Pitch Like Hollywood (2022) uncovers the secret ingredients behind the successful techniques used to pitch films and TV shows in Hollywood. Luckily, it doesn’t matter what industry you work in – the principles behind the Hollywood pitch can be universally applied. By harnessing the power of storytelling and the psychology of persuasion, you can pitch literally anything to anyone.
Who is it for?
- Founders looking to up their pitching game
- Film buffs curious as to how things get funded in Hollywood
- Anyone who suffers from stage fright
What’s in it for me? Perfect your pitching skills, Hollywood-style.
You might have heard that it’s tricky to pitch scripts in Hollywood. For over a century, screenwriters have stood in front of powerful studio executives – and attempted to convince them to buy their idea. So many projects never see the light of day because of a failed pitch. When Gone With the Wind was originally pitched, it was famously dismissed by the first producer, who said that nobody wanted to see another Civil War picture.
Now, you probably know that Gone With the Wind did get produced, and it was a huge success. It swept the Academy Awards, and, at the time, was the highest-grossing film ever made.
So what went wrong during that first pitch?
The problem all Hollywood artists face is that they’ve been pitching the same product for over a hundred years. No wonder there’s such conservatism when it comes to committing huge amounts of money for yet another show or movie! Unlike other industries that can describe their novel product in a data-driven way, screenwriters had to develop unique ways of presenting their case. And these unique methods can jazz up a pitch in any industry to make your product stick in the minds of investors.
While the basics are the same as your standard sales pitch, Hollywood pitches include additional elements to make them more persuasive, and to play on their audience’s emotions. Storytelling is a key part of this, with Hollywood pitches using characters and conflicts to entice their audiences – all with the goal of having them on the edges of their seats by the end. In fact, a growing body of evidence shows that stories are more persuasive than fact-based presentations. This should come as no surprise. After all, it’s well known that the power of storytelling is as old as humanity itself. It’s how we’ve relayed and retained information for thousands of years. And we’ve all been riveted by stories from a very young age. No wonder it’s so effective!
In this summary to Jeffrey Davis and Peter Desberg’s Pitch Like Hollywood, we’ll be pitching that regardless of whether you’re selling a script, business project, or even just trying to convince your friends to try the new pizza place across town, the Hollywood pitch technique will undoubtedly up your persuasion game. In fact, by embracing the principles laid out in this summary, you’ll learn proven methods on how to entice and entertain your audience with ease. Along the way, we’ll share the most important concepts behind the psychology of persuasion. These are sure to help you convince audiences that your pitch is legit. And finally, we’ll dive into why so many of us suffer from stage fright – and what you can do to prevent it.
But first, let’s dive into the heart of what makes the Hollywood pitch tick.
Every good Hollywood pitch is made up of a hook, logline, and three-act story structure.
So, let’s say you’re developing an idea for a new business. You have a product in mind, and you’ve done substantial research on its market viability. But there’s a missing ingredient that’s blocking you from taking your idea to the next level – funding.
To get the financial backing you need to move your project along, you’ll inevitably need to meet your potential partners or investors. This meeting is, of course, the pitch. In it, you have a short amount of face-to-face time to promote your idea. If your pitch goes down well in Hollywood, you’ll be asked to submit your script. In the business world, you’ll probably be asked to provide a business plan.
But before making it to that stage, you have a lot of work cut out for you. Developing an effective pitch takes time and effort. Luckily, the Hollywood pitch is made up of specific ingredients mixed together in a specific order. And by following the recipe, you’ll find yourself with a compelling story – with the potential to wow investors. This story is made up of three ingredients: the hook, logline, and three-act structure. Let’s take a look at these terms in more detail.
The hook and logline are by far the shortest parts of any good pitch – they’re the punchy, brief phrases that sum up the heart of your work. And your pitch should get to the hook as fast as possible. This is because your hook will be the most memorable part of your pitch. Just like the hook of a good pop song, it’s something short that will grab your listeners’ attention.
After the hook comes the logline. It’s a little longer than your hook, but not too bogged down in details. You’ll save those for the three-act structure. With your logline, you’ll introduce the essence of your project without giving away the ending. A good logline often introduces the main characters of your pitch, and the conflict they are involved in.
Before we move on, let’s quickly take a look at an example of a good hook and logline. Say a few friends decide to launch an app to tackle the perceived problem of shopping for nutritious food – but ending up with dishes that don’t taste so good. Their app is called “Nutritious N Delicious,” and the hook is as simple as it is memorable. It goes: “it can taste good and be good for you.” Simple enough, right? Their logline is equally powerful and yet leaves the listener wanting to know more: “you can have your cake, and eat it too . . . and stay healthy just by pulling out your phone.” This sounds too good to be true, right? An app that accompanies you while grocery shopping, and somehow determines the nutrients and tastiness of any product on the shelf.
