My take on elevator pitches

In an earlier comment thread, Lyn asked:

So when you say “elevator pitch” do you mean a short summary of your story that’s catchy and to the point? What else should one put into a quick presentation like that?

I meant to answer this much, much sooner, so I’m sorry about that.

I’ll start by saying that I learned about elevator pitches from booking theater shows, so an agent or editor might tell you that I’m totally wrong.  This is not a “how-to.”  This is just my theory on elevator pitches.

As I understand it, the term “elevator pitch” comes from the idea that you should be able to sum up your novel in the ride between floors at a convention. You might only share the elevator for one floor, so the shorter the better.

Think of the elevator pitch as verbal cover art.  In an ideal world, it should be attention grabbing, give them a sense of the type of the book, and — most importantly — make them want to know more.

For Shades of Milk and Honey, my elevator pitch is “Jane Austen with magic!” ((Yes, the exclamation point is in there, always.)) The reason this one is so short is that I’m able to use “Jane Austen” as shorthand for “A novel set in the Regency period, in which a young woman tries to find love and suffers through several social setbacks, including some comedy of manners,” with magic! This is why you’ll see people suggesting that you find something that your book resembles — it’s not about saying “my book will be as successful as [x],” it’s about finding a code that will let you condense your pitch.

You’ll notice that my Milk and Honey pitch really doesn’t say anything specific about the plot or characters, but this short hand is enough to get people to say, “Really? Tell me more.”

All of which works well if you’ve got something that can be easily compared to something fairly high profile. Otherwise, you have to break it down to the core conflict and pick the thing that makes it unique, aiming to make a — look, instead of saying editor/agent/show presenter, I’m just going to say mark, since really what we’re talking about is selling something.  What you want is for your mark to say, “Tell me more.”

I think of pitching as a series of layers.

Layer one is very fast and exists to hook the mark and make him ask you to tell him more. By making it fast and engaging, I’m setting them up to say, “Oo! That sounds interesting.” Which turns it from a pitch into a dialogue. It means that whoever I’m talking to is less likely to glaze over.

Am I worried about condensing it too much? No. Because if I do my job here right, then I will have time to expand.

Layer two is the expansion of the pitch. My mark already knows the basic premise, so I can give a bit of plot, plus more of the pieces of wonder — or the things that make my story unique. This can be a full on paragraph, but still needs to be snappy. At the end of this, I want to either be sending them a packet or booking a show.

So, let me show you this summary for one of me novels that’s waiting for revision and needs an elevator pitch.

Currently it stands as this:

Virus Attached – SF murder/mystery: Scott Huang is a detective in the homicide department; like all the detectives, he is paired with Metta, an AI who functions as a virtual partner for the entire precinct. Metta customizes her interface for each detective, appearing to Huang as Mae West. In the midst of a murder investigation, Metta’s chassis is stolen, effectively kidnapping her. The department reboots her from a backup and Metta.2 must work with Huang to solve the original Metta’s disappearance. For an AI, this should be easy, but the thief is using the original Metta to create a virus, hacking into Metta.2. They have six hours to solve the crime, before Metta’s programming is cracked, allowing the thief to wipe every police record at any station using her software.

This is way, way too long.  So, first I’ll strip it down to what you have to know in order to get an idea of the story.

Virus Attached – SF murder/mystery: Scott Huang is a detective partnered with an AI. In the midst of a murder investigation, the AI’s chassis is stolen. He has six hours to solve the crime, before the thief starts erasing police records at every station using her software.

That gives me a complete story, but doesn’t sound particularly unique or interesting.

Virus Attached – SF murder/mystery: Detective Scott Huang is partnered with Metta, an AI modeled on Mae West. When her hardware is kidnapped, Metta’s backup copy and Scott have to stop the thief before he uses her to create a virus which will erase police records in every precinct. The only way to do that, might be to erase Metta permanently.

(Granted… I could probably sum this one up as “CSI with a Mae West A.I.” and do better, but you get what I’m talking about.)

You’ll note that I don’t try to tell the ending in my elevator pitch. I just hit the world/main character, the central conflict and the stakes.

