Pitching 101, part XII: elevator speeches revisited, or, what to say when time is of the essence

dali-clocks

Clocks are not the only thing melting out here in Seattle, friends and neighbors: so are local writers. And butchers, bakers, and cabinet makers. The city’s simply not built for this type of heat.

But enough about the weather: back to the topic at hand, the care and feeding of the elevator speech, a.k.a. the 3-line pitch.

What a lot we’ve learned in the past couple of weeks, eh? We’ve talked about how to identify your book’s category (July 17 and 20), identify your target market (July 21-23), figure out what about your book is fresh (July 23), come up with a few strong selling points (July 23 and 27), develop a snappy keynote statement (July 27), and pull all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (July 28). All of that, my friends, will enable you to move gracefully and professionally into conversation with anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Now you’re ready to start practicing what to say after that. From here on out we’re going to be talking about what you should say after the agent of your dreams responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Why, yes, Stalwart Writer, I would like to hear more about this marvelous book of which you speak. Enlighten me further, and awe me.”

Okay, so maybe the average Manhattanite agent doesn’t speak like an extra in a production A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. (Not that anyone in my neck of the woods is dreaming much on these sticky midsummer nights. We had an impromptu block party at 3 am, just because no one could sleep.) The fact remains, if you’ve been following this series and doing your homework, you already have something prepared for that precious moment when someone in the industry turns to you and asks that question so dreaded by aspiring writers, “So, what do you write?”

Now, we’re preparing for that even more fruitful moment when an agent sighs, glances longingly at the pasta bar just a few feet ahead of her, and says, “Yeah, sure, intrepid writer who has just accosted me, you may have 30 seconds of my time.”

Perhaps it’s self-evident, but moments like this were just made for the elevator speech.

For those of you joining us late in the series, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book, couched in the present tense. As we discussed last time, it is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) by name and an invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

If the idea of constructing an elevator speech makes you shake in your proverbial boots, I have some good news for you: you probably already have a fair amount of experience doing it.

How so, you cry, and wherefore? Well, such a description is typically the second paragraph of a classically-constructed query letter. That, too, may well be self-evident — a pitch is, after all, more or less a verbal query letter. (If anything I’ve said in this paragraph is a major surprise to you, I would strongly advise checking out the mysteriously-titled HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right.)

Not entirely surprisingly, then, query letters and elevator speeches often share focus problems. All too often, for instance, the constructors of both will go off on tangents, detailing how difficult it is to find an agent or boasting about how this is the best book ever written. Or how it’s a natural for Oprah.

And like the descriptive paragraph of a query letter, elevator speeches all too often get bogged down in plot details. But summarization is not what’s required, in either instance — and if more aspiring writers realized that, people on both ends of the querying and pitching processes would be significantly happier.

Do I hear some of you out there moaning, or are you merely thinking dissent very loudly indeed? “But Anne,” disgruntled pitch- and query-constructors the world over protest, “I spent MONTHS over my query letter, and I never managed to trim the descriptive part to under two-thirds of a page! How do you expect me to be able to make my book sound fascinating in half that many words, and out loud?”

In a word: strategy. To be followed shortly by a second word, as well as a third and a fourth: practice, practice, and practice.

You can feel a step-by-step list coming on, can’t you? Here goes.

(1) Don’t panic or berate yourself about not coming up with a great pitch the first time you sit down to do it.
Oh, you may laugh, but these are the two most common responses amongst most would-be pitchers confronted with the task of writing a 3-line pitch. That’s not a particularly rational response: contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact of having written a good book does not magically endow one with the skills necessary to construct a 3-line pitch.

Like querying, pitching is a learned skill; nobody is born knowing how to do it. So calm down and learn the skills before you start to judge yourself.

Feeling better? Good. Let’s move on to step 2.

(2) Sit down and write a straightforward description of the central conflict or argument of your book.
I’m not talking about summarizing the plot here, mind you, but the answer to a very simple, albeit multi-part, question:

a) Who is your protagonist?

b) What does s/he want more than anything else?

c) What’s standing in the way of getting it?