Now, while the hook and logline may have reeled you in, you need more information before you’re ready to commit. How does the app work? What are the motivations of the developers? What expertise do they have in the field? And how did they come up with the idea in the first place? These questions are answered most effectively by the power of storytelling, specifically recounted in three acts with a beginning, middle, and end.
The three-act structure starts off with act one, in which your characters are introduced, as well as the conflict they find themselves confronted with. Then, in act two, the conflict escalates, and failed attempts to solve it are presented. But it is not until act three that the conflict is finally resolved.
The three-act structure works just as well in the business world as it does in Hollywood. Let’s take a closer look at the three-act structure that the developers of Nutritious N Delicious put together. In act one, the characters are introduced. The first is one of the company’s founders, a doctor. He worked at a hospital for years. It was there that he witnessed first-hand the debilitating diseases caused by bad nutrition.
He tells the story of how he met one of the other founders, a chef at a fancy restaurant. They connected over their mutual disdain for unhealthy food. But when the chef told him he was coming up with recipes that were both tasty and healthy, the doctor was skeptical. In no time at all, the chef whipped together gourmet-quality recipes made only with healthy ingredients. Both the doctor and his girlfriend, a computer scientist, were astounded by the food. While eating, she remarked that they should create an app. Within the space of an hour, the company was born.
So, as we’ve seen, act one is all about introducing the protagonists and the conflict they face. In act two, the founders dive into the conflict in more detail. Sure, there are plenty of apps where you can scan barcodes to figure out a food’s nutritional value. And there are also apps that show ratings of restaurants based on how good their food is. But no one has yet tried to combine these two things into one app. So the only way to figure out nutritional and healthy foods is to either use multiple apps, conduct hours of research, or be forced to test out healthy recipes to see how tasty they are. It’s not convenient at all, especially when you’re hungry.
By breaking down the pain points of the status quo, act two reveals how there’s a real need for the unique service that the app provides. Finally, in act three, resolution arrives. Imagine an app that allows you to simply scan a barcode in the supermarket – and receive both nutritional and taste-based ratings for the item in question. It’s not rocket science, and wouldn’t need a huge investment. But it sure has the potential to make a lot of money. And what they’re sure to communicate in act three is that they’ve obtained data showing that millennials would download the app in droves.
And thus concludes the Nutritious N Delicious Hollywood pitch. It can taste good and be good for you. If you were a venture capitalist present at the pitch, would you invest?
Employing persuasiveness techniques are key to effective pitch presentations.
Just as a great deal of research has been done on the power of storytelling, the same goes for the psychology of persuasion.
It all started in World War II, when the US government started researching the most effective types of propaganda. But when the war was over, research didn’t stop. In fact, it blossomed so much that whole fields of work sprung out of it – such as marketing. Persuasion techniques can be so powerful that people end up voting for politicians they don’t agree with, or buy clothes that they initially thought were ugly. And harnessing the science of persuasion can make the difference between investors going forward with your pitch over another of seemingly equal value.
Let’s get started with three things you can do that are guaranteed to make your pitch more persuasive. The first is understanding the importance of your credentials. It’s well established that people are more likely to believe someone who has credentials to back up their argument. However, it’s best not to list them off at the start of your pitch, as that might come off as arrogant. Instead, try to work them into your presentation in a natural way. For example, if you want to convey that you were at the top of your class, you might tell a self-deprecating joke about how you had no friends at university as you were so consumed by your studies.
Another trusty way to up your persuasion game is to do your homework on the people you’ll be presenting to. Find out the causes they’re interested in, or positions they’ve previously held. If you frame your business idea in a way that conforms with their views, they’ll be much more likely to believe what you have to say. On the other hand, if you try pitching new types of GMOs to someone with an environmentalist track record, you might as well give up before you walk in the door.
Finally, try to schedule your pitch in the morning. It’s been proven that people are much more likely to be focused before rather than after eating lunch or, even worse, in the evening. At that point, your audience is probably more concerned with their afterwork dinner plans than your great idea.
Now, it could be that you’re lacking a bit in the credentials department. Or perhaps there simply isn’t any information about your audience for you to research. Worse yet, it could be that your presentation is scheduled directly after lunch. But have no fear – there are still tried and true persuasion techniques you can employ. And they’ll work no matter what pitching situation you find yourself in.
One is to increase your likability. It’s common sense that the more someone likes you, the more likely they are to trust you. This is because when someone likes you, they’re more likely to use their intuition when listening to what you’re saying. If your likability is low, however, they’ll replace intuition with deeper consideration, making them harder to persuade.
In Hollywood, the power of likability is often harnessed by bringing in an actor to help with the pitch. Even if they only present a small part of it, their ability to project friendliness will undoubtedly help get your audience on board. In the business world, you could sub in an actor for a marketer, or even a communications expert.
If you don’t have access to someone whose job is all about interpersonal skills, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Contrary to popular belief, personal charisma is something that can be developed, and there are plenty of resources you can find online to help. But before diving into the deep stuff, you can go ahead and get in front of the mirror and practice some basic charisma techniques.
