The Elevator Pitch, Part 1

It has come to my attention that I’ve failed you. I asked you to send elevator pitches, without previously teaching you about elevator pitches. Mea culpa, mea culpa. I’ll try to make up for it over the next three days by giving you lots of tips about how to craft a successful pitch. (I won’t be able to critique everyone’s pitch, but you can still learn from the ones I do critique.)

I’ll start with some basics. I had a specific reason for setting up Friday’s blog post with “close your eyes and imagine…” I wanted you to grasp the fact that you are going to be talking to someone. I didn’t want your standard written pitch. Which is what many of you offered. There’s a huge difference between the way people speak and the way they write. And don’t give me this “we’re writers, not speakers” bit. Hellooooo, as writers, you need to be able to capture on the page the way people speak. It’s called dialogue.

The purpose of your elevator pitch is to get someone to want to hear more. That’s IT. There is no other purpose. The corollaries to that are: (1) You most likely won’t get someone to request more if your pitch is less than 40 words and it sounds like a canned tagline from your proposal; and (2) You most likely won’t get someone to request more if your pitch is too detailed, too long, and their eyes glaze over after 15 seconds.

Of course, if the content of a picth is uninspiring or uninteresting, it won’t matter if it’s well-delivered and the perfect length. Sometimes an uninspiring pitch is merely evidence that you haven’t figured out how to convey the unique and exciting essence of your book in a few words. This is a solvable problem. Unfortunately, if it’s due to an uninteresting book, there’s not much you can do to save it. Bummer, but true.

I’m going to offer some thoughts on a few of the elevator pitches here. The next two days, I’ll have more general tips and more critiques.

[As an aside, I'm currently reading Home by Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead). A line from the book captured me and seems appropriate here: "Experience had taught them that truth had sharp edges and hard corners, and could be seriously at odds with kindness." To whatever extent this applies here, I apologize.]

Here we go:

The Wannabe Scribe: Hunted across the galaxy by a powerful religious cult, an amnesiac searches for clues to his past and the forgotten knowledge of a prototype weapon that has the power to enslave billions.

My thoughts: Try as I might, I can’t imagine you letting loose with this in response to the question, “So what are you writing?” Why not start with something more conversational like, “I’m writing a sci-fi about an amnesiac who is being hunted across the galaxy by a powerful religious cult, because he…” Make this into a verbal pitch, a dialogue. First, put it in context by saying what it is. (A sci-fi or whatever.) Then fill it in with some of the story. Why do we care about this amnesiac? What will he do with the weapon? And why does the cult want him? Then put a finish on it. You could have a concluding statement like, “The novel is finished and I have sample chapters available” or you could ask a question such as, “Are you interested in sci-fi?”

***

Timothy Fish: The story is about a wealthy businessman facing retirement with no grandchildren, who is visited by a con-artist claiming she is raising a granddaughter he didn’t know he had and demanding that his son marry her; believing she only wants money, he seeks to discredit her, with the help of his son’s socialite girlfriend, but when they discover the con-artist is telling the truth, he must learn that social status isn’t important, before his son leaves the family business, to prevent the homeless con-artist from joining his family.

Me: That is one l-o-n-g sentence, dude. My eyes glazed over about 30 words in, and I began wondering what we were having for dinner and why the heck couldn’t we get a decent glass of wine around here. This is way too detailed and convoluted—I can hardly make heads or tails of what’s happening. The point is NOT to wow me with your intricate plot. Give me the genre; give me the exciting pieces that spark my imagination; give me an overview that makes me want to read the book. “A wealthy businessman becomes involved with a con-artist who may or may not be trying to con him…” What’s at stake? Why do we care?

***

Karen: I have a non-fiction to share: My working title is “Majesty” and it’s about finding God’s footprints around the world. I invite the reader to travel with me to such places as the magnificient glaciered mountains of Alaska to see His majesty; dive beneath the waters to wonder at His provision for the small detailed creatures of the Great Barrier Reef, and sing Amazing Grace in the middle of a small quiet river in China.

My thoughts: This is a terrific start, Karen. I like that you opened it with “I have a non-fiction.” Many conferences are both fiction and non, so this is helpful. Your summary gives me a good basic idea of what the book is about, but I’d encourage you to fill it in. Right now it’s hard for me to envision anything beyond the big idea… could it be a photography book? A gift book? Or are you going to try and capture all these places with words only? Give us something concrete. There are so many genres of non-fiction; we need to know if it’s self-help, Christian living, devotional, or whatever. But you’re on your way to a successful pitch.

