How To Pitch An Idea Effectively: Four Points To Consider
Some thoughts after going through the entries for the Db x LS Fund
We had an amazing response to the LS x Db Fund. Which was brilliant, obviously. But my main takeaway, having been through all of the entries, is that people REALLY need help in understanding how to effectively pitch an idea.
So I thought I’d write this blog in the hope it would come in handy for anybody who finds themselves in a position where they need to sell an idea, for whatever reason.
What is pitching?
To start, what do I mean by pitching? Of course, in the context of the Fund we’re talking about communicating a creative or artistic idea in the hope that you can convince somebody to give you the resources you need to make it: a classic pitching scenario.
But really, there are countless scenarios where you might find yourself pitching. Maybe you’re a PR trying to sell in a story to a journalist. Maybe you’re applying for a job you really, really want. You might be devising an ad campaign designed to snag new customers for a brand. Maybe you’re a scriptwriter trying to convince a producer to finance your script. Or perhaps your partner has just told you they’re having second thoughts about getting a dog, and you really need to convince them it’s a good idea. And so on.
“Effective pitching is really about persuading the person you hope to convince that you can help them do their own job more effectively”.
Whatever the reason, pitching just means selling an idea in the hope that the other party buys into it. That’s it. Over the years, I’ve found there are certain key principles that apply, whatever the scenario. Let’s have a look at them.
1. Make sure your idea is original
Let’s start with the most obvious point - the importance of an original, or unusual idea.
Put simply, original ideas stand out. And that’s really the first thing you need to do when it comes to pitching.
Why? Because unless you’re lucky or experienced enough to have been asked to pitch specifically, you can probably assume that any pitch you submit will be up against a LOT of competition.
Think of the editor drowning in unsolicited emails full of article ideas. Or the journalist with the in-box full of competing pitches from PRs, all desperate to claim some of her precious editorial real estate for their client. Hell, think of our humble LS x Db Fund, which had over 300 entries from people all over the world with stories they desperately want to tell.
In the face of such competition, the very least you can do is turn up with an idea that is vaguely original. Among those 300 Db Fund entries were some real purlers - but there were also an awful lot of ideas that, to put it kindly, needed a fair amount of work.
Some were more glorified requests for some cash to go on holiday somewhere nice the entrant had always fancied visiting. Others had the beginning of an idea … but then explained they needed the cash to develop the idea further, if that was OK. Still others were well rounded, had the requisite angle, and were succinctly communicated - but were basically ideas that had been done a million times before.
In the case of the Fund, I’m thinking in particular of the many, many entries that were basically variations on the ‘we’re going to head to this place and find a wave nobody has ridden before!’ story that has underpinned surf travel culture since at least the 1950s. Or the many variations of the ‘I want to build a van and document my lifestyle’ theme, basis of 10,000 Instagram accounts.
Sure, these sound like they’ll be a laugh for the people involved. But they’re not original ideas, and basically demonstrate that you haven’t done any basic due diligence into the the market you’re trying to operate in.
So step one is finding a story or idea that’s unique enough to stand out. Sure, it takes work. It also, I’ve found, requires you to cultivate a particular mindset (which could be another blog on its own). And it will very much depend upon on what you’re trying to make, what medium you’re trying to make it in, and who you’re actually trying to persuade to buy your idea.
Once you’ve got that bit sorted, you’ll need to….
2. Come up with a unique angle
So you’ve come up with an idea that you think is original. The next thing you need to do? Come up with an angle to help make this idea really sing.
In journalism circles, they sometimes refer to this type of thing as a ‘the peg’, and it is basically the difference between pitching ‘I want to go surfing in Croyde’ and pitching ‘I want to go surfing in Croyde - and be the first journalist to stay at Harry Styles’ swanky new beachfront house’.
It’s why the travel pages of the national newspapers, for example, are full of stories about new hotels, new walking trails or other ‘newnesses’, and why tourist boards go to such lengths to come up with new experiences and campaigns to drive this perception of newness.
And it’s also why you’ll need to make sure your own idea has something to it beyond the mere basics.
