Project Involve, Los Angeles: The Art of Pitching

Dec 10th, 2008 – Film independent offices (LA)

Ten of us were invited to pitch our projects to Oscar-winning director and producer Peggy Rajski.

Before we arrived to the pitching session we were given these following tips.

1. Silence is the strongest start of all. Don’t start talking until the decision-maker is ready. If there have been a lot of people popping in, urgent phone calls or other interruptions, ask the executive if he is ready for you to begin. Make eye contact. Then, start slow and deliver your first line. Make sure it is dynamite. Pause. Gauge the executive’s response. Then proceed with your presentation at a relaxed pace. Remember, even though you’re intimately familiar with your project, the buyer will be hearing it for the very first time.

2. Understand the buyer’s secret dream. Even though top-level buyers can seem cold and recalcitrant, this is the result of seeing a seemingly endless stream of poorly-prepared and emotionally needy sellers deliver mediocre pitches. Decision-makers don’t wake up thinking, “I can’t wait to disappoint people and pass on thirty projects today.” Instead, they hope today will be the day they discover their career-making project. Thus, you must position yourself and your project in a way that differentiates you from the masses and speaks directly to the buyer’s highest priority needs.

3. Build rapport. Then, build some more. People want to work with people they like. Think about what you have in common with the decision-maker you’re meeting. Be ready to share a few brief, personal stories which demonstrate the attributes you believe will be most attractive to the buyer. Be prepared to ask a few open-ended questions which will encourage the buyer to speak about a non-business interest in a positive light. All else being equal, you will have the edge if you can establish a personal connection.

4. Make your pitch repeatable. Though you are selling your project to a decision-maker in the room, after the meeting the buyer, if interested, becomes the seller and must pitch your idea to their colleagues or superiors. In Hollywood, this is known as the “logline.” If you can’t summarize your project in a brief, compelling statement, you haven’t thought about it enough. Remember, the more you say, the less people hear. Choose your words carefully.

5. Acknowledge the competition. Be prepared to answer questions such as, “What does my project have in common with other successful projects in the same industry?” “What were the last projects that the company purchased and were they successful?” “Which of their projects is most similar to my own?” “What makes me the best person for this project?” Answering these key questions early in your presentation demonstrates that you have done your homework. This will encourage them to listen to what follows more closely.

6. The best meetings are conversational and interactive. Many professionals make the mistake of performing an over-rehearsed spiel that sounds like an infomercial for their idea. Instead, pause frequently, especially when there is an opportunity for the buyer to give you a reaction or ask a question. In an ideal world, you’d spend more time in a dialogue with the buyer than performing a monologue.

7. Start from the beginning- always. Even if you had a long and productive conversation the day before, you’d be surprised how much can change in the buyer’s mind. After all, you’ve been thinking about the meeting and they have, too. Assume that they’ve done more research, talked to some people and something has changed since the time you last spoke. It’s your job to figure out what that is. After some initial rapport building, do another information gathering session. If appropriate, ask for a recap from their perspective.

8. Watch for hidden opportunities. The buyer’s goal for the meeting may not be the same as yours. In addition to hearing your idea, the executive may be evaluating you to see if you would be a good fit for another project. Remember, when you are in the room, you are selling minimally two things: your project and yourself. Even if the meeting doesn’t result in a “Yes,” making a favorable impression can be the beginning of a long-term professional relationship.

9. Don’t claim your expertise- demonstrate it. Don’t just talk about your experience, show your expertise by positioning your project as it relates to the competition. Don’t brag or boast about past wins. If you must mention a past success, do it off-handedly and with humility. This is similar to the common rule about storytelling, “Show, don’t tell.” Remember a lot of people talk the talk. Those who are “good in a room” are focused on meeting the needs of the buyer and not on boosting their own ego.

10. Save a surprise for the end. Plan multiple strategies to exit gracefully. Some techniques are to have a callback to a personal topic that you discussed at the beginning of the meeting, thank them for a specific, useful contribution they made during the meeting, or leave them a polished piece of material that they haven’t seen previously. Use a summary statement that you design specifically to be remembered and repeated. Remember, last impressions last.

Surprise! Bonus tip.

11. You are always in the room. Develop your skills so you can handle meetings that occur unexpectedly, like on a plane, at a party, or in a waiting room. More business starts from casual interactions than formal meetings across a conference room table. The polished professional who is “good in a room” is ready for anything. But don’t feel the need to talk business in all situations. Often the best move is to say, “Why don’t we just enjoy the party, and I’ll follow up with you on Monday.”

I was impressed by my fellows’ preparedness. They arrived with supporting documents, photographs, numbers and projections. I had none of that.

Peggy would listen and sometimes interrupts for clarifications, but usually wait to the end before she starts interrogating the pitcher. She would question the originality and integrity of the story. Makes recommendation of how to make it more appealing and compelling. Then question the financial viability of the project and its audience appeal.

Although, she made flattering comments to most of the fellows, she didn’t seem to be excited by any.

Finally, I was called to pitch. I didn’t expect to be nervous, but I was. I accepted an offer of a cup of water and introduced myself. Peggy was pleased when I mentioned her recent film “Towelhead”; I felt that we connected. Good start!

I took a deep breath and began to pitch. Peggy was silent all the way, totally focused and listening intently. I didn’t know what to make of it. But by the time I finished my pitch, she sat back and said “Wow. Did you see how everybody was hooked by your story?”. Frankly, I didn’t see anything, but I was thrilled to hear that.

After the session, Peggy gave me her business card and asked me to send her the script.

I went back home and emailed Peggy the script. She thanked me,and we agreed to meet after the holidays.

A few days later, Francisco called and suggested Peggy to be my mentor. I accepted the suggestion, and Peggy agreed to be my mentor.

Peggy was not on my “Directors” list, but “Alan Ball”, whose recent film was produced by Peggy, was – so I was close. Anyway, I was pleased to have met her and was looking forward to be working with her.

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