The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part VIII: the ups and downs of the elevator speech

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the building blocks of a fabulous pitch — and to the 200th blog I have written for the PNWA! Not including today’s post, that’s 1,032 pages of irreverent advice, in standard manuscript format. I wish I had more time to linger on this major milestone, but with the conference a scant week away, I want to move through the rigors of pitching as quickly as possible.

News flash, though, everybody: sharp-eyed faithful reader Ron was kind enough to point out to me that the agent meetings this year are TEN minutes, not fifteen, presumably so more writers can see more agents. I have no idea why they should have changed (I couldn’t go to the conference last year, so it’s possible that this is a change from last year), but a shorter meeting requires slightly different advance planning. Many thanks, Ron, for alerting us to this.

Also, I notice that David Moldower is no longer going to be attending the conference, but agent Kate McKean and Michelle Nagler of Simon & Schuster will. I hope to have time to check out their respective sales and acquisitions records before the conference, but right now, my top priority to make sure to get through the basics of pitching.

Yesterday, I discussed the elevator speech, and gave you several examples of how to construct one for a fiction book. ”This is all very well for a novel,” I could hear your NF writers out there grumbling, “but how does all this apply to a MY book?” Today, I am going to deal with that very issue, and explain where and when an elevator speech can be more effective to use than a fully-fledged pitch.

In an elevator speech for a NF book, your goal is the same as for a novel: to intrigue your hearer into asking follow-up questions. Here, too, you do not want to tell so much about the book that the agent or editor to whom you are speaking feels that you have told the whole story; you want to leave enough of a question hanging in the air that your listener will say, “Gee, that sounds intriguing. Send me the first 50 pages.” However, for a NF book, you will need to achieve one other goal in both your elevator speech or pitch — to establish your platform as the best conceivable writer of the book.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

To achieve these goals, you can use the same tools as for a novel, providing specific, vividly-drawn details to show what your book offers the reader. Demonstrate what the reader will learn from reading your book, or why the book is an important contribution to the literature on your subject. In other words, make it clear what your book is and why it will appeal to your target market. Here’s an example:

“Swirling planets, the Milky Way, and maybe even a wandering extraterrestrial or two — all of these await the urban stargazing enthusiast. For too long, however, books on astronomy have been geared at the narrow specialist market, those readers possessing expensive telescopes. ANGELS ON YOUR BACK PORCH opens the joys of stargazing to the rest of us. Utilizing a few simple tools and a colorful fold-out star map, University of Washington cosmologist Cindy Crawford takes you on a guided tour of the fascinating star formations visible right from your backyard.”

See? Strong visual imagery plus a clear statement of what the reader may expect to learn creates a compelling elevator speech for this NF book. And did you notice how Prof. Crawford’s credentials just naturally fit into the speech? By including some indication of your platform (or your book’s strongest selling point) in your elevator speech, you will forestall the automatic first question of any NF agent: “So, what’s your platform?”

Remember, your elevator speech should entertaining and memorable, but leave your hearer wanting to know more. Don’t wrap up the package so tightly that your listener doesn’t feel she needs to read the book. Questions are often useful in establishing WHY the book needs to be read:

”EVERYWOMAN’S GUIDE TO MENOPAUSE: “Tired of all of the conflicting information on the news these days about the change of life? Noted clinician Dr. Hal Holbrook simplifies it all for you with his easy-to-use color-coded guide to a happy menopausal existence. From beating searing hot flashes with cool visualizations of polar icecaps to rewarding yourself for meeting goals with fun-filled vacations to the tropics, this book will show you how to embrace the rest of your life with passion, armed with knowledge.”

Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who have been following this series so far: what techniques did the NF pitcher above borrow from fiction writing?

Give yourself at least a B if you said that the writer incorporated vivid sensual details: the frigid polar icecaps, the twin heat sources of hot flashes and tropical destinations. And make that an A if you noticed that the savvy pitcher used a rhetorical question (filched from Dr. Holbrook’s keynote statement, no doubt) to pique the interest of the hearer — and double points if your sharp eye spotted the keywords agents love to hear: happy, passion. Extra credit with a cherry on top and walnut clusters if you cried out that this elevator speech sets up conflicts that the book will presumably resolve (amongst the information popularly available; the struggle between happiness and unhappiness; between simple guides and complicated ones). Dualities are tremendously effective at establishing conflict quickly.

And now congratulate yourselves, campers, because you have constructed all of the elements you need for a successful hallway pitch — or, indeed, an informal pitch in virtually any social situation. Did that one creep up on you? Because — brace yourself for this one, because it’s a biggie —


Ta da!

