Friday, April 12, 2013

How to Get Buyers Emotionally Involved in Your Pitch

Getting someone to buy a pitch is hard. You’re essentially asking them to invest tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of dollars on the hot air coming out of your mouth. The buyer will be a lot more likely to take that leap if they get emotionally involved in the story.

So how do you do that? Just like in a script (or movie), character is our way into the pitch. You have to pitch the story from the character’s point of view. Most writers, though, tend to pitch plot. The characters come off as just mechanical components of the story and therefore the listener engages with the pitch intellectually instead of emotionally.

This is probably best demonstrated with an example. Here is a plot-oriented pitch of the opening sequence of Sweet Home Alabama (though in actuality I sold that as a spec script, not a pitch):

Melanie Carmichael is a fashion designer in New York preparing for her first big fashion show. She is also dating Andrew, the handsome son of the mayor – basically the perfect guy. Her life is good.

After the fashion show, Melanie is picked up by Andrew’s driver. Melanie is taken to a strange building where Andrew is waiting. He leads her into a dark room, and suddenly the lights come on, revealing they are at the Tiffany’s jewelry store. Andrew gets down on one knee and proposes to Melanie. She hesitates, but eventually says yes. Andrew gestures around the store and says, “Pick one.”

They drive to a big social event, and Melanie asks Andrew if they can keep the engagement secret for a while. She wants to tell her parents about it in person. It comes out that Andrew has never met her parents. Andrew agrees, but when they get to the event, Andrew’s mother notices the ring on Melanie’s hand and reveals the engagement to the press.

The next day Melanie flies down to Alabama. She drives to Jake’s house. And it is here that we learn Melanie is already married. Jake is her high school boyfriend and husband. He’s a charming good-ol’-boy. But he has been refusing to sign the divorce papers that Melanie keeps sending him. They argue and Jake calls the sheriff. 

The sheriff turns out to be a childhood friend of Melanie's, but when Jake reveals that Melanie was the one behind a youthful indiscretion involving the sheriff's mother's tractor, he arrests her. It seems she was a bit wild in her teens.

That’s an accurate representation of what happens in the beginning of the movie, but it’s dry and cold. The listener could probably imagine what the film will be but they wouldn’t be caught up in the tale. But look what happens when we refocus this from Melanie’s point of view:

We open on Melanie Carmichael, a young New York fashion designer, preparing for her first show. She’s anxious – this is her big debut. But her boyfriend, Andrew, calls to give her encouragement and calm her down. The show is a big success and Melanie is practically floating when Andrew’s driver arrives to take her to a big fundraiser with his mother – who also happens to be the Mayor.

The limo drops Melanie at a strange building where Andrew is waiting for her. She’s so delighted to see him, it doesn’t occur to her to wonder about the location until he leads her into a dark room. “Where are we?” she asks. And with that the lights come on to reveal they are in Tiffany’s jewelry store.

Melanie’s shock grows when Andrew gets down on one knee and proposes to her. She is flabbergasted and asks him if he’s sure. He insists he is. She breaks out in a huge smile – of course she’ll marry him! He gestures at the collection of rings and says, “Pick one.” It’s every girl’s dream.

But as they continue to the fundraiser, Melanie starts to have some doubts. She asks Andrew if they can keep the engagement secret until she can tell her parents. He wants to call them right away, but Melanie thinks it would be better if she told them herself. “I have to meet them sometime,” Andrew protests. Melanie assures him he will.

When they get to the event, though, Andrew’s mother takes Melanie’s hand and feels the ring she’s turned backward to hide. In front of the gathered press, Andrew’s mother blurts out, “You’re engaged!?” Melanie sighs. So much for keeping it secret.

The next morning Melanie is driving through rural Alabama. She pulls up in front of a house. Jake, a handsome, charming, good-ol’-boy, comes out on the porch. But Melanie is not swayed by his Southern charm. She shoves divorce papers in his face. For Jake is her high school boyfriend and husband.

Melanie has been trying to get Jake to give her a divorce for years, but he keeps sending the papers back. Melanie insists Jake sign the papers immediately, but Jake is put off by her haughty attitude and calls the sheriff. Melanie is worried about that – until she discovers the sheriff is an old high school chum. But when Jake informs the sheriff that Melanie was the one who dumped his mother’s tractor in the pond, Melanie ends up in jail. It seems she was a little wild in her teens.

It’s a subtle difference; more in the way things are phrased than what is said. But by describing the action in terms of Melanie’s goals, feelings and reactions, we begin to care about her and what will happen to her.

Buying a pitch is a business decision, of course, but this is a business of people. To get someone to take a risk on your story, you need to get them to be passionate about it. It’s not only important that your story be good, it’s important that you tell it in an emotionally engaging fashion - by telling it through character.

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