What a bunch of comedians taught me about pitching


I’m currently in Australia running a couple of workshops. Last week, I went to Melbourne’s comedy festival and found myself ‘pitched to’ by dozens of local comedians trying to entice me into their shows.

It struck me that pitching is a really important skill for creatives – and yet not many seem to do it particularly well. Let’s face it, we’re not taught these skills at art college – and yet, if you know how to pitch you’re more likely to fill your shows, get your film script commissioned or get an agent.

So I’m going to share my experience and then give you some tips on what I believe makes a great pitch.

My story

So there I was in Melbourne, a passing tourist. As I walked up to the town hall, there were dozens of people hanging out with flyers.

One guy asked: “Hey – are you going to a show tonight?”

“Maybe,” I replied.

“This one is going to be great,” he said, thrusting a flyer into my hand.

Nine flyers later, with multiple promises of a “brilliant time”, I began to feel a little overwhelmed.

I distanced myself from the crowd and stared at a list of shows that I could choose from that evening – names I’d never heard of, titles that meant nothing to me. I didn’t know how to choose.

As I stood there in a bewildered state, a guy walked up and said: “Are you going to see a show tonight? Can I do my pitch to you?”

“Sure,” I said, appreciating that he was polite enough to ask. But then his pitch went something like this…

”I’ve been a comedian for 18 years, and I’m from the UK. If you’ve seen any Australian comedians, you’ll probably want to avoid them. I know what I’m doing, so come and see my show.”

He also told me that his show was about internet dating, a topic I find interesting – but, sadly, I had already been put off. He was trying to convince me by using his years of experience as a selling point (as if I cared). He also put down the local competition, which didn’t sit well with my values.

I politely took the flyer and looked elsewhere. In fact, I sought the advice of people who weren’t pitching. I asked the box office staff, whom I hoped would be a little less biased.

So the question is – what did I choose to see and why?

In the end, I chose to see an improvisation. Why? Nobody pitched improvisation to me, but I’ve always enjoyed it. I went for the safe option, mainly because none of the pitches resonated with me enough to want to see those shows.

There were comedians that were charming and passionate and there were topics that sounded interesting – but none of them stood out enough for me to choose an unknown.

So what’s there to learn?

Principle 1 – build rapport

Being pitched to is often an uncomfortable experience. I was just a tourist being handed flyers, but If I’d been an exec producer, I would have been in the uncomfortable and pressurised position of being ‘sold to’ every day. It’s important to remember this.

So start with building rapport. I don’t mean fake platitudes or being charming for the sake of it. What I mean is, put yourself in your audience’s shoes and consider how you can make it feel comfortable for them.

Be warm, connective and avoid being pushy. Pushy energy creates resistance and will make people want to distance themselves from you. Meet the person with presence and don’t be put off if they seem cold or distant. They may be feeling overwhelmed, just as I did at the comedy festival. Be warm, but not over-familiar – that can feel pushy too.

Principle 2 – make it interesting and/or tailor-made

Think – how can you make it interesting for them? If you’re pitching to the public, then you don’t know much about them, but you could find out what they’re interested in first.

Perhaps my comedian could have asked me what sort of shows I liked. I would probably have said improv or funny stories – and then he could have adapted his pitch to meet my interests. “Ah, improv is great – who have you seen before?” If he’d engaged me in a conversation, he could have linked to how his routine offers something similar to an improvisation.

Similarly, with an exec producer or a prospective customer, I would do your research. What are they interested in? What have they commissioned before? If it’s a customer, what’s their history?

It’s so easy to Google people these days. Then, how can you tailor your pitch to create some interest? If you know they like ‘gritty dramas’, then there is probably a way in. If it’s a customer, are they into yoga? Then you know they’re probably interested in topics around wellbeing. Are there questions you can get answered before you meet your person?

Principle 3 – be memorable

I’ve been teaching people how to do a TED-style talk here in Australia, and one of the things I’ve learned is how important it is to take time to develop a memorable hook. If you are pitching against others, then it makes sense to do something different – but how?

Make your title provocative or attention grabbing. “Ben Chambers, comedian” means nothing to me, but an unusual title, for example “Fleabag” (the successful BBC comedy/drama) grabs my attention and the name is easy to remember as it creates an image in your mind and provokes emotion.

If I were the comedian with 18 years of experience talking about dating, perhaps I would have called my show “How I ended up in prison – after three internet dates”. I just made that up, by the way. The point is, can you say something intriguing or shocking to add an ‘ooh factor’ to your pitch?

Finally, I want to take a moment to say that I don’t mean to criticise this well-meaning comedian. I admired his determination and courage to get out there and pitch. It’s a really hard job – but I think he made the same mistake that many creatives do. So I hope my tips will help you get attention with more success.

Bev and I are hosting a Trailblazer Tribe Live event at The Library members’ club in London on May 23rd – One-Minute Pitching for Creatives – so we’ll be posting a few blogs about pitching in the next few weeks.

Early bird places cost just £15 and we’d love you to come – click HERE to buy tickets.

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