As I may perhaps have mentioned 40 or 50 times throughout the course of this series, the common conception of what a conference pitch should be — three sentences, no more, no less, preferably fired off in a single breath — and what actually occurs in pitch meetings tend to be rather at odds. Even at writers’ conferences where the organizers tell attendees point-blank that if there’s a fourth period in their pitches, no one will still be listening, agents and editors generally expect writers to be able to have actual conversations about their work, not merely to cough up a few rigid memorized lines.
In deference to that reality, and because many first-time pitchers’ greatest fear is freezing up and not being able to say anything at all, I have been devoting much of Pitchingpalooza to helping you become not only a good pitcher, but a writer who sounds professional when discussing her work. That way, no matter what the agent or editor in front of you expects, you will be able to roll with the proverbial punches.
I’m quite aware, though, that sometimes, conference brochure rhetoric can scare prospective pitchers into conniption fits. I must conclude, therefore, that at least some you reading this will be perusing this series in panicky haste, searching frantically at the last minute for a quick how-to for cramming a 400-page novel’s complexities into three short sentences.
You have found it, panicky searchers. Today, I am devoting this entire post to the construction and use of the 3-line pitch.
That does not mean, however, that I’m simply going to hand you a one-size-fits-all formula; generic pitches, like boilerplate query letters, are boring. Instead, we’re going to be talking about how to figure out the best way to present your ideas in this super-brief format. And in order to maximize the number of contexts in which you will be able to use this 3-sentence wonder, I shall also be talking about the 3-sentence elevator speech.
Oh, don’t cringe; I’m not saying that you must buttonhole an agent in an elevator (although you would be astonished at how many elevator speeches are indeed given whilst traveling between the floors of a conference center); it’s merely shorthand for a quick chance encounter turned promotional opportunity. That chance could crop up anywhere on the conference’s grounds, even in that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America.
But don’t get antsy if you’re shy: you don’t ever need to say these words out loud at all, if you prefer to promote your work in writing: the species of elevator speech I have in mind is equally useful at conferences and in query letters.
Were you expecting me to follow that last statement with not at all? I can see where you might leap to that conclusion: I have, after all, spent the last couple of weeks telling you at great length that 3-sentence speeches are vastly overrated as marketing tools for books. Which they are, in most pitching contexts. Sometimes, though, an elevator speech is just the ticket; over the next couple of posts, I shall be showing you when and how.
So I would, contrary to what you may have been expecting, advise you to construct one prior to conference time. It’s just not going to be the primary pitching tool in your writer’s bag.
Let’s begin with a definition of the three-line pitch, or, as I prefer to call it, the elevator speech. Simply put, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book. Contrary to popular belief, the elevator speech should not be a plot summary. Instead, it is an introduction to the main character(s) — by name, please; they’re more memorable that way — the challenges s/he is facing, and what’s at stake.
An elevator speech is a longish paragraph about your book’s premise, in other words, not its plot. Much less threatening if you think of it that way, isn’t it?
How should this brief introduction to your premise be phrased? If the book in question is a novel, the elevator speech should be in the present tense and in the third person regardless of the tense and narrative voice in which the book is actually written. If you have written a memoir, the past tense and the first person are appropriate.
Does that forest of hands waving in the air indicate that someone out there has a question? “Anne, I’m confused. The definition above sounds a heck of a lot like what the conference website before me seems to think I should be saying in a 2-minute pitch. What’s the difference between an elevator speech and a pitch?”
I don’t blame you for being a tad puzzled; there’s quite a bit of pitching advice floating around out there that makes no distinction whatsoever between the two. But they are not the same thing: while an elevator speech is a pitch, not all pitches are elevator speeches. Nor should they be.
Yes, you read that last bit correctly: the 3-sentence pitch you’ve been hearing so much about in conference circles lately is not a standard pitch for a book. It isn’t intended to replace the fully-realized 2-minute pitch that agents and editors will expect you to deliver within the context of a formal appointment. Like the keynote, the 3-line pitch not a substitute for a pitch proper, but a teaser for it — it’s the lead-in to the actual pitch, a chance to show off your storytelling talent in the 30 seconds you might realistically have with an agent in a hallway.
Thus the term elevator speech: it’s designed to be short enough to deliver between floors when a happy accident places you and the agent of your dreams together in the same lift. Although often, an agent in a hurry — say, one you have caught immediately after he has taught a class, or on his way into lunch — will not wait to hear the 2-minute version before asking to see pages.