***

Debra E. Marvin: “Well, I’m glad you asked, Rachelle, because I didn’t want to be an annoying person who traps editors and agents in elevators! My name is Debra Marvin and my story is set in Glasgow, Scotland in 1837. My heroine awakens, violent and bloody, in an asylum with no memory but linked to a murder she can’t recall. The hero, a shy young reverend, anxious to end the guilt of turning his back on his mentally ill sister, promises to protect this fiery woman. But, by doing so, he forfeits any chance of the quiet, well-respected life he so desires—a life no longer shadowed by family madness. On the run, they begin to discover truths about each other—terrible truths that free them, but may force them apart forever. The only way to prove she is innocent is to find the murderer themselves. (The pitch goes on for 115 more words.)

Me: Debra, the first three sentences are perfect! Conversational, relaxed, witty… and you segue naturally into your story. I like how you give it a setting right away so I can picture it. And by saying “My heroine…” you’ve established it’s fiction. The sentence about the heroine awakening bloody definitely captures my attention. After that you get a little too detailed, and I’ve shown you what I’d cut. Since you have quite a bit more information after this, the pitch is far too long. Keep it between 30 and 60 seconds, max. Time yourself saying all of your pitch aloud, and determine exactly how many words you need. In any case, you have a great beginning, you just need to wrap it up shortly after this first part.

***

Lisa Jordan: Queen of the Shrinking Violets, the first in the Garden of Grace series, is an 80,000 word women’s fiction about four generations of women who head south to fulfill a dying wish. Their road trip, filled with unexpected detours and misadventures, becomes a journey of self-discovery. When hearts are opened and secrets exposed, God uses His garden of grace to draw these women together and closer to Him.

Queen of the Shrinking Violets, told in third person past tense using multiple viewpoints explores the trials and triumphs of mother/daughter relationships and encourages today’s women to tear down emotional walls and find healing. They are extraordinary in God’s eyes and always blooming in His Garden of Grace, no matter their season in life.

Me: Lisa, I’ve heard you pitch your book and I remember liking the story and wanting to know more about it. Curiously, I remember feeling the same thing I feel now: that it’s all so vague. The only actual “story” I can envision is a group of women on a road trip. The rest is amorphous. How am I to envision detours, misadventures, journey of self-discovery, hearts opened… and God’s garden of grace? Those are all non-specific, non-visual words. Work on making this more concrete. Use words that help me wrap my mind around what this journey looks and feels like. As for your second paragraph, that’s definitely not something for the verbal pitch. Sounds like something from your proposal or suggested back-cover copy. It’s a “written” style of language and would sound awfully stilted if you spoke it aloud. You have a nice way with words. Keep working on the best ways to capture your book in spoken language, in a way that makes someone really want to read it.

***

Okay, I think that’s enough for today. Based on what I’ve said here, feel free to go back and look at your own elevator pitch from Friday and see if you can self-critique. More tomorrow!

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent who tries to be nice while telling the truth.

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  • Adam Heine

    >Hm, I looked at the pitch I submitted again, and realized I was not being improvisational about the rest of it. I was being lazy. Let me try a little more…

    “Heh, I didn’t know the elevator pitch was an actual thing.

    “So it’s science fantasy. Hagai grew up thinking he’s weak, useless, incapable of anything. Then he gets a stone in the post that gives him these random visions of the future, but more than that, it was sent to him by his dead mother. So he sets off on a quest to find her, facing killers and air pirates along the way.

    “The stone gets stolen by a pirate named Sam Draper. Hagai goes after him and asks for it back – politely since he is, you know, a pirate, but Sam refuses. So in spite of himself Hagai asks to fly with him. He needs to travel and wants to stay close to the stone.

    “So now Hagai, who never wanted anything to do with airships, let alone pirates, is part of the crew. He’ll do anything, even change the future, if it means he can find his mother.”

  • Timothy Fish

    >Yeah, that’s kind of what I thought, dudette. Given that the story is essentially about a man torn between social status and family, what I wrote leaves something to be desired. What fascinated me about the approach I took is that it hits all of the major points, giving us the entire outline in a nutshell. But alas, your eyes have glazed over and there’s no way I would remember all of that anyway.

    In truth, if I were asked face to face what the story is about, I would probably respond with the reason I fell in love with the story. The story is about a homeless woman showing up on the doorstep of a rich man who doesn’t like poor people with a girl she claims his granddaughter and demanding to marry the girl’s father. Being me, it would probably be even shorter—a homeless woman shows up at a rich man’s house, with a girl she claims is his granddaughter.