For starters, don’t underestimate the power of gesticulation. Hand gestures, changing facial expressions, and not standing still are all shown to project enthusiasm. Once you’ve got the hang of that, try to vary the pitch and speed at which you speak over time. Try going up in pitch and speed when you want to convey excitement. And on the other hand, slow down and hit those lower tones when you want to add weight to the point you’re making.
At the end of the day, practice makes perfect. And while certain persuasion techniques are bound to work better than others, the most important thing is to try as many as possible – and implement them into your pitch and preparation. Once you’re able to radiate persuasiveness, your chances of a successful pitch will only increase.
Stage fright is not something to be taken lightly, but there are proven ways to manage it.
Now, let’s imagine for a second that you’re ready – you’ve prepared your Hollywood pitch and honed your powers of persuasion. You’ve practiced it in front of a few friends, who told you after that you were ready to rumble. But then, as you’re standing in front of people who could determine whether your dream is turned into reality or not, one of the audience members starts to glance down at their phone. And it’s not just a quick glance to check the time – they’ve started scrolling. You’re starting to think to yourself that they’re obviously not interested in your pitch.
In this situation, even the most confident among us would probably start to panic. And this is totally normal. After all, pitching is a high-pressure situation. It involves an uncertain result, and your performance and your performance alone is responsible for its outcome. What’s more is that the higher the stakes, the more likely you are to panic. If you’re pitching in front of powerful investors who might give you millions of dollars, the panic will be invariably higher than if you’re pitching a petition to a neighbor.
Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to preemptively lower the risk of panicking during a pitch. The first of these is to harness the power of journaling. The moment you receive an invitation to a pitch, grab a pen and paper, and begin to write down all your thoughts. What are all the things you think could happen during the pitch? Sure, it’s good to write down the possible chances of success. But in this case, try to focus on the possibilities of what might go wrong. By listing all the situations you can think of, you can begin to predict your reactions to them. And in doing so, you are subconsciously preparing your brain for these reactions. If they do end up happening during the pitch, you’ve already had time to process them. This makes it less likely that your pitch will end up going south.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict all negative situations that might arise in a pitch. So it’s also useful to train your brain to be more resilient against all negative stimuli that it encounters, whether during a pitch or in life at large. And while there is no way to gain complete control over our emotions, we can definitely train ourselves to react to them with less intensity. After all, the brain is like a muscle – the more you train it, the more you’ll be able to control it in times of need.
This is where different types of relaxation training come in. The goals of such training are all about reducing anxiety symptoms at the moment they appear. When a negative stimulus hits, they’ll help you sweat less, slow down your heart rate, and improve your breathing. Most importantly, they’ll help you regain control of a negative situation that otherwise might compound itself – and spiral out of control, leading to a trainwreck of a pitch.
While there are plenty of proven types of relaxation training, meditation is one of the most popular ones used by sales professionals. This is because it has a double benefit. By learning how to be mindful of your thoughts, you’ll not only be training your brain to respond in a measured way when anxiety strikes. Studies show that meditation also trains the brain to quickly recover from distractions. Whether this distraction takes the form of a CEO looking down at their phone or a random thought entering your head mid-pitch, meditation will help you flex your brain muscle to quash such distractions as quickly as possible – and return to the task at hand.
If meditation isn’t your thing, that’s understandable. But keep in mind that some of the most successful people alive swear by it. In fact, meditation is one thing that Paul McCartney, Jerry Seinfeld, and dozens of Fortune 500 board members have in common.
And have no fear – if you’re only discovering this summary a day before your pitch, studies have shown that students who received just 10 minutes of meditation training before taking a math exam did better than those who didn’t. It’s never too late to start training your brain.
Pitching can be unpredictable, so learn to embrace the unknown.
So, you’ve followed the recipe, and have prepared a compelling story to back up your idea. You’ve researched your audience, and have spent hours in front of the mirror gesticulating. To top it off, your meditation skills have now become second nature. But the thought of standing before a group of people who have the power to change your life still fills you with dread. You’re not ready, you tell yourself. What should you do?
Regardless of how well you’ve prepared, some of us are just more anxious than others – it could be that you’ve suffered from stage fright in the past. And while bigwigs in Hollywood would probably advise the more shy among us to “just stay home” and simply mail in your pitch, the authors disagree. This is because every unsuccessful pitch is still an opportunity for you to hone your skills, get feedback, and improve. So no matter what happens, you’ll always come out having won something. Mailing in your pitch, on the other hand, means your great idea will end up languishing away in a huge pile of paperwork for all eternity.
Even the most confident pitchers still run into situations that cause them to freak out. Peter, one of the authors, explains that although he’s made countless pitches over the decades, there have still been situations that scared the living daylights out of him. Take choosing an outfit, for example. Peter knows all too well the importance of choosing the right outfit for a pitch. It should be tailored to the audience you’re pitching to, of course. Sure, if you’re pitching to a young start-up, you might not want to overdress. But generally speaking, opt for business attire. And maybe keep a hoodie in your backseat just in case.