Which is the true mark of success for an elevator speech: it so intrigues the hearer that further pitching is rendered unnecessary. But don’t get your hopes up: for a formal pitching session, you will be better off with a 2-minute formal pitch. (And don’t worry, I’ll be getting to that next week.)
But — and I cannot emphasize this enough — contrary to what the vast majority of pitching classes and conference brochures will tell you, the elevator speech does not work in every context: it should be reserved for informal pitching opportunities. And even then, you should ALWAYS ask politely if it’s okay to pitch before uttering so much as a syllable of it.
“Wait just a minute,” I hear some time-strapped neophyte conference-goers protest. “You’re telling me to do twice the work I would normally need to do! The conference brochure I have in my hand tells me that I MUST give a 3-4 sentence summary of my book. Obviously, then, I can just stick with that, and ignore your advice to prepare a 2-minute pitch as well. Besides, won’t agents and editors get mad at me if I break the 3-sentence rule?”
In a word, no.
At least, not in a scheduled pitch meeting, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s not their rule. Almost invariably, conference organizers, not the potential pitch-hearers, set up the 3-sentence maximum. There’s a reason for that: the 3-sentence pitch is not the standard of the publishing industry, but the movie industry; agents seldom have much attachment to it.
I still feel some of you out there quailing, however. Here’s something to make you feel better: even at conferences where organizers are most adamant about brevity, it’s a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. It’s not as though goons with stopwatches will be standing behind you during your pitch appointments, shouting, “Okay, buddy — that was 3.5 sentences. Out of the pitching pool!”
Oh, sure, if you went on for two or three minutes during a chance encounter over the dessert bar, the average agent’s plate of tiramisu might start to shake with annoyance after a minute or so. That’s a matter of context and fallen blood sugar, though. In the formal appointments, agents are often actually perplexed when writers stop talking after 20 seconds or so.
Because, you see, they don’t read the conference brochures. They just know the norms of the publishing world.
But think about it: do you really want to waste the other 9 1/2 minutes of your appointment by having prepared only 30 seconds about your book? On the other hand, you don’t want to focus so much on the 2-minute formal pitch that you can’t take advantage of hallway pitching opportunities, do you?
In short, you’re going to want to prepare both. This is an industry that values flexibility and creativity, after all.
Did that gusty collective sigh I just heard mean that I’ve convinced at least a few of you? “Okay, Anne,” some of you shout wearily, “You win. But since brevity is the soul of both the elevator speech and the keynote, how are they different?”
Good question, tuckered-out would-be pitchers. The elevator speech is roughly three times the length of the keynote, for one thing. And while the keynote is designed to pique interest in the conflict, the elevator speech is intended to elicit a “Gee, that sounds like a fascinating story — I want to hear more.”
That’s right: the elevator speech is intended to provoke follow-up questions.
Although the purpose of both the keynote and the 3-line pitch is to whet the literary appetite of the hearer, to get her to ask for more information about the book, the keynote can hit only one major theme. It’s only a sentence, after all. In the elevator speech, however, your task is to show that your novel or memoir is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation — or, if it’s nonfiction, that it’s about an interesting, important problem with a fascinating solution.
Let me repeat that, slightly twisted, because it’s important: if your elevator speech does not present your novel or memoir’s protagonist as a scintillating person caught in a riveting dilemma, or at any rate shown against an absorbing backdrop, you should revise it until it does. Ditto if your nonfiction elevator speech doesn’t make the underlying problem sound vital to solve and interesting to read about solving.
Your elevator speech should establish book’s premise, main character, and primary conflict — and that’s it. For a novel or memoir, it should answer the basic questions:
(1) Who is the protagonist/are you?
(2) What is the problem she/he/you are facing?
(3) How is she/he/you going to attack it differently than anybody else on the face of the earth?
Why stick to the premise alone, you ask? Simple: when you have someone’s attention for only thirty seconds or so, you don’t have time to explain the interesting backstory, the macabre subplot, how the plot’s major conflicts are resolved, that great twist about the long-lost half-sister, or how the villain gets dissolved in a vat of acid in the basement.
You will not, in short, have the time to summarize the plot. You will have barely enough to identify the two or three primary elements and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you might resolve them on the page.