Easier to think of summing things up when you limit the parameters that way, isn’t it? It also works for memoir:

a) Who is the narrator of this book?

b) What does s/he want more than anything else?

c) What’s standing in the way of getting it?

Got that firmly in hand? Excellent. Now let’s mop our perspiring brows and proceed to the next step.

(3) Replace generalities with specifics.
Be specific about who your protagonist(s) is (are) and what’s happening to him/her/it/them. Nothing makes a pitch hearer’s eyes glaze over faster than a spate of generalities that might apply to the nearest 100,000 people.

Besides, a generalized description usually isn’t even accurate, at least on a philosophical level. In a novel or memoir, events do not happen to people in general: they happen to a specific person or group of people with individual quirks. Give a taste of that.

I know it’s hard in such a short speech, but believe me, a single memorable character trait or situational twist is worth paragraphs and paragraphs of generalities.

Have you obliterated summary and gotten concrete? Great. Now let’s work on making your elevator speech sound original.

(4) Emphasize what is fresh about your story, not its similarities to other books.
If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a pitcher say, “It’s just like BESTSELLER X, but with Twist Y,” I would build a rock-candy mountain just south of Winnipeg and invite all the children in Canada to feast for a month and a half. It’s just not very efficient use of brief elevator speech time; the keynote is a better place to draw such parallels, if you feel you must.

Why isn’t it efficient? Because the elevator speech is NOT about indicating genre or book category — which, to someone in the industry, is precisely what citing an earlier successful book in your chosen book category achieves — but once you’ve told an agent or editor what your book category is, getting specific about a similar book is actually a trifle redundant.

It also makes your book seem less original, at least at the elevator speech stage — here is where you need to wow your hearers with the uniqueness of your premise, your protagonist, and your approach. Making your book sound like a rehash of a well-worn concept is not usually the best way to accomplish that.

All freshened up? Fabulous. Let’s sharpen our critical eyes still further.

(5) Try not to bottom-line the plot — and definitely avoid clichés.
That advice about cliché-hunting doesn’t just apply to hackneyed concepts: well-worn phrases are notorious pitch-killers, too. Bear in mind that someone who hears pitches for a living may have a stronger sense of what’s a cliché than does the population at large. While a romance-reader may not exclaim, “Oh, no, not another heroine with long, flowing red hair!”, an agent or editor who routinely handles romance might.

So fine-tune your phraseology. Steer clear of sweeping statements on the order of, “…and in the process, he learned to be a better axe murderer — and a better human being.” Or “Their struggles brought them closer together as a couple AND won her the election.”

Or, heaven preserve us, “Can they learn to live happily ever after?”

Remember, you’re trying to convince the hearer that you can write; echoing the latest catchphrase — or one that’s been floating around the zeitgeist for forty years — is generally not the best way to achieve that. Writers often incorporate the sort of terminology used to promote TV shows and movies — but in an elevator speech (or a query letter — or a pitch, for that matter), the last reaction a writer wants to evoke is, “Gee, this sounds like the movie-of-the-week I saw last night.”

Translation: this technique doesn’t show off your creativity as a plot-deviser, any more than the use of clichés would display your talent for unique phraseology. You want to make your story sound original and fresh, right?

Is your draft now free of time-worn concepts and wording? Marvelous. Now comes the hard part.

(6) Enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one strong, MEMORABLE image.

Create a mental picture that your hearer will recall after you walk away, business card and request for the first fifty pages clutched firmly to your heaving bosom. Ideally, this image should be something that the hearer (or our old pal Millicent, the agency screener) has never heard before.

And it needn’t be a visual detail, either: the other senses tend to be seriously under-utilized in elevator speeches. Just makes sure it sticks in the mind.

Yes, in 3-4 sentences. You’re a writer: making prose interesting is what you DO, right?

Have you come up with an original image, vividly described? Tremendous. Now let’s make your plot sound fascinating.

