Writing for Forbes means that PR people occasionally pitch me stories. Most of these I ignore, but one recently caught my eye. The pitcher mentioned a piece I wrote, introduced a high-profile entrepreneur who would be interested in doing an interview with me and listed several topics on which she could speak knowledgeably that fit with my beat. It was targeted, succinct and showed the sender had done her homework. I said I was interested … and never heard another word about it. So close, but so far away.
Pitching isn’t just for writers, public relations professionals, or entrepreneurs seeking venture capital cash. We all pitch, all the time. Cover letters are pitches. Party invites are pitches. Asking someone out on a date is a pitch. Ditto, emailing a company with a complaint about its product or service. Here’s how to do it right:
Demonstrate that you’ve done your homework
During my days as a TA, I used to get emails addressed to every variation of my name under the sun. These students saw me every week. My easy to spell and pronounce name was on the syllabus, so there’s no excuse for sending an email with the salutation “Dear Ms. Handy,” Doesn’t really predispose me to grant your request for an extension, does it?
You don’t need to take things to a stalker level, just don’t be sloppy. Follow directions. Initiate contact in the manner that you’re directed to and include the materials requested. Get names and titles right. Customize your pitch to the audience. Make the recipient feel special. And yes, follow up. This is Pitching 101.
Play to your strengths
Don’t pitch what you think the person wants to hear (unless we’re talking PR), pitch what you can do well. If the initial fit between what you do well and what they want isn’t there, start Venn diagramming until you can find some sort of overlap between the two (unless we’re talking interpersonal pitching, in which case, cut your losses) and jump on that, or pitch elsewhere.
Keep it brief
Don’t give the respondent an opportunity to say no. The more you ramble (in print or in person), the more info you put out there to be nitpicked, dissected and/or used to dismiss your request. Also, you will bore the person on the other end and they will hold that boredom against you. Keep your pitch as short as practical. If you can’t make the ask in a couple of paragraphs or a few spoken sentences, you need to get better at editing yourself (or bring in outside help).
Get professional help
Have someone read or listen to your pitch. Ask them to be ruthless. If they knew nothing about you and what you were (figuratively or literally) selling, would they buy in? If not, where did you lose their interest? If you can, get feedback from someone who’s a strong pitcher and/or knows your field inside and out.
Realize that you are selling yourself
The job of any pitch is to sell you (as a writer, a start-up founder, an employee, a hot date) to someone else. Personality trumps all. You can pitch an editor a killer idea, but if your writing is sub-par, they will take a pass on you. You can also pitch a been there, done that piece, but the way you frame it and the strength of your voice and style can get you the yes.
Your credentials and presentation will seal the deal, but the impression you make is the deciding factor and where the bulk of your effort should be directed (check out Susannah Breslin’s piece on hiring impressions for more on this). Spend less time on trying to be a mind-reading chameleon who can give everyone exactly what they want on their terms and more time refining your unique selling proposition and your powers of persuasion in communicating your own awesomeness. Why are you the right person? For this job, to write this story, to make out with? If your pitch can’t clearly convince the recipient of that, then it needs to be reworked until it leaves no doubt.
J. Maureen Henderson, Contributor