The Art of Pitching

PAX East 2014 (plus) 026

I spent this past weekend up in Boston for PAX East, which (for those of you who don’t know) is one of the largest gaming conventions in the country. I love gaming, and I believe that gaming is a very powerful medium for delivering stories, as we’ve recently seen through games like Mass Effect. However, most of the games I play these days focus on competition rather than narrative (though there are some interesting developments there I will write about tomorrow). As such I didn’t explore some of the more story driven games that were featured at the event.

So instead of talking about any specific game, I thought I would relate some things I learned from a panel I attended called “How to Pitch a Great Gaming Story” that was about pitching game and story ideas. The panel was moderated by Greg Tito, the Editor in Chief at The Escapist. The other panel members were Susan Arendt, the managing editor of Joystiq; Nick Chester, a publicist at Harmonix Games; Rob Daviau, the President of Ironwall Games; and a freelance writer named Julian Murdoch.

Most of the tips presented by the panel were directed towards pitching game ideas or pitching gaming articles, but the art of pitching an idea is something that is useful in any industry, especially writing, regardless of the specific content. Authors are familiar with the concept of the “Elevator Pitch” where they try to sell their story in one or two sentences, and some of the tips here could help with that.

The first set of tips come from Rob Daviau. They were originally more specific to pitching a game idea to a company, but I’ve adapted them to be a little bit more generic in tone.

The first is not to get too deep into the nitty-gritty details of what you’re pitching. Game designers like to expound on the new mechanics their games offer, and authors like to talk about the world building or storytelling techniques that make their work unique, but during a pitch none of that is important.

The second thing to remember is who you are pitching your idea to. Research beforehand and have an idea of who will be interested in the idea you’ve come up with. Know how the idea will be relevant to them and their audience, and know how your idea is different or unique so that you can easily explain why the thing you’re pitching is worth their time.

Finally, the point of a pitch is to deliver an emotional hit, not a technical one. As I previously stated, getting into all of the technical details of why the game, story, or article is unique won’t help with the pitch. You should make the person who is listening to the pitch emotionally invested in your idea, or at least emotionally invested enough to ask more questions about it, and later on you can start to explain some of the more technical aspects of the work.

Julian Murdoch agreed with Daviau’s points and enumerated a few more that apply more specifically to pitching an article to a new editor.

– Give a 2-3 sentence taste of the style of the article
– Explain exactly what the editor can expect in terms of word count, style, format, etc.
– Give a sentence explaining how this article is relevant to the outlet’s readership
– Give a sentence explaining how far along the article is
– Don’t be too pushy, and make it easy for an editor to accept or reject your article (basically don’t burn bridges by being difficult or obnoxious)

After hearing from the two members of the panel who have spent most of their careers pitching work, we got to hear from the people who listen to pitches. Susan Arendt said that there are only two things she is really looking for from a pitch:

1.) What is your story idea (and is it any good)?
2.) Can you execute it?

I found it refreshing to hear that editors aren’t necessarily looking for the most experienced writers when they accept article ideas. Of course providing examples of previously published work gives them a better idea that you can execute your story, but even personal blogs or unpublished article examples can give them what they need to determine whether or not you have the follow through and skill to complete the article.

I should also note that for anyone out there looking to pitch a webcomic or film, having examples of the art or filmed scenes is important. Anyone receiving a pitch has to have an idea that you can do the work, and even if it isn’t polished to professional quality, they need to see that at least the basic ability to execute is there.

Nick Chester spoke about working with publicists when trying to get interviews from people in their companies or writing articles about their companies. One major thing he spoke about (and other panel members added to) was following up with a publicist or others after doing any kind of interview. The panel members suggested following up with anyone you interview for an article, even if the article never gets sold. Let them know what happened, be honest, and thank them for their time. Being straightforward about what is going on will make it much more likely that you will be able to contact these people in the future and get interviews or help from them then.

Additionally, if you are worried about following up with an editor after you’ve submitted a piece, the panel suggested sending a follow-up after two weeks without any word (unless the content is time sensitive, in which case follow up as needed). After another two weeks, they advise looking to shop the article elsewhere. However, they also suggested that you send an e-mail to the editor and let them know politely that you are withdrawing your pitch and looking to sell it elsewhere.

Also, unlike with short stories or novels, it is bad etiquette to pitch an article to multiple outlets at once. Pitch to one at a time until someone accepts or rejects it. Coming from the fiction writing field where writers generally submit their work to multiple outlets, I found this an interesting thing to know about pitching articles.

All in all I found the panel interesting and very helpful. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed some of the tips I’ve passed on here, and they can help you with any pitches that you have to make in the future.

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