pitch it !

This post ‘Pitch It ! How to successfully convince people of your ideas was initially published on my Medium account.


For more than 25 years I have been working in the media business. Roughly half of it as someone trying to sell my television program ideas to someone sitting a few floors higher than I was; roughly (the other) half of it as someone listening to other people pitching their creative ideas, hoping that I will greenlight them. I enjoyed being on both sides of it. Creating television programs and editing them with guests and stories gave me a lot of joy. However, when I was dealing with one project, I was too curious to know what was going on at the other projects I wasn’t involved in. When I was taking care of one tree, I would run to another and hugh it. Just to let you understand that I was better in dealing with the forrest than with a single tree. So today as director television of a Belgian broadcaster I listen to a lot of ideas … and sometimes greenlight them.

Greenlighting ideas, that is what this post is all about.

Some people think that giving a go for an idea is a bit like playing for god. Or even better, being a Roman emperor in a arena where he would do thumbs up or thumbs down … It is not.

A lot of people think that media equals power. They might be right. At least that is what the Italian media mogul turned prime minister Silvio Berlusconi thinks. That is what some state governors controlling radio and television think. But then this is not my idea of media. If media is financially, philosophically, geographically, … owned by someone that has no clear and transparent vision about who is paying for the source, then this can never be a trusted source. Real media is not about power but about impact. About the possibility to change the world. About the possibility to make a better world. I am very lucky that for most of my carreer I have been working for a company, whose aim it is not to create return on investment (put money into it and get more money out of it) but to create return on society.

For more than 25 years I have been working in the media business, making television programs or curating them. I also did some radio and occassionally wrote an article. But it was only recently that I discovered that what I was doing was not about television, radio or print. I was all about the stories. Everyone and everything is a story, I wrote in my first book. The better we capture the stories, the better we understand the world.

Stories are powerfull. That is why telling a story is very important. Storytelling is an art, and so is pitching.

Let me be honoust with you. I didn’t study storytelling or pitching. I’m just a guy who is passionate about stories and passionate about his job. However, because I green or redlight ideas other people have put a lot of energy in or spent a lot of money on, I started reflecting about what happens in my head just before my brain signals green or red.

I have come to the conclusion that in my head I am looking for an answer to eight questions before I take a decision. All these questions flash through my brain, at random, and then — alsmost in the blink of an eye — my mind has made up … I’ll share these eight questions with you.

What is your story ?

Whatever business we are in, we are all in the business of stories.

I have been working for radio and television for over 25 years and I always thought that I was in the business of making radio and of making television. But no, I was creating stories at first and later curating them. Today I consider myself a story-evangelist.

And you, you must be a story-teller.

In each story that is being pitched, I try to capture the baseline. What is this story about ? Why would you want to tell this story and why would a viewer want to listen ?

If someone is pitching a series about cancer : is that a series explaining new technologies in searching for cancer ? a series about the treatment of cancer ? or a series about a family uniting around daddy who is diagnosed with terminal cancer ?

Is the series aimed at doctors ? nurses ? or anybody well aware that maybe one day he or she might loose a close family member because of cancer ?

The first is about healthcare; the second about people.

How do you tell your story ?

Both Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrman are good directors. Both Paul Auster and Julian Barnes are good writers. Both Kevin Spacey and Brad Pitt are good actors. But their ways of directing, writing and acting a story is different.

Both Jeremy Paxman and Barbara Walters are good interviewers. Both BBC and France Televisions are good broadcasters. Both The Voice and the Eurovision Song Contest are good shows. But they all have a different way of telling similar stories.

How are you going to tell your story ?

What is the format you will use to break down your story ? What is the technique you use to tell your story ? How does the story evolve ? What are the mathematics ?

First you need a good story, then you need to tell it well. Telling a story good is about craftsmanship.

What other stories is it like ?

If you have a story and if you know how to tell it well, then tell me what other stories is it like ?

If a few hundred ideas are pitched to me each year, then you can be sure that some of these ideas will be similar. Be aware that the unique connection your brain made and that has lead to your idea, might be a connection that has been made in someone else’s brain too.

What is the genre of your story ? Is it a genre ? And how does it differ from other stories in its genre ?

What makes your story unique ?

There is nothing wrong with ideas being similar, but what makes them different from one another ?

Therefore you need to define your USP, your Unique Selling Proposition. What are the distinguishing features that set your project apart from the others ?

If for the last year you have been working on one idea and you are pitching to the guy at the other end of the table who listens to hundreds of ideas, he will want to know why your idea will make the difference.

So if you have found your USP, then search for four more … because you need to mention at least five !

What is the result of your story ?

If media, as like any other business, is not about power but about impact then where will telling your story lead to ?

Why would you want to tell this story ? What impact do you aim with this story ? In the end, what is the result for the viewer ?

Story-telling and story-evangelism are closely linked.

I once made a series about organ donorship and it turned out in the end that after watching this program a lot of viewers became active donors.

Every story told has impact, so if you tell a story know beforehand which impact you want to have.

Does your story suit the mission of the person spending her money on it ?

Be aware of whom you are pitching to and for what company she is working.

People and companies have a mission, a vision and values. They have strategies, a brand portfolio, a history and a future, …. Your story will need to fit in and that will never work if you’re not aware of the context.

How expensive is your story ?

Singing “fly me to the moon” is much less expensive that really transporting someone to the moon.

The person “buying” your story will want to know what she gets for what money and she’ll need to know whether it suits her generic budget.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. There is no such thing as a free story !

Will you continue telling your story ?

When someone is pitching to me I listen and watch. I listen to the story and I watch the person telling me that story. That person is almost as important as the story. Stories are told by story-tellers so each “story” needs a “teller”.

If I am convinced about a story I want the one telling it to stay on board.

So I wonder : can I have confidence in your team and will you stay involved ?

To recap, eight questions flop through my head when someone is pitching :

  1. What is your story ?
  2. How do you tell your story ?
  3. What other stories is it like ?
  4. What makes your story unique ?
  5. What is the result of your story ?
  6. Does it suit the mission of the person spending her money on it ?
  7. How expensive is your story ?
  8. Will you stay involved ?

Now really comes the moment to get into my brain. In most cases I hook off at phase one : what is your story ?

If I don’t connect with your story personally, or think my audience will not connect, I unplug.

So what to do ?

Be honest : is your idea really that good ? Do you have a critical friend ? Be willing to die for your idea. I’m sure you don’t have an idea-willing-to-die-for popping up every day.

Be passionate : are you a sales agent or a storyteller ? Do you want to become rich, or do you want to be remembered for your story ?

Be clear : when you pitch be clear about the outcome you expect.

Activitate : agree about the next steps.

Be willing to die for you idea. Good luck !

I have given some lectures about pitching and intend to continue working on it. The idea is to publish a book. I very much wellcome your feedback, both from storytellers and publishers. Contact me with your suggestions at jeanphilip.detender@mac.com. Thanks.

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