With advance preparation and practice, you should be able to say all of this comprehensibly within 30 – 45 seconds, certainly a short enough time that you need not feel guilty about turning to the agent next to you in the dinner line, or walking up to her after the agents’ forum, and asking if she can spare a minute to hear your pitch. (Always ask first if it’s okay.) Because that is literally what you will be taking up, less than a minute, you may feel professional, not intrusive, by giving your hallway pitch immediately after saying, “Please pass the rolls.”

You’re welcome.

The elevator speech has other uses, too, the most important being that it makes a stellar describe-your-book paragraph in your query letter. There, too, you will be incorporating the elements of the magic first hundred words — minus the “Hi, my name is” part, they make a terrific opening paragraph for a query. The elevator speech also gives you a concise, professional follow-up after someone you meet at a conference responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Wow. Tell me more.”

You see, I really am working hard here to keep you from feeling tongue-tied when dealing with the industry. Don’t be afraid to give your hallway speech to other writers at the conference — it’s great practice, and it is absolutely the best way imaginable to meet other people who write what you do. (Other than starting a blog, of course.)

You’ve noticed that there’s a situation I haven’t mentioned yet, haven’t you? ”But Anne,” I hear some of your murmur, “if the elevator speech is so effective at piquing interest, why SHOULDN’T I just use it as my pitch in my meetings with agents and editors?”

That’s an excellent question. The short answer is: you can, but what would you do with the other 14 1/2 — no, scratch that; make it 9 1/2 — minutes of your pitch meeting? And why would you trade an opportunity to say MORE about your book for a format that forces you to say LESS?

The longer answer is, a lot of people do use the 3-sentence elevator speech as a pitch; in fact, if you ask almost any writer who signed with her agent between 5 and 15 years ago, she will probably tell you bluntly that the 3-sentence pitch is industry standard. And so it was, at one time. To be fair, it still can work.

However, by emphasizing the 3-sentence pitch to the exclusion of all others, I think the standard sources of writerly advice have left first-time pitchers ill-prepared to address those other vital issues involved in a good pitch, such as where the book will sit in Barnes & Noble, who the author thinks will read it, why the target market will find it compelling…in short, all of the information contained in the magic first 100 words.

You’d be amazed (at least I hope you would) at how many first-time pitchers come dashing into their scheduled pitch appointments, so fixated on blurting those pre-ordained three sentences that they forget to (a) introduce themselves to the agent or editor, like civilized beings, (b) mention whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, (c) indicate whether the book has a title, or (d) all of the above. I find this sad: these are intelligent people, for the most part, but their advance preparation has left them as tongue-tied and awkward as wallflowers at a junior high school dance.

And don’t even get me started on the sweat-soaked silence that can ensue AFTER the 3-sentence pitcher has gasped it all out, incontinently, and has no more to say. In that dreadful lull, the agent sits there, blinking so slowly that the pitcher is tempted to take a surreptitious peek at his watch, to make sure that time actually is moving forward at a normal clip, or stick a pin in the agent, to double-check that she isn’t some sort of emotionless android with her battery pack on the fritz. “And?” the automaton says impatiently. “Well?”

”What do you mean?” I hear some of you gasp, aghast. “Doesn’t the agent or editor make a snap decision after hearing those three or four sentences, and immediately leap into chatting with me about her plans for marketing my book?”

Well, not usually, no, and in fact, in recent years, as the elevator speech has come to be regarded as the standard pitch, I have been noticing an increasingly disgruntled attitude amongst agents and editors at conferences. Whey walk out of pitch meetings complaining, “Why does everyone stop talking after a minute or so? I’m getting really tired of having to drag information out of these writers on a question-and-answer basis. What do they think this is, an interview? A quiz show?”

Call me unorthodox, but I don’t think this is a desirable outcome for you.

Nor is the other common situation, where writers talk on and on about their books in their pitch meetings so long that the agent or editor hasn’t time to ask follow-up questions. You really do want to keep your pitch to roughly two minutes (as opposed to your hallway pitch, which should be approximately 30 seconds), so that you can discuss your work with the well-connected, well-informed industry insider in front of you. Make sure you come prepared to talk about it — and in terms that will make sense to everyone in the industry.

And how are you going to do that, you ask? Tune in tomorrow, my friends, and I shall fill you in on the conclusion of all of this work we have been doing for the past week: pulling it all together into a persuasive face-to-face pitch.

In the meantime, keep up the good work, everybody! And happy 200th anniversary to the blog!

– Anne Mini

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