  • Karen

    >Thanks, Rachelle. I’ll sharpen it up for Write to Publish and try to find an elevator ;-)

  • The Wannabe Scribe

    >Thank you, Rachelle.

    Your comments have been immensely helpful.

  • Chatty Kelly

    >Can I just tell you how much your edits to your own bio at the end of the post crack me up! I love it! (telling the truth in love, no doubt – very Biblical).

    Looking forward to more critiques. This is fun!

  • Catherine Downen

    >Rachelle,
    It’s amazingly generous of you to be doing this. Thank you for teaching us so much. (To paraphrase Maya Angelou’s words from her new book, Letter to my Daughter, are you a teacher who writes or a writer who teaches?)
    Cathy

  • lynnrush

    >Great advice, Rachelle. This is great stuff!!

  • David A. Todd

    >Rachelle:

    Every conference I’ve been at, every class I’ve attended where elevator pitches are mentioned, the advice is to always memorize and practice giving your pitch. Perhaps that’s why so many seem written or rehearsed: we’ve been advised to do so.

    Do you advise something different?

    DAT

  • Daniel F. Case

    >I think the hardest thing–for me at least–is resisting the temptation to tell too much of the story. Prior to the last writers conference I attended, I spent a good deal of time crafting a script–a couple of lines that “set the hook.” Because it was short, it was easy to ad-lib around and deliver naturally without seeming like a memorized speech:

    The Voice is the story of a burned-out DJ trying to re-invent himself as a talk-radio host. He has an unexpected helper in that effort–a voice in his headphones that only he can hear, that tells him secrets about his callers–and knows about his secrets, too.”

    D.

  • Marla Taviano

    >Thanks for taking all the blame. :)

  • Rachelle

    >David: No, they seem “written” because they’re not crafted properly. I’m obviously not critiquing the delivery here, but the crafting of the pitch. In cases where I’ve said it sounds “written,” it means it sounds like writing and no matter how much you practice that delivery, it’s going to sound stilted. You’ve got to start with better words, words that sound more natural, like verbal communication. Then of course, the trick is to be practiced enough to know your pitch, yet not so practiced that you sound canned.

    Your skill as a writer comes into play even here, as you’re required to WRITE something that will sound good SPOKEN.

    Nobody ever said this gig would be easy!

  • Julie Gillies

    >Rachelle,

    This post reminds me of a master archery lesson. You attack and challenge with skilled purpose, forcing those of us who wield the sword of the pen to focus amidst dripping sweat and clashing metal.

    In the end, the intense training will serve its purpose, and you will have equipped many writers with a skilled, sharp edge.

    Touché – and thank you.

  • Timothy Fish

    >We should be able to write like we speak. I’ll agree with that, but I’ve got side with David. If we memorize our delivery, we’ll either come across sounding stilted or we’ll forget our speech or something. Even trained actors don’t get it right 100% of the time. We can do nothing but read a book by another author and then tell someone what it’s about, months later. You would think we could do the same with our own work.

    After giving it some more thought, if someone asked me what my book is about I think I would say it’s about a wealthy man who investigates the death of his daughter-in-law to prove that a homeless woman he thinks is trying to weasel her way into his family is lying about the girl she raised being his granddaughter. It’s still one long sentence, but not quite as bad.

  • Rachel

    >Rachelle…I would never ACTUALLY call you out on your buff arms in an elevator. I would think it in my mind, and then say something non-weird, like “I recognize you from your picture on your blog.”

    :P So. Just so you know. And I know how you got your arms. Holy Yoga and Full Body Combat! psha!

  • Debra E Marvin

    >Hi Rachelle,
    I forgot to mention that I jimmied the elevator to get stuck between floors.

    I agree with your critique. It’s hard to keep casual the practiced delivery and to write it rather than have it come out in tongue-tied um-isms . . . does make a difference.
    Thank you so much for this great opportunity!
    I was practicing in the car after my post and trying to figure out just how long it did take. It will be a pleasure to shorten it.

  • crt

    >Hmm I would say I was guilty of “less than 40 words and it sounds like a canned tagline from your proposal.” At least less then forty words, I don’t think I would use what I said in any proposal.

    My problem would be that I would take to much time stuttering and stammering…

    “You mean when I’m not riding up and down in this elevator torturing agents with my pitch?”

    “What I’m writing about a teenager that hopes for a college scholarship through her basketball skills, but when she learns she is pregnant faces a tough choices. Abort the baby and go on with life as normal, or have it and risk her dreams as well as her parents.”

