by Barbara Schiffman
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has been quoted as saying, “According to some studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death… This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”
If speaking in public feels worse than dying, it’s no wonder most writers hate to talk about their work or themselves. Writers prefer sharing their thoughts and stories on paper or electronic devices, over pitching to agents, editors, or producers, and being interviewed at book signings or conferences.
This used to be true for me, until I learned how essential it is to speak up to get read.
As a screenwriter and creative producer in Hollywood, I often needed to “pitch” one-liners or brief story synopses to agents, directors, or producers. I was also a panelist at writers conferences and was interviewed on podcasts about my personal development books.
To learn to Speak Up without a pounding heart and hoarse voice, I found support:
In the mid-1990s, I attended the entertainment career accelerator program Flash Forward. It included activities and tools for achieving a big career leap in only 4 weeks that would normally take a year. For me, this was getting my scripts optioned, which required getting them read by as many people as possible, a terror-provoking task. FYI, I produced a staged reading of one script and got a new agent who got it optioned!
In 2004, I joined the popular speaking education organization Toastmasters International. In 2006, I co-founded the first Toastmasters club specifically for creative writers; it’s still going strong and now open to non-LA writers via Zoom. I also recently found a new Zoom-only global Toastmasters club for writers (for info on either, email me at MontanaScreenwriting@gmail.com).
Toastmasters is slanted towards business presentations but also offers support for storytellers. My favorite Toastmasters tool is their impromptu speaking exercise Table Topics. Designed to practice thinking and speaking on the spot, you get 2 minutes to speak about an unexpected topic without preparation. I find this fun and invigorating, and am now comfortable “making it up” as I speak.
Preparing speeches in advance and delivering them without notes is harder for me. But I’m in good company; Mark Twain, who sold his books via public speaking tours, said, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
Prepping a pitch is easier with a template for structuring what you might say. I’ve taught multiple pitch formulas at writing workshops that can be customized. A good pitch, aka “logline,” is basically your story in 30 words or less. It’s best to tailor your pitch depending on whom you’re talking to, what type of script or book they seek, and how many minutes you have to interest them in reading yours.
The shortest pitch template is What if…”— What if a boy discovers an extra-terrestrial whose spaceship crashed and can’t get home (the film “E.T.”)? What if a slick-talking lawyer vows to his son he’ll tell the truth for 24 hours to prove he can be trusted (the film “Liar Liar”)? What if your narcissistic wife mysteriously disappears on your anniversary and you’re suspected of killing her (the novel and film “Gone Girl”)?
Some pitch tips: Elaborate on your basic premise if more details are requested. Be prepared to share the beginning or “inciting incident,” how the stakes escalate as things go increasingly wrong, and how it all ends. Don’t make your listener guess the conclusion — this is annoying and implies you haven’t worked out the story’s trajectory.
Writers of all genres should also get comfortable speaking about themselves to agents, managers, book reviewers, and book signing audiences. One tool I learned in Flash Forward was having 3 “memorable things” about me ready to share. This helps you stand out from all other writers. It’s even better if your memorable things relate to what you’re writing or pitching (but not required).
One example: my husband Glenn is a specialist in Native American ceremonies; when we lived in Burbank CA we had a ceremonial tipi in our backyard. We also co-developed a feature film concept about a multi-cultural romantic triangle set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation during the 1890 Ghost Dance movement. (Sharing this personalizes our story-pitch and makes us memorable writers.)
So what’s your story — in 30 words or less? And what’s something memorable about you?
Ultimately, if you’ve prepared and practiced your brief story-pitch plus some memorable things about you, opportunities to Speak Up will arise and you’ll be ready to enjoy them!
**On Friday 10/8/21, get more templates and practice your pitch at my 90-minute workshop for writers and filmmakers at the Bigfork (MT) Independent Film Festival. For workshop or private logline and pitch coaching info, email me at MontanaScreenwriting@gmail.com.