Every day we make hundreds of pitches in one form or another. Each time we make a request, introduce a new idea, solicit collaboration on a project, go for a job interview, or make a presentation that calls for action, we are trying to influence someone to adopt our perspective or proposal. And the stakes are usually high when that someone has the power to green light our ideas.
In this blog, I interview television producer Arnold Shapiro who has spent decades making successful pitches to Network Executives.
Arnold has 16 Emmys and an Academy Award. Among the 32 series and more than 100 specials he has produced is the film, “Scared Straight!” and the CBS Series, “Rescue 911,” hosted by William Shatner.
His current production “Beyond Scared Straight” will be shown each Thursday evening at 10 PM (9 Central) starting January 13th 2011 on A&E.
CJ: Arnold, thanks for agreeing to share some of your best practices for pitching ideas you have used over the many decades of your career in television. Please share with my audience, who are business leaders, what you feel to be the components of a successful pitch.
AS: In terms of a successful pitch I organize the topic around certain ‘headlines’. I estimate that, at most, I have my listeners’ attention for 10 minutes. In that time I have to demonstrate that my idea is something that interests them and that it would be worth the investment of their time and money. It is important that right away I am clear and concise and answer the question in their minds “What’s the idea?” Some people ramble on and don’t get to the point and so lose their audience before they even start. In my world conciseness is called the ‘TV Log line” where the key idea can be reduced to a sentence.
CJ: They must hear many such pitches each week, so how do you grab and keep their attention?
AS: For a start, you need to look and act sincere and not come across like a bad used car salesman. Then you have to be appropriately entertaining and interesting. Most people I work with see 3-5 such pitches each day. You have to grab their interest right away. They have heard just about every idea before. In my industry there are few new ideas. Most ideas executives hear in pitches is ‘old wine in new bottles.”
CJ: So how do you know before you even go into the meeting that your idea will work with them?
AS: Some filmmakers are making many such pitches each week. To them it’s like throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. I am more selective in what I present so here I do my homework on the group that I am going to pitch to. I find out that there is already interest in the topic before I meet with them.
CJ: So what about more innovative ideas?
AS: That’s a lot harder to do. I have kept a list of ‘highly improbable’ shows that made it to the air over the years like “Lost” and “Twilight Zone”. It took a lot more time and effort to get these projects adopted.
CJ: So in your pitch how much do you collaborate with the Network in terms of the final product or idea?
AS: My goal is to get the ‘buyer’ to invest his or her ideas in the project. This way when they present the idea to their bosses they have injected their own view into the proposal.
CJ: In that way they have ‘skin in the game’.
AS: Right. But I would add it is also necessary for one to hold the line and be prepared to walk away without the agreement when they want to make so many changes that it compromises the integrity of your original idea. But let me give you an example where I might be willing to compromise. If I come in with an idea for a show and suggest a certain host and they balk at that name, I will look for their input as to which host would be more acceptable. However, most times the changes they ask for are about simplifying my idea.
CJ: So Arnold, after all your years of success in pitching ideas, do you go into meeting expecting a successful outcome?
AS: Right from the outset of the meeting I project confidence and optimism. It starts with the first firm handshake and continues with the way I project controlled passion. This is not some manic state but just my enthusiasm for my idea.
CJ: So what about when the interview does not go the way you want?
AS: (laughs) That happens all the time. You just have to be prepared for the unexpected. I remember I was in a meeting one time with a network executive and he took a phone call from his wife. The call went on and on and he became very agitated. I knew right away that this was not the time for the pitch. I suggested after he hung up the phone that we schedule another meeting! In other instances, the executives may interrupt you, inject their own ideas, and ask all sorts of questions. Making a pitch is not like being on the stage and delivering your ideas. You have to be prepared to adapt your presentation any time.
This interview and blog entry is not intended as an exhaustive statement on how to make a successful pitch. It is rather a reflection on some of the best practices of a TV producer who has decades of success pitching award-winning ideas.
In my next blog, I expand on those components of “Executive Presence” that are critical in persuading others to adopt one’s ideas; namely, making a winning pitch and telling a compelling story .