But one pitch Peter attended proved that even this advice can very quickly become moot. One day, he arrived at a top publishing house to pitch a book. He knew the president of the company would be attending, so he wore his best suit. As he walked into the conference room, he was aghast to see everyone wearing non-work clothes. It turned out that the company had a casual Friday policy – but no one had told him. The miscommunication definitely caused a rocky first impression, but after a few minutes he managed to land a successful joke about the situation.
So, the truth is that you never know what obstacles might arise during your pitch. But with solid preparation and relaxation training, you’ll be well-equipped to handle most situations. And hey – if one pitch goes south, don’t worry. In virtually all cases, it’s not the only one you’re ever going to have.
The Hollywood pitch has the potential to improve your chances of pitching success. By embracing the art of storytelling, you’ll be able to capture your audience’s curiosity. And by practicing various persuasion techniques, you can make sure they’ll believe every word you say. Although you never know what might happen at a pitch, relaxation training will definitely help you manage panic and stage fright – and strike down distractions wherever they appear.
About the author
Peter Desberg is professor emeritus at California State University, as well as being a practicing psychologist. He’s written 23 books over his career, and has provided pitching consultation for corporations like Apple, Toyota, and Boeing.
Peter Desberg is professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award and Outstanding Professor Award. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the area of stage fright and performance anxiety. The author of 23 books, he has been quoted by such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and The New York Times, and has consulted for companies including Apple, Boeing and Toyota in the areas of pitching and persuasion, corporate presentations, and using storytelling and humor in business presentations.
Jeffrey Davis is a professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University. He’s also a writer and producer, having made advertisements for big names such as Dell, Toyota, and Honda.
Jeffrey Davis is a professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and served from 2009-2019 as the department chair. Davis has also written and produced trade shows for Dick Clark Productions and counted among his advertising clients Dell Computers, Toyota of America and Honda. His has more than 30 credits to his name, including Night Court, Remington Steele, and documentaries for A&E, Discovery, and The History Channel. As a consultant, his areas have also included writing, pitching, and employing storytelling and humor in business presentations.
Business, Money, Management, Leadership, Careers, Marketing, Sales, Selling, Entrepreneurship
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Pitch Basics
Chapter 3. The Hollywood Pitch
Chapter 4. Persuasion: At the Heart of Decision-Making
Chapter 5. Persuasion Boot Camp
Chapter 6. Persuasion: Personological Variables
Chapter 7. The Roots of Pitch Panic
Chapter 8. The Pitch Panic Cycle
Chapter 9. Dealing with Pitch Panic Emotionally
Chapter 10. Changing Your Thoughts
Chapter 11. Doing Your Homework
Chapter 12. Post Prep: Making Decisions Based on Your Preparation
Chapter 13. Creating the Pitch (1): The Setup
Chapter 14. Creating the Pitch (2): Structuring the Pitch
Chapter 15. Practice Strategies
Chapter 16. Displaying Creativity
Chapter 17. In the Room
About the Authors
Inside tips on how to craft pitches that seal the deal―no matter what industry you work in―and banish presentation anxiety forever
From impromptu elevator pitches to full-board presentations, sales and marketing professionals face an “audience” daily―often with make-or-break consequences. As the person delivering the performance, you need to know you have a great script and are able to maintain composure throughout.
To help you perfect both pitch and performance, there are no better coaches than clinical psychologist Peter Desberg and writer/producer Jeffrey Davis. With experience and insights from both the film industry and the corporate world, they understand the pitch process.
In Pitch Like Hollywood, they show you how to up your game substantially ―no matter what business you’re in―by incorporating elements of a classic Hollywood pitch: driving emotion, piquing curiosity, and ultimately winning over decision makers with powerful persuasion and performance. They take you on an insider’s tour of the entire process, from defining the fundamentals to designing effective presentation strategies to overcoming stage fright.
With chapters that include Persuasion Boot Camp, The Pitch Panic Cycle, and Creating the Pitch II (The Sequel), Pitch Like Hollywood provides a front-row seat in a master class on giving great performances for any audience, every time―at board meetings, sales calls, and whenever else you want to make a case to get the results you want.
A clinical psychologist and writer/producer share secrets to overcoming presentation anxiety and crafting the perfect “award-winning” pitch―no matter what industry you work in!
From impromptu elevator pitches to full-board presentations, sales and marketing professionals face an “audience” daily―often with make-or-break consequences. No matter what business you’re in, you can up your game substantially by incorporating elements of a classic Hollywood pitch: driving emotion, piquing curiosity, and ultimately winning over decision makers with top-notch persuasion and performance.
