I had never heard of a pitch slam until 2006. I had come to the NLGJA (National LGBTQ Journalist Association) conference in Washington D.C. with one goal in mind: To get the attention of the editor at The Advocate. I had a story idea; all I needed to do was corner the guy at one of the cocktail parties.
That pitch slam saved my dignity. Instead of cornering that poor editor with small talk (while juggling a tiny plastic plate, tiny cocktail napkin, and tiny plastic cup of soda water), I sat with other writers in a ballroom, and one-by-one, we shared our story ideas. After he passed on that pitch, I sold him a different story via email.
Since then pitch slams have become much more popular—so much so that ASJA offers virtual pitch slams throughout the year. A carefully planned, three-minute pitch can make you stand out from the crowd or at least help hone your story idea, letter of introduction or book proposal.
Of course, standing at a microphone in a room full of mostly strangers is nerve-wracking. Unfortunately, some of the worst pitches come from those who don’t know what to expect or worse, those who think of the pitch slam as their only chance to impress a decision-maker. So here’s some advice from the three of us who are moderating this year’s in-person pitch slams at the ASJA Annual Conference in New York City.
Jodi Helmer is presenting “Rate My LOI,” which is basically a pitch slam for content marketers. In this session, participants will read their letters of introduction (LOIs) and get feedback from companies hiring writers. Estelle Erasmus is moderating “Pitch Slam: Writing about Midlife and Beyond” with editors from PBS’s NextAvenue.org and NextTribe.com. And I will head up “Pitch Slam: Nonfiction Agents and Editors,” for those with book ideas.
Ready, set, PITCH!
Prepare and Practice
A poorly prepared pitch is painful and exhausting and can leave a bad impression. Research the editors, agents and companies on the panels before you write. It should go without saying: Skip pitches that aren’t a fit for the market. Don’t be that person who pitches a novel to nonfiction editors and agents. (Note: We’re still finalizing our pitch panels, so be sure to visit the ASJA conference agenda for updates.)
Write your pitch or LOI, and practice reading it or giving it off the cuff. A story or book pitch should have all of the important elements of a longer, written one, but in a much smaller package.
Three Minutes Means Three Minutes
You will have only three minutes to offer your pitch. We are not kidding. This is one of the biggest reasons you should prepare and practice. As one of many pitchers, we can’t allow you to ramble on, as the Led Zeppelin song goes. Get in and get out—or get cut off.
We’re not being mean, I promise. There are lots of folks who want to give their pitches, and we want to be fair to everyone—plus make sure there is time for as many pitches and LOIs as possible. Besides, one way to impress an editor is to get to the point quickly.
Bring One Pitch or LOI
This is not the time to unload your entire ideas file. Choose the most pressing or best pitch (or LOI) for feedback. Because of time constraints, we can’t allow folks to pitch more than one idea at a time, even if each idea is only a minute long.
There is one exception to this rule, if you’re attending the “Writing About Midlife and Beyond” pitch slam. “Come prepared with more than one good pitch,” says Estelle Erasmus, even though you’ll only have time to pitch one of them. “That way if someone already pitches an idea like yours and there is no interest, you have other options.”
Respect Others’ Time
After you give your pitch, the panel will be invited to offer feedback. This is when listening, rather than talking, is most important. One or two clarifying questions are fine, but be careful not to dominate. Remember, there are others lined up at the mic with the jitters. Same goes for the time after the pitch slam. Our panelists may need to head off to another appointment or may feel overwhelmed by a line of people waiting to speak to them. Think about whether pitching another idea immediately after the panel is the right thing at that moment.
Keep Your Bio Short
You should introduce yourself but keep the pitch about your pitch—especially in the books and articles pitch slams. In your LOI, focus on the client as much as possible, and use your bio to position yourself as the right writer for the gig.
Have a Paper Trail
What would an interested editor, agent or client want to take back to the office? Have a written story pitch at the ready, in case a publication is interested in hearing more. Bring a copy of your book proposal or query to put in the hands of an encouraging agent or editor. And in case your LOI is spot on, have it available to send to an interested client immediately. No one may ask for these, but if they do, you want to be ready.
What if you don’t have a full book proposal or agent query? Reconsider pitching that day. You don’t want to be stuck empty-handed but even more importantly, you might not be ready to shop your idea to publishers or agents.
Set Realistic Expectations
Of course, you want to sell your book proposal on the spot. Who wouldn’t? But it’s critical that you don’t set yourself up for big disappointments. The most common syllable spoken by an agent, editor or client is “no.” And that sucks. You don’t have to expect outright rejection, but it’s a good idea to have other goals in mind—just in case. Set yourself up for success, no matter what the panel has to say.
Here are a few Great Expectations: Practice, get feedback, come up with new angles or stories, learn about the industry, refine your pitch or LOI, support your fellow writers, get off your feet for an hour. (That last one is for the most pessimistic of us.)
Learn from Other Pitches
Listen carefully while others are pitching. While you only get three minutes to pitch and another two or so for feedback, you can use the entire hour to your advantage. Pay attention to your comrades and the feedback they’re receiving. Give them support and encouragement. You’ll be better for it.
No Pitch or LOI? Show Up Anyway!
Being a fly on the wall may be the best thing at the moment. You could spend the hour sketching out your own LOI based on what you hear in the session. Or you could develop a smart pitch for one of the publication editors to send when you get home. Or perhaps you’re thinking of writing a book, but the proposal/pitching process scares you. Sitting in on that session can help you build your confidence.
Haven’t signed up for the conference? Reserve your spot before the Early Bird prices end on Wednesday, March 20! The agenda and other details are at the conference website.