Was that giant slide-whistle I just heard the sound of all of you who have experienced the horror of trying to cram an entire book’s plot into three sentences realizing that you didn’t need to do it at all?
Yup. I wish someone had told me that before the first time I pitched, too. To tell you the truth, the only people I have ever met who have expected writers to tell an entire story in three lines are pitching teachers and the conference organizers who write the directions in brochures.
Out comes the broken record again: an elevator speech should not be a summary; you will drive yourself completely nuts if you try to summarize hundreds of pages of plot or argument in just a few lines.
Oh, I see: that is precisely what you have been trying to do, isn’t it? No wonder you’re stressed about pitching.
So why is the demand that you limit yourself to three sentences so ubiquitous in conference literature? Beats me. And what makes this phenomenon even stranger, at least from my perspective, is even screenplays are not really pitched in three sentences; they’re pitched in three beats. So what book writers are being told to do is not even accurate for the industry in which micro-pitches are the norm.
Curious about what three beats might sound like? I’m no screenwriter (nor do I play one on TV), but let me give it a try for one of the longest movies of my lifetime:
Beat one: An East Indian lawyer in South Africa
Beat two: uses nonviolence to change unjust laws
Beat three: and then takes the strategy home to fight British rule.
Recognize it? It’s GANDHI. (In case you think I’m kidding about the expected brevity of movie pitches, here is the IMDb version: “Biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer who became the famed leader of the Indian revolts against the British through his philosophy of non-violent protest.” Mine’s shorter.)
Of course, far more happens in the movie than this: it’s 188 minutes long, and it has a cast of — well, if not thousands, at least many hundreds filmed repeatedly. But if I had tried to summarize the entire plot, we would have been here until next Tuesday.
Fortunately, an elevator speech for a book is not expected to be this terse: you actually can have 3-4 complex sentences, not just beats. But that does not mean, as is VERY common in the ostensibly 3-sentence pitches one actually hears at conferences in these dark days, three sentences with eight dependent and three independent clauses each.
So don’t get your hopes up, rules-lawyers. We’re not talking a page of description here; we’re talking a paragraph.
Unfortunately, that’s a necessary admonition. I’ve heard many elevator speeches that — while technically three sentences in the sense that they contained only three periods — took longer than two minutes to say out loud. While that may meet the letter of the 3-sentence rule, it clearly violates its spirit.
Stop glaring at me. I don’t make the rules; I merely explain them to you fine people.
Remember, the point in keeping it brief is TO KEEP IT BRIEF, not to satisfy some esoteric punctuation requirement. How brief is brief, you ask? Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you can’t say your entire elevator speech within the space of two regular breaths, it’s too long.
Are you wondering how you’re going to accomplish this level of pith? Are you contemplating taking up fancy yogi breathing techniques to extend the length of your elevator speech? Are you, in fact, seriously considering avoiding hallway pitches altogether, just so you don’t have to construct both an elevator speech and a 2-minute pitch?
All three are common reactions to my pitching classes I must confess, but don’t worry — I shall give you many, many practical tips on how to pull it off with aplomb, but for now, I’m going to let those of you who are attending the Conference That Shall Not Be Named get back to your frantic pre-conference preparations.
For those of you who have not attended before, you might want to channel some of that anticipatory energy you’ve been devoting to nail-biting to taking a gander at the reader-requested WHAT TO WEAR TO A CONFERENCE and WHAT TO BRING TO A CONFERENCE categories on the archive list at right. Also, if you love me, please do not even consider sending off any requested materials to any agents and editors you might meet at said conference without at least glancing at the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET posts.
And is it too late to advise you to read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you send it to anyone? Or to remind you that no matter how thrilled you are to receive a request for pages from a real, live agent, unless that agent actually asked you to overnight it (very rare, but it happens), you are under no obligation to send requested materials right away. You have time to take a day, a week, or even a month to get those pages submission-perfect.
For the rest of you, I leave to ponder the possibilities until next time. Brainstorm about the best way to present your premise BRIEFLY, not how to cram as many plot points as possible into a couple of breaths’ worth of speech.
To give you a touch of additional incentive, I’ll let you in on a secret: once you have come up with an eyebrow-raising elevator speech, the process is going to help you improve your 2-minute pitch — and your queries, too.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again, amn’t I? Tune in tomorrow, and keep up the good work!