Pitch Like Hollywood, clinical psychologist Peter Desberg and writer/producer Jeffrey Davis take you on an insiders’ tour of the entire process, from defining the fundamentals to smart strategies for overcoming stage fright (pitch panic). They also include a step-by-step guide so that you can adapt the Hollywood Pitch for your next board meeting or sales call. With chapters that include Persuasion Boot Camp, The Pitch Panic Cycle, and Creating the Pitch II (The Sequel), you’ll have a front-row seat in a master class on giving great performances for any audience, every time.
Read an Excerpt
Peter Desberg leads a predictable life, and for over 16 years, every Saturday he played tennis with his friend Larry. One day after their workout, Larry said, “I got a story for you.”
Larry’s favorite aunt owned the Laurels Country Club In the Catskills. It was one of the most famous Borscht Belt resorts. From the age of 11 on, every summer night he could be found sitting in the back of the hotel’s 1,200-seat nightclub listening to all the most popular comedians of the day like Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield.
He knew comedy.
After receiving his MA in psychology, Larry Brezner bought a small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, installed a tiny stage, and added stand-up comedians to the menu. He found two unknown guys he thought were pretty good and made a deal to manage them. One was Billy Crystal. The other was Robin Williams. Larry not only managed them throughout their careers, but went on to produce many of their films. Here’s Larry’s story:
A writer and I got an idea for a movie. We pitched Toby Emmerich who runs New Line Studios. Toby shows up with a huge German Shepherd. Toby goes everywhere with this dog. He has a license to take him into restaurants with him. He got some doctor to say it helps him with his vision. He talks to this dog more like he was a colleague.
We start off the pitch, and we explain it’s about a cop and a guy who’s marrying the cop’s sister. The cop doesn’t like the guy because he’s a wimp. He takes the guy on a ride-along to scare the sh-t out of him and get rid of him.
In the middle of the pitch, Toby says, “Would you mind if I left the room? I have to make a call.” I point out that would leave nobody in the room but us and the dog.
He says, “It’s fine. He understands. I’ll be back in a few minutes and we’ll wrap it up.”
“Wait a minute. Are you saying pitch to the dog?”
“Yeah,” and he leaves.
I look at the writer and he looks at me. We don’t know if there’s a hidden camera somewhere. Which way do we look more like idiots? He said go on with the pitch. So we made the decision: “F-ck it. Let’s sell the dog.”
We’re pitching to the Shepherd, who’s looking at us with a blank stare. “Certainly, you guys aren’t going on with this?” That’s the message we’re getting from the dog.
The writer continues to pitch the story, and Toby doesn’t come back for 10 minutes, and we’re up to the end where the wimp turns out to be one of the toughest guys ever and they get married, and Toby comes back in and he says he loves it. And he buys it on the spot. Seven years later they make the movie at a different studio. (It was Ride Along with Ice Cube and Kevin Hart.) Several scripts were written. I don’t know which one the dog chose.
When you’re in the room, you have to expect that things may not go as you planned. You have to be able to roll with it. Maybe it was the fact that they were willing to pitch the dog that made Emmerich like them enough to buy the project.
While you can’t plan for every eventuality, the better you prepare and practice, the more likely you’ll succeed and the better you’ll be able to improvise when you’re thrown a curve. This book is designed to help you prepare, practice, and present your pitch. To that end, we’ve interviewed people who’ve had a great deal of experience pitching and told us their stories. We talked to some of Hollywood’s most experienced professionals in gaming, software development, venture capital, branding, law, advertising, and the airline and auto industries. Why? Would you like to read an account of the chief technical officer and executive vice president at Boeing describing a pitch where someone is trying to get Boeing involved with a competition to create the first self-flying machine? He thinks Boeing will get tremendous publicity from this . . . unless someone dies.
We’ve also conducted a thorough examination of the research literature on every aspect of pitching. You’ll get a good picture of both the art and science of pitching. As we developed this book, we identified three areas that we hadn’t seen covered elsewhere that play a crucial role in pitching: Hollywood pitching techniques, the psychology of persuasion, and managing stage fright.
THE HOLLYWOOD PITCH
Hollywood has its own form of pitching. It employs the traditional elements of pitching used in business but adds other elements to make it more persuasive and emotionally engaging. Hollywood Pitches use characters and conflicts to tell stories that leave audiences needing to know more. Hollywood artists have been pitching the same product for over a hundred years. Give creative people a quick hundred years, and it’s not surprising that they develop a unique type of pitch.
Pitches in the business world rely on data-driven decision-making. It was difficult to suppress a yawn just writing that sentence; yet it’s there by necessity. But it doesn’t mean a pitch has to be boring. Data can also be brought to life by using it to drive emotion. It can function as a source of conflict. Just like a good script or book is referred to as a “page-turner,” a good pitch should evoke curiosity and conflict. Incorporating elements of the Hollywood pitch can drive emotions that ultimately drive decision-making.
The decision about a pitch is often reached within the first 5 to 10 minutes. If you learn to engage people through storytelling, make them want to hear more, and combine their intellect with their emotions, you’ll increase the probability of a successful pitch. If there were an algorithm or formula for decision-making, pitch-ing would be pointless. Important decisions could be made after a computer sifted through the data. Research has demonstrated that most decisions end up being reached largely through emotions.