    Now that sounds like something snipped out of proposal…

  • Rosslyn Elliott

    >Thanks, Rachelle! This is a great post. Your distinction between spoken pitches and written pitches is enormously helpful. Whenever I consider spoken pitches, I think of that scene in Altman’s The Player when the two writers pitch to the movie exec. The gothic, overly-zealous writer rants:
    “This is a tough story, a tragedy in which an innocent woman dies. Why? Because that happens! That’s reality! No stars! No Schwarzenegger! No pat Hollywood endings!”

  • Lisa Jordan

    >You know when you rip off a Band-aid how it stings at first, but soon you don’t notice it anymore? Well, that’s how I felt before reading today’s post. I was nervous about your reaction to my pitch because after your update to Friday’s blog, I realized I didn’t do it correctly.

    Thanks so much for the nice comments and taking the time to crit my pitch. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot this week about elevator pitches. Hopefully by September I’ll have a pitch that will have an agent or editor wanting to read more of my story.

  • Johnnie

    >In addition to such practical help, what a great quote from Marilynne Robinson*

    Pleading guilty to “writing,” not “speaking.” How about:

    My heroine is an old woman, soon to die, who longs to tell someone about the man she once loved and the child she abandoned. But when she shares her secrets, an old enemy from her Cold War espionage days threatens her long-lost family.

  • Catherine West

    >I think it’s harder to actually write down what we’re supposed to be saying. It does come out more like a synopsis on speed. Note that I didn’t partake in the game…
    For me, pitching in person ranks right up there with getting my toenails pulled out one by one. No thanks. However, I realize that if I’m going to attend conferences, it’s a necessary evil, and my agent won’t do it for me, even for a good bottle of wine. What is wrong with that woman?
    Okay, I haven’t actually done an elevator pitch, but here’s what I might say if I were pitching one of my yet to be sold novels:
    My story is set in the late 60’s, during the Vietnam war. Journalist Kristin Taylor has quit her job back home and traveled to Vietnam to cover the war, her sights set on the Pulitzer. When she meets photographer Luke Maddox, she hopes it’s for the last time. He’s not hard to look at but he’s got the personality of an electric fence. But there’s something about him that draws her, and as she uncovers his secrets, Kristin realizes he just might be the one to hand her what she’s come here for. But she’ll have to betray him to get it.

    Okay, I can honestly tell you that would not come out of my mouth. I wish it would. You would more likely hear blah blah, mumble, cough…yeah, so red or white?

  • Leslie Oden

    >This is incredibly useful, Rachelle. Thank you!

  • m. L. Kiner

    >”The Hong Kong Connection” is a legal thriller about a gutsy female attorney who takes on high ranking International officials. It’s a taut, rollercoaster of a ride from New York to Palm Beach to Washington D.C. to Hong Kong. The plot is expertly woven, the characters persuasive, and the dialogue snappy and spot on.
    http://www.StrategicBookPublishing.com/TheHongKongConnection.html

  • Eliza Lear

    >Elevator pitch requires deference to elevator etiquette – e.g, a story about an unwed mother in the 60s might be pitched thus: ” ‘Juno’ trivialized the pain of unwed mothers – a story about a girl getting pregnant “out of wedlock” in the 70s would explore the universal emotions – the loss and grief of surrendering a baby in adoption would have substance.
    “What do you mean?” (assuming you’ve got a dialogue)
    “Because pro-choice in the 60s meant the choice of raising a “bastard” or being sent away to a “home for unwed mothers”. Society has changed but the disconnect for women who give up their children is timeless.”
    Now you have a conversation going…the elevator just stopped but the dialogue continues…

  • Cheri

    >I’m writing a memoir called Worth Every Tear. It’s a testimony for hurting parents, to let them know that there is hope, that God can get the job done when we can’t.

    I grew up in the midst of alcoholism, so I learned early on to trust only myself. But by twenty-five, I’d proven to be less than trustworthy and made the decision to place my faith in Christ. I also vowed to prove to God that saving me was not a mistake. In a twisted way, I thought raising good Christian kids would prove my worth to God.

    The book’s prologue pulls the reader right into a scene where my husband and I are confronting our oldest son about his drug use. In response, he ran away, and we were crushed and confused. We didn’t understand what happened. We’d raised him right. Our knee-jerk reaction was to vow that we would never be betrayed like that again.

    Chapter One puts the reader right in my shoes seven years later, when I discover that our second son is using drugs and that his older brother introduced him to them.

    That’s the breaking point. I know I can’t prove anything, not to God, or to anyone else. I surrender. Only then, after I am out of His way, can God faithfully bring our family to full restoration.

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