Now, that thing above is fine for something written.  But an elevator pitch is spoken, right? I can take advantage of that in the way I structure it.  There’s a trick in theater for audience participation shows, where you can trigger, almost certainly, the audience to say what you want them to.  You can do that with marks too.

For instance, one of my actual pitches would probably go more like this. ((I was tempted to use one of my show pitches instead, but Lyn asked about fiction))

Mark:  So what do you got?

Me: Shades of Milk and Honey, a regency romance, Good Housekeeping, an suburban fantasy, and Virus Attached, an SF murder/mystery.

Mark: Tell me more about the SF one.

Me: Sure.  While on a murder investigation, Scott Huang’s partner is kidnapped.  The catch?  She’s an AI and Scott has six hours to stop the thief from using her to create a virus which will erase police records in every precinct.  Oh, and she looks like Mae West. ((See, what I’ve done is ended with something that is interesting and also that raises a question. Why does she look like Mae West?))

Mark: (some variant on, “Mae West?”)

Me:  Yeah, she’s partnered with all the cops and can customize her interface for them.  Scott likes silver screen stars.  Things get really sticky when the department decides to reboot her from a backup copy to help solve her own kidnapping.  Besides the crime, the book touches on questions of identity and what it means to be real. The AI knows that she’s being hacked into and that the only way to stop the thief might be to shut herself down permanently.

See what I’m doing? I’m turning it into a dialogue. A properly done audience participation show ((This means that the audiences’s actions have a direct impact on the action on stage, not “Everyone wave your arms. Now we’re all trees.”  In a correctly done show, if the audience doesn’t participate, the show could end.  That’s why the Tinkerbell moment works.)) causes the audience to be more engaged and invested in the action on stage, because they are part of it.  I’ve found that making my pitch more conversational does the same thing.  It makes the person more invested and more likely to book the show.

As I said, I’ve got no idea what an editor or agent would tell you about this, but it sells shows. I can’t see any real reason why it wouldn’t work with fiction.

And of course. Practice the darn thing! You need to know it so well that it doesn’t look memorized.

What are your own tricks?

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8 thoughts on “My take on elevator pitches”

  1. Ah, very nice analysis of elevator pitch.

    This actually reminds me of two things: trailers and conversation with kids drawing pictures. Let me explain.

    The bigger paragraph is like those two-minute trailers you see before movies. It introduces you to main characters, plot, major conflict, the stakes, but doesn’t give you the answer. The opening elevator pitch is like those 30-second teasers that’s just aiming to get you hooked without telling you a little bit, but not too much.

    The expanding ideas part reminds me of watching kids draw.
    Me: Hey Dylan, what are you drawing?
    Kid: It’s a robot fighting a monster. The robot’s got the best weapon.
    Me: Why’s that the best weapon?
    Kid: Because it shoots meatballs!
    Me: Oh wow, why does it shoot meatballs? Is it from Planet Spaghetti?
    Kid: No! Because…

    You get the idea. Kids do this naturally for some reason.

    1. Ha! Yes, I’d never thought about it, but conversations with kids are exactly like that.

      The funny thing is that when I first saw, “trailers and conversation with kids drawing pictures,” I immediately thought of teaching workshops in trailers with kids. Clearly, I put in too much time on school tours.

  2. Wow! That was masterful.
    Better watch out though, people are going to have you teaching yet more seminars at cons if you keep this up! 😉

    Thanks for the terrific post.

  3. I really like how you outlined this from the writer’s perspective. Having lived in tech since someone slapped a sheepskin in my palm over two decades ago, I’ve fully grasped the notion of the elevator pitch. Most marks in our halls are harried executives you generally need something from: budget, heads, permission, forgiveness, etc. My summary of the elevator pitch to those trying to learn is: “25 words or less of key context followed by the teaser hook.” The best hooks are personal ones, something sure-fire to resonate with the mark, if that’s possible; otherwise, go for the high shock factor to snag attention.

    We exist in a world where Andy Warhol cross-pollinated with Moore’s Law, and 15 minutes has now condensed to 15 seconds. Gotta exploit it to the fullest before you revert back to chopped liver.

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