Our friend Barry loves to tell the story of how he signed up for boxing lessons at the YMCA. As an IRS estate attorney, Barry talked for years about giving it all up and running with the bulls in Pamplona, living in a castle in Tuscany, or buying a vineyard in Napa. He wanted to travel around the world. But for Barry, there always seemed to be another estate to settle. Everyone was surprised when Barry decided to quit the IRS and take his trip around the world:
I got as far as South America where 1 met Annie, a Swedish woman who I swear could have been Charlize Theron’s sister. We began traveling together. One night we found ourselves alone in a small cantina in the Peruvian Andes.
Six campesinos, little Peruvian Indian farmers, came in. I could see machetes under their serapes. One of the campesinos came over and sat down next to Annie and winked at her.
Annie said, “We don’t want any trouble. He’s got five friends with him. It’s OK, Barry. He’s not bothering me.”
The campesino slid his chair closer to Annie and took one of her hands in his. He put his other arm around her shoulders. He began kissing her hand, moving up her arm until he got to the nape of her neck.
“Barry, it’s not OK anymore, do something.”
In my best Spanish, I try to get the cantina owner to help me. He shrugs as if to say, “Hey, these are my steady customers. I don’t know you, gringo.”
I ask the campesino to stop. He gives me a grin, and takes his index finger and moves it across his throat, making the sound of a throat being slit.
Now he has both hands all over Annie, kissing her on the mouth.
As I prepared to die, I thought, “I’m about to grab this guy and then all six campesinos will pull their machetes, jump in, and surround us. I’ll be chopped up into small pieces. They’ll find little chunks of me in the spring thaw.”
It was that moment when I decided to take boxing lessons at the Y.
In Barry’s story, there’s an ending where he decides to take up boxing, but did it leave you wondering what happened to Barry and Annie that night in the Andes? We hope so, because we wrote the story so you’d still be curious. In a great pitch, you want your audience to lean in to find out what comes next.
And because we don’t want to leave you hanging . . . As Barry inched his chair out, preparing to die, the door to the cantina burst open, and six very large German tourists wearing sandals with socks came in. Barry explained what was happening, and the tourists told Barry not to worry about the other five little guys. “We’ll back you up.”
Barry grabbed the campesino by the back of his coat and pushed him into a chair. Then he bought the German tourists a round of beers.
Professor Brian Boyd, in his book The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, presents the evolution of the use of story. Our book shows the fundamental nature of the effects of story that have become the basis of the Hollywood pitch.
Our responses to story are produced from a place deep inside us. British scholar Christopher Booker, in his book The Seven Basic Plots, makes a strong case for the fact that stories are the way we have always transmitted information. We are wired to do so, and our brains have neatly wrapped themselves around seven basic forms that all stories can be reduced to. It’s fundamental to the way we transmit and retain information. Story is more powerful and efficient than simply giving someone a set of facts.
By examining how Hollywood works, you’ll find yourself asking how you can make your pitch more emotionally appealing, more curiosity provoking, and more entertaining. More entertaining means less ponderous.
We found our ideas reinforced by Kimberly Elsbach, a prom-inent organizational psychologist. She wanted to do a large-scale analysis of the pitching process. She and her research partner, R. M. Kramer, decided to conduct their research focused on the most difficult pitching environment. They argued that doing so would lead to the greatest generalizability of their findings. They chose Hollywood. They published their findings in an extensive article in the Harvard Business Review.
Their research confirmed our belief that pitching is pitching. If you can learn to pitch under the most difficult circumstances, using the best-designed approach, you should be able to apply those skills and techniques anywhere.
Before Stepping into the Arena
One of the most important techniques Cass Magda teaches at his martial arts academy is how to defend against a knife attack. If you can’t run away, the sane person’s choice, you should first learn how to use a knife to attack someone. Knowing how to use a knife helps you understand what someone else intends to do with one.
You might be thinking, “He wants to stab me. How hard is that to understand?” But you’d be wrong. The first principle Magda teaches is that a good knife fighter doesn’t want to stab you. He’d have to get too close to you, which would mean he’d put himself in danger. He hopes you’ll foolishly reach your hand out so he can slice your wrist or forearm and stand back and watch you bleed to death. If you want to live to fight another day, it’s good to learn from a master like Magda.
We’re not comparing pitching to a knife fight although there are days when it feels like one. The moral here is that you should under-stand how things work before stepping in to pitch in any arena.
The second area we include is the psychology of persuasion. The history of written persuasion begins with Aristotle, but its modern influence dates back to 1936 when Dale Carnegie wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s the most successful self-help book in publishing history. The scientific study of persuasion began during World War 11. The US government was supporting research about persuasion, particularly in the area of propaganda. Since then, there’s been a flood of research on how decision-making works.
