The Art Of The Pitch

As I mentioned in last month’s post, I’m teaching an entertainment PR course this semester at California State University, Fullerton. One of the most important topics we’ll be covering is “the art of the pitch.” What’s the secret of the successful pitch that gets a journalist to bite on your story idea? Since most pitching is done via email these days, we’ll obviously be covering good sales-writing techniques, including how to write an attention-getting email subject header. But what about those rare instances when you actually get a journalist on the phone? How do you take advantage of the opportunity and “always be closing” (known as the ABC’s), to quote Alec Baldwin from “Glengarry Glen Ross”?

To inspire my students and make the topic more entertaining for them, I turned to clips of famous sales pitches from films and television series. Here are five of my favorites, all of which have something to teach an up-and-coming entertainment publicist:



“The Boiler Room”: There are many great sales-pitch scenes in this movie about a college dropout (Giovanni Ribisi) who gets a job as a broker for an investment firm. One of my favorites is between Giovanni and a doctor he’s trying to sell some stock to. When the doctor expresses some initial interest, Ribisi turns the call over to a senior broker played by Vin Diesel. Both Ribisi and Diesel show energy, persistence, and even intrigue in their sales pitch—all qualities that keep a client on the hook. While there’s a certain sleazy quality to this pitch that I wouldn’t recommend my students emulate, the confidence and sense of urgency that Ribisi and Diesel convey are good techniques to take note of.

“Glengarry Glen Ross”: The most famous scene in this movie is Alec Baldwin’s “Always Be Closing” speech, but there is also a great scene in which Jack Lemmon visits a customer’s house to try to sell a piece of real estate. Although Lemmon’s slightly desperate character is ultimately unsuccessful, if you dial him back several notches, there’s a valuable message there about the importance of developing a personal relationship with your client.

“The Pursuit of Happyness”:As a homeless single father trying to win a permanent position as a broker with Dean Witter, Will Smith tells you most everything you need to know about the secrets of successful pitching in this short scene. 1) Smile when you say that. Smith’s unrelenting cheerfulness as he makes cold call after cold call comes through in his voice—and ultimately lands him a solid lead. 2) Do what it takes. Since he has to pick up his son and can’t work nine hours like the rest of the interns, Smith does everything possible to cram nine hours worth of work into six hours—including drinking no water so he doesn’t lose time on bathroom breaks. 3) Think creatively. Though he’s supposed to work through a list of prospects from the bottom up, Smith spontaneously jumps to the top of the list—and then grabs an invite from the prospect for a face-to-face meeting. All young publicist wanna-bes should demonstrate Smith’s can-do attitude!

“Jerry Maguire”: This Tom Cruise movie about a sports agent who goes from the top to the bottom and works his way back up is justifiably famous for its “Show me the money” scene with Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the outsized-personality football player. But for my money, the most compelling sales pitch comes in the romantic “You complete me” scene with Renee Zellweger as Jerry Maguire’s wife. And it’s not just because I’m a romantic—there’s also a whole lot to be said for the power of sincerity.

“Mad Men”: Who can resist Jon Hamm as Don Draper? Professionally speaking, I mean. In this scene, when Don manages to find a way to promote cancer-causing Lucky Strike cigarettes as a almost-wholesome “toasted” product grown in the South Carolina sunshine, he brilliantly turns a negative into a positive—and wins over a suspicious and grouchy client. “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” Don says. While I hope my students will never have to do PR for a cancerous product like cigarettes, I do hope they’ll learn from Don the art of finding the message of “happiness” that wins over clients, journalists, and the public alike.

Pitching is part art, part science, part luck. My challenge will be to help my students find their inner Jerry Maguires and Don Drapers as they pitch journalists for that terrifying first time.

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