We had a great example of this in the Fund, now I come to think of it, from entrant Jen Wang. Jen’s idea was to explore ADHD and autism, which is obviously a field that has much cultural relevance right now.
What elevated Jen’s pitch, though, was her angle: she intends, as she explained, to use this idea as a starting point to explore what influence these conditions have had upon top level action sports athletes, as well as her own passion for the sideways life.
What angle you come up with, and how you use it to elevate your own idea, will very much depend on your own personal experience and situation. In Jen’s case, her evident background as a neuroscientist gave us the confidence that she’ll be able to tackle this complex, nuanced angle with the requisite substance.
The importance of a unique perspective was one of the more interesting facets of my August 2022 conversation with Chris Burkard (below)
Burkard is, as everybody knows, synonymous with Iceland. (Indeed, I blame him for the sheer number of Fund entrants who were basically asking if they could go on a Chris Burkard-style trip).
And a key strand of our talk was about how he’s earned the right to be considered such an authority on the place. He’s put the hours in, basically, by visiting the country a whopping 65 times in 15 years, and making the effort to immerse himself deeply in the land’s culture, history and landscape.
This experience has basically made him a walking angle on the place, and is why National Geographic just commissioned him to cover the latest volcanic eruption on the island. They’re unlikely to accept a similar pitch from a writer starting out, even if their original idea (‘Hey! I want to go and cover the latest eruption in Iceland’) is basically the same.
This is why you’ll need to play to your strengths when coming up with the right story and angle. Fortunately, there are pretty easy ways to game the system once you learn the rules.
Between the years 2005 and 2015, for example, I did a lot of work as a travel journalist for titles like the Observer, the Evening Standard, Metro and the Independent, which I basically used as vehicle to go surfing and snowboarding for free as frequently as possible.
My usual MO was to work out where I wanted to go next, arrange to meet the PR responsible for the area (essentially, a mutual pitching session in which we worked out how we’d be able to help each other do our jobs more effectively) and find out what ‘pegs’ they were peddling (a new hotel, say, or a new lift).
Then I’d work out which outlets hadn’t published about that destination for a while, or which newspaper was about to put their annual winter sports special together, and then pitch the editor my story idea. Most of the time it worked pretty well, with the result I spent much of the decade snowboarding and surfing my way around the globe in ever more costly and elaborate destinations.
Ah, halcyon (and certainly less environmentally-conscious) days….
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3. Think about the audience
This one is related to point one, and is usually the hurdle most inexperienced pitchers fail at - even if they have a decent idea. Basically, your idea needs to suit the audience it’s intended for. As in - don’t pitch a piece about pig-farming to Whitelines.
Sounds obvious, right? After all, the way to think about it is this: the person you’re pitching is really a gatekeeper for the audience they represent. (And on one level, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, effective pitching is really about persuading the person you hope to convince that you can help them do their own job more effectively).
“The person you’re pitching is really a gatekeeper for the audience they represent”.
That’s true whether you’re pitching a film producer, the person that books the bands at a festival, a national magazine editor, or the letting agent you’re desperately trying to persuade to return your deposit after you trashed the gaff the night before you’re due to move out.
If you’re pitch doesn’t convince this gatekeeper that their audience will like the idea, you’ve got no chance. (Incidentally, one reason I started Looking Sideways was because I was so bored of pitching gatekeepers my ideas. Far better, I decided, to just remove them from the equation altogether).
With all that in mind, it never ceases to amaze me how frequently people still make this extremely elementary mistake. These days I put it down to three things.
Firstly, human nature, and that very human tendency to think that everybody is going to share your enthusiasm for your latest hobbyhorse. We’ve all been guilty of this it some stage in our lives. Happily most people (although not that tedious mate who always, always bends the conversation to their pet topic after two pints; come on we’ve all got one) grow out of it at some point, usually at around the age of 14.
When you think about it, this makes a kind of sense. Creativity is a very personal thing (and I can certainly become the world’s most boring man when I’m particularly fired up by a recent idea.)