Our tax dollars paid for this research in the form of university grants, and it’s now being used against us, often without our being aware of its effect on our behavior. All kinds of institutions have benefited. Cable news outlets from Fox to MSNBC use it. You hear it every day on AM talk radio. From there, it’s downhill to politicians, their campaign managers, and their advertising and marketing teams.
Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, points out that most decisions, even crucial ones, are made very rapidly. When information fits our knowledge base, core beliefs, or biases, it becomes easier to get to a yes. When the information is discrepant, it forces us to think more deeply. That takes considerably more effort. We don’t like to think deeply, even though we believe that we do. Such thinking often makes us more skeptical. We become harder to convince.
The research base on persuasion ranges from how car sales-people operate, to how you can increase your charisma, to how Billy Graham influenced how much you put into the collection plate at his crusades. Persuasion techniques are often counter-intuitive, and those who use them have a tremendous advantage when they pitch.
Imagine there’s a knock at your door. A man asks permission to put a sloppily lettered 20-foot sign supporting safe driving that will stretch across your front lawn. It’ll cover most of your living room window, blocking your view. What are the chances you’d permit him to put up the sign? Think of how you’d reply if you were at the knocked side of the door.
In an experiment, the residents in a Los Angeles suburb were divided into two groups. The residents in one group were approached by a salesperson who used “a foot-in-the door” tech-nique, and of those residents, 35 percent were persuaded to let him put up the sign; on the other hand, the technique was not used with the control group, and almost no one in the control group agreed to the sign.
ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE, AND MOST OF US HAVE STAGE FRIGHT
What do you do if you start “choking,” or become intimidated when an executive looks at his iPhone in the middle of your pitch, or when you’re afraid that word will get out about your lousy pitch and ruin your reputation?
You can develop a fantastic pitch, but if you’re too anxious to present it well, you’ll achieve little beyond annoying the people you’re pitching to because you’re wasting their time. Worse still, you might end up invoking their pity.
Chances are you’re a creative person. Creative people are innovative when it comes to describing their ideas and projects. But creativity also comes equipped with an imagination that can turn against you when you begin conjuring fantasies of what might go wrong when you’re pitching. Most of us are skilled at scaring ourselves about pitching and do it with abundant creativity.
It’s not about not knowing how to pitch. It’s about getting anxious when called on to do it. That’s not really surprising because fear of public speaking is the number one phobia in America. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld says, “The next time you’re at a funeral, remember that most people would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy.”
Everybody gets stage fright. The only piece of the puzzle that sets one person apart from another is the situation. How long do you think it takes to improve your ability to get a handle on it? In one experiment, students who were nervous about taking the Graduate Record Exam were told that if they were nervous before taking the test, that fear would actually help them do better. All it took was hearing that from an expert. They scored 60 points higher on the math part than a control group.
Answering Versus Presenting
People often wonder why it’s easy for them to answer questions in front of a group, yet they find themselves terrified giving a pre-pared presentation. This happens even if it’s to the same group of people and you’re dealing with the same subject matter. Why should two tasks that are so similar hit your gut so differently?
When you make a presentation, there are expectations: You have to keep people’s attention for the eternity that passes while you’re presenting. In these times of digital distractions and ram-pant attention deficit disorder, this is no simple task. And because you’ve had time to prepare, everyone’s expecting you to put on a show. A good one. It’s even worse because when you’re pitching, as opposed to everyday public speaking, you’re supposed to be a creative idea person, a good storyteller, and an expert.
Now add this stressful thought: You’re pitching to people who’ve heard many pitches before and are comparing yours to the best ones they’ve ever heard.
