In our book Now That’s Funny! The Art and Craft of Comedy Writing, 29 comedy writers take a generic premise we gave them and develop it into 24 unique stories. An unexpected bonus is some great pitch stories that emerged during these interviews. Both screenwriters and sitcom writers from the golden age of TV to Modern Family and SNL talked about their experiences with producers and executives. That gave us the idea of writing a pitch book. We called in two friends: a writer/director with forty movies to his credit who has spent time on both sides of the desk and a producer who has two Oscars to her credit. The four of us started spitballing.
Within 20 minutes we heard that a competent producer “…can smell a good story regardless of how it’s presented.” Then we heard: “The story isn’t that important. It’s the enthusiasm of the person making the pitch.” The same person made both statements…our award-winning producer. This double message showed us why so many people go into pitch meetings with shaking knees, sweaty hands and pounding hearts. So we decided we could be much more helpful talking about how to handle the stage fright that emerges whenever even the most experienced and successful writers pitch.
Stage Fright? What is it good for?
Stage fright can actually be useful if you can convert it into excitement and motivation to prepare. But too much of it can be devastating. It can motivate you to practice. To kick off your practice, here’s a good tip to help you project enthusiasm.
1. Go over your idea or script and make sure it’s good enough to merit your enthusiasm. It’s important that you think it’s great.
2. Take a stab at this classic acting exercise: practice pitching over-the-top; do it with wildly exaggerated enthusiasm. Go for a cartoony effect to get in touch with the most extreme enthusiasm you can create. Make sure you’re alone when you do this. Next, look for something within that crazy, out-of-control pitch and find an element in it that resonates with you. Try it again, only this time, dial it down to a level you feel comfortable pitching with.
3. Use a camcorder to record yourself. Tinker with the presentation until you’re happy with the results.
4. When you’re ready, try the pitch out on a few discerning friends who will give you honest and knowledgeable feedback.
5. Find some other more extreme friends to help you simulate a pitch going very wrong. Ask them to push even beyond that point. Tell them they can’t hurt your feelings. Remind them that you’re a writer and you have no feelings left.
6. Remind yourself that this is just one pitch and it will not shape the course of your career.
We were struck by the level of enthusiasm Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (Dinner for Schmucks, The Santa Clause 2, Bubble Boy), one of writing teams we interviewed, generated during their pitch. As they were developing a story their enthusiasm for what they were creating grew exponentially. Soon they were finishing one another’s sentences and feeding off each other’s energy and ideas.
If you find this as useful as we do, we’ll be happy to provide many more tips to battle Pitch Panic.