But pitching - actually, creativity in general - requires a certain hard-nosed ‘kill your babies’ dispassion, and an understanding of which idea is going to appeal to which audience. (See also: the importance of taking feedback like a pro, as outlined in this piece below).
The second reason? Inexperience. Which, happily, is treatable. Believe me, there’s nothing like being on the receiving end of a stinging critique of your ideas to really force you to sharpen things up next time around. This is just an essential part of learning your trade.
The third? Rank incompetence. Which is obviously something you really DON’T want to communicate to your intended target.
Indeed, as I discussed in this piece, there’s an entire online trope of snarky journalists posting the wildly inappropriate pitches they’ve received from PRs. At the time I was fairly unkind about this practise, driven as it is by a very particular type of bro-ist LinkedIn clout-chaser.
Still, all that aside, they’ve got a point. Emailing a journalist who specialises in snowboarding and surfing, like I do, and asking him to write a piece about the world’s largest truffle, as somebody did last year, doesn’t really suggest somebody at the top of their game.
(Further, it suggests somebody who sees their job as literally being about firing out as many emails as possible, rather than approaching their task with a modicum of wit and intelligence. If I was the client paying for that, I’d be a tad worried, to put it mildly).
So do some research, and work out if the audience the person you’re pitching ultimately represents is going to be at all interested in your idea. It really is simple stuff, and the easiest way of stacking the deck in your favour.
4. Communicate it originally
OK, so you’ve come up with your idea, are convinced that your angle is also on point, and have accurately identified your audience. And we haven’t even pitched anything yet!
That’s where the final point comes in. And, when it comes to getting your point across, this is probably the most important aspect of all.
This is basically what that old ‘elevator pitch’ thing is all about. Can you get your ideas across in the time you’d be in a lift with somebody? The thinking here is that, when it comes to pitching, shorter is better.
This is completely subjective, obviously, but I’m not entirely sure I agree with this.
Years ago I had an idea for a film script so I spent a lot of time consuming books, blogs and podcasts on the topic. One thing I learned: there’s a LOT of received wisdom in that game, and proscriptions on preferred length of pitch, optimum length of scene descriptions etc etc are rife. And then you actually read a load of the most famous scripts ever produced, and absolutely none of them follow any of this supposedly crucial advice.
Far more important, to my mind, is tone. Why? Because one thing I realised over the years is that the majority of submissions for absolutely anything follow roughly the same tone. Think of covering letters with CVs, for example. Or every beige, unsolicited ‘kind regards’ email you’ve ever received in your life. They’re all bland as fook, completely ignorable and usually destined for the virtual bin.
Tone is where you have a chance to really stand out.
As an example, the image above is a pitch I dust off roughly once a year, when some recalcitrant magazine or website has not paid me and has been merrily ignoring my tonally tedious ‘Hey guys! Can you please pay my invoice!’ emails for months. As everybody knows, this is an unfortunate fact of life for freelancers. (Now I come to think about it, the ‘please pay my invoice’ pitch is the one you’re going to have to dust off almost as frequently as the ‘please like my idea’ pitch. Depressing, right?)
Now, luckily for me, one of my hobbies is writing complaint letters. I know. Weird, right? Over the years, I’ve realised it because when you’re at the point when you’re seriously ready to complain, you’re way past giving a fook. Which gives you the chance to adopt a new persona (or tone) and say the things that, ordinarily, you’d never say, because tonal conventions won’t allow it.
When you’re coming at it from the moral high ground, because the other party has genuinely pissed you about - well, I always really enjoy rolling my sleeves up and giving good complaint. (Probably because I’m a bit of a dickhead).
Hence why, the other years, after months being ignored, I quickly drafted and sent the above email to everybody I could think of at the magazine in question. Guess what? They paid within two days. I’ve used it about five times since, and it works every time. Why? Because the tone is so dickish, jarring and unusual, it makes it pretty much unignorable.
If you ask me, the same principle applies when it comes to pitching anything. Over the years, I’ve been pitched countless times in countless different scenarios. My view? A confident, original tone goes a long, long way and gives you the best and simplest chance of standing out from the pack.
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