You've Been Pitching Wrong Your Whole Life—Here's How to Do it Right
You've been appealing to all the wrong parts of the brain.
You’ve been pitching wrong your whole life.
Wealth, power, and celebrity are sources of status, means of attention. You have none of these. They’re in the power position. You humbly say things like, "thank you so much for taking this meeting with me," but they don't know you and they don't care. They’ve seen hundreds of people just like you trying to sell a script.
How important are you, really? There are many like you, but here's the good news: if they’re calling you for a meeting, then they’re already interested. Think of it like a date. If a girl agrees to go out with you, it’s because she’s already interested to some degree.
How to get status when everyone is more powerful than you
First of all, no one is "above" you. That’s a limiting belief that will hold you back (which we will talk more about later). For now, let’s assume you’ve managed to get in front of some very powerful executives. What can you do to stand out when you have no status?
Create local status. Sure "global" status can’t be changed, but your local status can. President Obama is one of the most powerful people in the world, yet when Dr. Ronny Jackson tells him to take his pants off and sit in the corner of the room, Obama does so. This is because, in the doctor’s office, the doctor has "local" status.
Writing your pitch is like writing a script. You have to put that much thought and care into it in order for it to work.
Most people will come in and make small talk for 20 minutes and wait for the other party to make it ok for you to pitch. You know what that says? "Hello. I am desperately trying to sell this script and I hope you will be so kind to buy it for the love of God so I don’t have to back to living in my mom's basement and buying refills of Swiffer for her antique floors." Much like dates, no one wants a desperate man.
You have an agenda; make sure you stick to it. No slides (yes, that’s right: no slides). No nonsense. Keep the attention on you. Of course, you don’t have to be a dick about it. It’s like the difference between a limp and a strong handshake: they both tell you a lot of about a person in one small act. You’re a professional, so start acting like it.
No one is doing anyone any favors here. If you think someone will magically come fund you because you have a good script, you’re wrong. You have to seize the opportunity on your own. The cavalry is not coming.
Don't just spew information
When most people pitch, they think, "How can I tell them everything they need to know?"
So, what's wrong with this? Well, information is boring. As soon as you see them check their phone or their watch—or even if they doodle for two seconds—it’s over.
We have the idea or the script so clearly in our heads and we try to convince the investor by showing them the logic. But the brain does not work in a logical manner when dealing with decisions.
Here's the theory. Your brain, and everyone else's, is split up in a three-section hierarchy:
- The Neocortex (the logical side, weighs pros and cons)
- The Social Brain (tries to figure out social context: who has more power, what are the relationships)
- The Croc Brain (the most primal: fight or flight, eat or starve, sex or death)
Most people pitch from the top down—from neocortex to neocortex. That's a big mistake. The brain filters information the opposite manner. It flows from the Croc Brain to the Social Brain and then to the Neocortex. If you don’t want to lose potential thousands—if not millions—of dollars, the most important brain to keep in mind is the Croc Brain.
Rule: Never pitch for more than 20 minutes.
Before information gets to the Social Brain and the Neocortex, it passes through the Croc Brain. It only thinks: Should I kill it? Should I eat it? Should I have sex with it? If the information doesn’t fall into either of those categories, it’s classified as “boring” and a neurotoxin is attached to the pitch (AKA, your script) and your prospector loses attention. The Croc Brain only deals with high-contrast concepts: Yes and no. Hot and cold. Good and evil.
So, why is this brain so important when it comes to pitching? Because it provides the initial response to any information. It’s looking to be entertained by someone who can hold its attention. Think of it like trying to train your dog to do a particular trick. You give it treats and praise— or, if you’re abusive, you hit your dog to correct it. This is because a dog sees the world through a Croc Brain. It’s purely reactionary. That’s how virtually every animal sees the world. And this is the same way you have to pitch your script.
How to get—and keep—attention from investors
Have you ever approached your boss with sales numbers showing how well you’ve performed in the last few weeks, only for the boss to put his feet up on the desk and grunt “...and?”
“Um... It shows here clearly that I’ve earned 15% for the company in the past few months and I wanted to talk about...maybe...a raise?” He points his hand toward the door, turns his chair away and says, “There’s no money for that.”
Come on! Even when the numbers are on your side, you can’t combat his ego! This is because of something called “frames.”
You’re going to start to see the world in a whole new way after reading this. This doesn’t just apply to pitching!
But first, the terminology. There are three major types of “frames”:
- The Power Frame
- The Time Frame
- The Analysis Frame
Each of the frames has another frame that you combat it with in order to gain the upper hand, have the person pay attention, and actually sell your script.
The Power Frame
This frame comes from the ego. It comes from someone believing they have a certain status. Think of that boss that wouldn’t give you the time of day, or that security guard that just feels like he owns everything. People with this frame of mind tend to seem arrogant and lack interest in what you have to say. They can even be flat-out rude.
I once heard a story of someone trying to sell their screenplay. During a moment of pause, the person looked over to the executive who had taken his copy, flipped it over, and was tracing his hand on the back of it with a pen. It was pretty bad. What did he do to keep attention on him? He took the script away from him and stared at it. Then he said, “Now, I see what’s going on. This drawing is pretty damn good. Forget the screenplay for a minute. How about you sell this to me. Name a price.” Now the exec was trying to sell to him, instead of the other way around. (In fact, this is taken straight from the aforementioned pitching god Klaff himself.)
The higher the stakes are, the more you have to be willing to walk away.