(7) Present your protagonist as the primary actor in the plot, not as the object of the action.
Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, who are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is NEVER a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”

Stop laughing — you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen TO them, rather than characters who DO things to deal with challenging situations. If I had a penny for each of THOSE I’ve heard, I’d build THREE of those rock-candy mountains, one in each of the NAFTA nations, for the delight of local children.

The books being pitched may not actually have passive protagonists — but honestly, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.

There are a few code words that will let an industry-savvy listener know that your protagonist is fully engaged and passionately pursing the goals assigned to her in the book. They are, in no particular order: love, passion, desire, dream, fate (kismet will do, in a pinch), struggle, loss, and happiness. Any form of these words will do; a gerund or two is fine.

I’m serious about this. This is recognized code; take advantage of it.

Does your protagonist come across as passionately engaged in the struggle to pursue her dream, embrace her fate, and assure her happiness. Pat yourself on the back. Time to talk about voice.

(8) Make sure that the tone of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book.
You’d be astonished — at least I hope you would — at how often this basic, common-sense principle is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious.

While that tone is usually more a reflection of the tension of the pitching situation than the voice of the book, the practice tends to undersells the book.

Particularly if the tone happens to be one of the manuscript’s primary selling points. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.

(9) Try saying the result out loud to someone who hasn’t read your book, to see how she/he/the lamp responds.
The lamp is a suggestion for those of you too shy to buttonhole a co-worker or that guy sitting next to you at Starbucks, but my point is, you can’t know how a pitch is going to sound out loud until you say it out loud.

I’m not merely talking about coherence here — I’m also thinking of practicalities like breath control. Is it possible to speak your three-line speech in three breaths, for instance? If not, you’re not going to be able to get through your elevator speech within 30 seconds without fainting.

Don’t laugh; I’ve seen it happen. Writers just keel over sideways because they forget to breathe.

Remember not to lock your knees. Oh, and write a 3-line pitch that’s possible to say without turning blue.

Be on the look-out, too, for words that are hard to say — or are hard to say together. Tongue-twisters and rhymes may seem cute on the page, but trust me, you’re not going to want to say, “Tina Tweezedale tried tremendously to tie Trevor up with twine.”

Also, if you’re not ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE how to pronounce a word, look it up. Ditto if you aren’t sure that you’re using it correctly. Writers often read words that they’ve never heard spoken aloud; do you really want the agent to whom you’re pitching to correct your pronunciation of solipsistic, or to tell you that you didn’t actually mean that your protagonist implied something, but that he inferred it?

Check. Double-check. And if you’re still not certain, track down the best-read person you know and ask her to hear your pitch. And to define solipsistic, while she’s at it.

I sense some furrowed brows out there. “Okay, Anne,” I hear some perplexed souls say, “I get why I might want to make sure that I can say my entire elevator speech out loud correctly. But if I’m sure that I can, why do I need to say it to — ugh — another living, breathing human being?”

For a couple of very good reasons, oh shy brow-knitters. First, you’re going to have to say it out loud sometime; it’s literally impossible to give a verbal pitch silently. All saving your elevator speech for the great moment when you are face-to-face with the agent of your dreams actually achieves is depriving you of the opportunity to practice.

Or, to put it less obliquely: if your elevator speech doesn’t make sense aloud, would you rather find that out in the midst of giving the pitch, or before, when you can fix it?

I thought as much. Second, if you’ve never pitched before, saying your 3-line pitch is going to sound ridiculous to you the first few times you do it. Again, would you rather feel silly while you’re pitching, or before?

Third — and this is the most important — if you practice on a reasonably intelligent hearer, you can ask a vitally important follow-up question: “Would you mind telling the story back to me?”

If s/he can’t, you might want to take another gander at your elevator speech: chances are, it’s not particularly memorable.

I’m itching to give a few concrete examples, so you may see these rules in action, but it’s time to sign off for the day. Try to avoid heat prostration, Seattleites, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *