead of rushing in and presenting an ill-conceived response to an issue. Professionals will recognize that you take a more thoughtful approach.
Just as important as taking your time to respond is how you respond. As a professional, we assume that you know your field and will respond competently when technical issues are discussed, but what about when you respond to misinformation or an intrusive question?
Dealing with stress
In most cases, you’ll be walking into a room and pitching to people you’ve never met before or at least don’t know well. Wouldn’t it be great if you walked in and saw a friend among the people you’re about to pitch to? If you answered yes, you’re about to be surprised again. Friends can often throw you off your game. And the more those friends want you to succeed, the more of a source of distraction they can become.
Picture yourself learning to play a video game, in this case, Sky Jinks. You’ll learn to fly a plane around the screen avoiding obstacles coming at you faster and faster. If you do well, you get rewarded with money, so you’re somewhat motivated.
Now, a stranger walks into the room as you’re playing. At this point, you can see that you’re probably in the middle of an experiment. With one group of people, the stranger shows absolutely no interest in the game or the progress you or another player is making. In the other condition, he is cheering that player on, clearly wanting him to do well.
Being in the supportive situation made players focus more on themselves and their performance. The cheering acted as an additional form of distraction, causing them to have a poorer per- formance. The irony was that when they were interviewed, they reported feeling less stress by having a supportive audience, even though it made their performance worse.
Start selling at no
Producer/author Gary Grossman says if you get a “yes” on a pitch, stop:
Just stop. Don’t keep trying to sell them on something they’ve already said yes to.
Another mistake is you come in with too many projects, and all producers and execs know that the writer or producer wants to run through things, but again if they like something, forget about the other projects. It’s another good place to stop. Even if you have three more things to pitch because you want to end on a high note, stop. But really you cannot, and I mean must not, oversell.
I’m also a firm believer that you can’t start selling until they say no. Because they say “no,” it could mean that they may not be clear about why they said it. I’ll accept a “yes” and stop.
If they say “no,” I’ll try and find out if there’s another way in—and because I might not have communicated the pitch succinctly or the “no” gives me an opportunity to find out what way it would work. And in that regard, you have to learn to be pretty quick on your feet in how you pitch and how you react to them.
A final shove into the room
As you sit around worrying about your upcoming pitch, think of how lucky you are to have made it as far as the room. It’s an opportunity and a privilege. Lots of talented people don’t get there. You did.
And remember, “They can’t eat your children.”
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Pitch Like Hollywood: What You Can Learn from the High-Stakes Film Industry by Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis (McGraw Hill, February 2022).