“Pitch Like Hollywood is a fantastic read and an even better resource. It turns the necessary evil of pitching into a much more calculable opponent. Sorry, Hollywood, but in today’s entrepreneurial climate, pitching is now truly industry-agnostic, as tech startup ‘Demo Days’ slide into the common vernacular, Kickstarter campaigns flood our social media feeds, and Shark Tank is the new American Idol. Desberg and Davis have done a phenomenal job demystifying the art and science of the pitch by not only breaking down the emotions leading up to and during the act, but also unveiling the many paths to success—across a diverse set of industries and personality types. If you plan on needing to convince anyone of anything in your lifetime, I’d highly suggest picking up this book!” – Kourtney Lyons, former content strategy manager Herschend Entertainment Studios (co-owners of Dollywood)
“This gem of a book is the most amazingly comprehensive guide to pitching I’ve seen. If it’s success you’re after, you could read 30 other books and hope to glean helpful tidbits…or you could read this one and be assured you have a solid strategy.” – Warner Loughlin, personal coach of Amy Adams, Ryan Reynolds, and Kyra Sedgwick
“This book has more than a collection of ‘How I did it’ anecdotes. The research and industry stories are wide-ranging, and more important, they are useful.” – Karin Argano, VP of corporate training and technical support, Yamaha Motorcycles
“Lively and thoughtful. Desberg and Davis deliver read-worthy strategies for improving business as well as personal communication. The format is entertaining, and the skills are immediately applicable to daily business challenges. This book helps you visualize successful and interesting presentations by demonstrating options for ‘telling’ your story, not ‘selling’ your story.’ ” – Susan Blifeld, corporate training consultant, Yamaha
“Above and beyond everything else about this remarkable book, I’m impressed by the authors’ refusal to take the usual ‘Here’s how I do it’ approach. They gather various opinions and the latest research about the aspects of pitching. I constantly encourage my staff to use their own intuition and gather as many points of view as possible.” – David Beck, general manager of Premium Financing AIG
“With their combined experience in screenwriting and psychology—and decades of practice coaching writers, executives, and industry insiders—Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis bring a unique wealth of knowledge to their subject. Far more than a ‘how to,’ Pitch Like Hollywood is an in-depth exploration of everything about this maddening art form, from body language to brain functioning. There’s no better place to understand the complex interaction of message and messenger than here.” – Stephen Galloway, dean, Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts
“The authors have probably been dining out on some of these disarmingly insightful stories for years, so it’s good to have them here in such a practicable context. We deal with aspects of pitching and persuasion every day, whether we’re talking to a friend, colleague, or significant other. Especially when we’re just watching or reading the news and trying to untangle what narrative we’re being sold. I laughed and learned from these guys. Who knew that the Hollywood pitch isn’t that much different than trying to pitch anywhere else? Pitch Like Hollywood gives fresh meaning to the verity that we tell stories in order to live, and it shows us how to tell those stories more powerfully.” – Rick Schultz, music critic, Los Angeles Times
“Buy this book if you ever have to convince anyone, of anything, in any industry. Seamlessly interweaving witty and essential truths about the power of persuasion, Desberg and Davis tap into their respective expertise as a clinical psychologist and a successful screenwriter and educator to show us the way to success. An insightful and practical guide, the authors add their unique perspective to the field, focusing on three areas that haven’t yet been given their due in other works—Persuasion, Stage Fright, and the Hollywood Pitch—teaching us why they matter, and providing simple-to-understand, yet easy-to-engage exercises to finely hone our pitching skills.” – Paul Gertz, NETWORK Entertainment, Canada
“A psychological approach to pitching makes so much sense. I found the information about persuasion something I’m going to use in every pitch. It’s also nice to see that a pitch doesn’t have to be boring.” – Samantha Ring, content manager, Apple Streaming
“Desberg and Davis have astutely observed that, in politics, it’s not enough to be smart, you have to be effective in the art of persuasion. Whether winning votes, advancing policy initiatives, or distinguishing your platform of ideas from that of your opponents, strategic engagement is the name of the game for candidates, elected officials, and even government employees who must win the support of politicians. This book provides valuable tools and strategies to improve the effectiveness of a political pitch, and that’s a ‘winning’ formula. – Beth Krom, council member and mayor of Irvine, CA (2000–2016)
“Having done countless pitching throughout my career as a filmmaker and having heard many of my film students’ talk about their projects, I’ve read Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis’s book about pitching with great interest. Success in show business, same as in any other business, greatly depends on the persuasive power of the person who is trying to convince others about his or her idea, or product. I was glad to see that the authors put special emphasis on enthusiasm and positive attitude, which are very crucial. Without practicing and improving these ‘skills’ your pitch will most likely not be successful.
One of the most important differences between this book and other books on pitching is that the authors clearly understand that while you are pitching your project, you are also selling yourself. The interested party is buying your personality first and then the idea that you are pitching. This book is rich in detail, and it offers a comprehensive view from both sides: the one who is pitching and the other who is listening and has the power to make the crucial decision to buy your product, or not.
After reading the book I found several practical suggestions on how one can significantly improve and develop his or her pitching style. The authors also cover important topics such as intuition, anxiety, effectiveness, credibility, foreseeing potential problems, and successfully closing the deal. They offer practical advice and strategies to readers who want to master the art of persuasion. While they list a lot of useful exercises, my personal favorite is the one that says that it all starts with practice, and as we all know, practice makes the master.” – Jeno Hodi, multiple award-winning director, writer, and producer, founder and managing director of the Budapest Film Academy
“A joy to read. Not only amazingly informative and deeply researched but laugh out loud funny. It seamlessly integrates the personal experiences of successful industry professionals with the profound insights into human psychology of Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant Thinking, Fast and Slow. Who would have guessed that a deep dive into his concepts of Cognitive Ease and Cognitive Strain would provide the key to any successful pitch? This book belongs at the head of the class.” – Stephen Ujlaki, producer and dean of the School of Film and Television (LMU) 2010–2018
“When I was working abroad developing corporate campaigns for Olympus Cameras, I was always pitching across cultures. Had Desberg and Davis’s enlightening book been around, it would have been a valuable tool of the trade.” – Gregg Fox, former creative director, Dentsu Advertising (Tokyo)