The reason this works is because this type of person rarely has their power challenged, or even questioned. By you doing something small and defiant—yet playful, so as to not offend—you’re countering the Power Frame by appearing unimpressed and unphased. On a subconscious level, the exec will begin to act differently toward you.
The Time Frame
Suddenly, the person you’re pitching to tries to “take back control” of the meeting by referencing the time. “How much time do you have left?” Or “Hey, John, we only got 5 minutes left.” They are losing attention, and this means death for your movie.
This is why your pitch must be as short, concise and (more importantly) as interesting as possible. Rule: Never pitch for more than 20 minutes.
Make sure you’re speaking to the Croc Brain directly, using emotionally charged arguments and words. (We’ll talk about this more in detail here where we give exact word-for-word scripts that even I used to get funding for my first feature I just finished.)
So, what do you do when someone you’re pitching to asks you to "wrap it up?" Most people would cower like Smeagol: "Yes, master, let me just speak faster and finish the rest of my pitch for you quickly."
Do not do this. Combating the Time Frame by hurrying up will kill your pitch.
Say you walk into the boardroom where you’re going pitch to the execs. You introduce yourself and they say, “Hi. I only have 10 minutes, but come in.” Most people would reply, “I really appreciate your time. I know you’re busy.” This is a dumb thing to say. You should feel bad for even thinking it. The only thing this does is put the exec’s frame in a position of power for over you. You might as well tell them to walk all over you.
Focus on the emotion, the relationships in the room, and the Croc Brain.
Let’s say you were scheduled for 30 minutes, but now they say they only have 10. What you say here is, “Unfortunately, I don’t work like that. There’s no sense in rescheduling unless we like each other and trust each other. I need to know: are you good to work with? Can you keep appointments and stick to a schedule?” This is taken straight from Klaff, who has used this exact phrase to win over the Time Frame many times with millions of dollars at stake.
You know what the typical response from the exec is? “Okay, you’re right about that. Yeah, sure I can. Let’s do this now. I have 30 minutes. That’s no problem. Come on in.”
This might sound counter-intuitive, but the thing you have to keep in mind is that the higher the stakes are, the more you have to be willing to walk away. The harsh truth of life is that if someone senses you need something, the less likely they are to give it to you.
The Analyst Frame
You’ll encounter this frame if, say, you are meeting a producer who is also a writer or a "creative." They will constantly be trying to get into the technical details of your script— the formating, the phrasing, the structure, and more importantly, the financial numbers. But the cold, hard facts of your script will kill the momentum of your pitch. And by buying into their Analyst Frame, you will lose.
Remember, this is their neocortex talking now. They’re going to ask you how you know your movie will sell. What's the data? You should have all of that settled already. If you’re pitching at this level, I’m assuming you already have a solid script and a solid business plan. You know you're going to recoup the costs. However, when they ask you for hard facts, you don’t want to respond by giving it to them. Because when the neocortex takes over, that's it. You lose control of the room and the attention on you is gone. The Croc Brain goes to sleep.
Keep the interest on the relationship you are building with them and not on the facts. Focus on pitching yourself.
You have to keep attention on you. Be engaging.
Imagine you were trying to sell a car. You could stand outside and talk about the car and all its features. You could even mention all the awards it got. But what is the best way to really get the point across? You take the customer on a test drive. Show them how it feels. Play to the emotions. This is effective because your customer is engaging in an action instead of sitting on the sidelines and listening to you talk it about. They are fully engaged in what you are pitching.
Something you can say before switching to an emotional argument: “We can talk about the numbers later; they’re there. For now, I just want know if this is a right fit for you and me.” Keep the interest on the relationship you are building with them and not on the facts. Focus on pitching yourself. Keep yourself interesting.
This sounds difficult, but remember: you’re a filmmaker. Pitching your screenplay should take on its own narrative. Lucky for you, you already craft stories all day long. Focus on the emotion, the relationships in the room, and the Croc Brain.
How to structure your pitch: concept over content
The aim of a pitch is to raise your status so high so that the investor or producer will give you a lot of attention. Like we said above, structure your pitch like you would any story. Have highs and lows, stakes and betrayals, even intrigue and romance.
As Klaff says, “Give them new and novel ideas to get them excited. Then deliver the information in a short tight package and make them prove to you that they are good enough to do business do with you.”
You’re a storyteller. You’re pitching yourself in three acts. That is what they want to hear. Writing your pitch is like writing a script. You have to put that much thought and care into it in order for it to work.
You're a storyteller. You're pitching yourself in three acts.
A producer or investor will be more willing to pick up an idea if he likes you rather than if he has no opinion of you. Spike their emotions. Don’t worry about seeming mean or aggressive. Just make sure to in sprinkle humor so it’s non-confrontational. You’ll stick in their memory for weeks to come.
The content is everything in your movie. The content of my feature I’m Okay, for example, is that it’s an anti-romantic comedy about a couple at the end of their relationship. The acting is great at times, sometimes not, and the cinematography is wicked.
The concept of the movie is everything around it. For example, with I'm Okay, it was a feature film from a first-time filmmaker. It was shot, edited, and pre-produced all within 60 days, and even premiered at TIFF’s building in Toronto. It showcases more of heart of Toronto than almost any other movie!
The key thing here is you can have more high valence emotional talk about your film as a "concept."
Action Step: Write down the concept of your film (as opposed to the content)
Is there something particular about the time frame it was shot? Did you only use cell phones? Is there some star actor in it? These are all concepts that would be of interest to a producer.
So what is the frame you encounter most when pitching? Is it the power frame? The time frame? Or perhaps a different objection altogether. Let us know your biggest barriers in the comments below.