Key Skill Report: The Triple Pitch System

Here’s the sad truth about being a professional, self-published writer.

Everybody who cares enough about you to buy your book already knows about your book.

Almost everybody else in the world who’s going to buy your work will care about the book first, and about you second…if ever at all. 

That means, among the myriad other skills a modern self-published author needs to build, you have to know how to sell people on the idea of the book. Get them curious, or even passionate, about what they’ll find when they read it, and they’re one step closer to becoming your life-long fan. 

Unfortunately, far too many authors are terrible at this skill. Go to a writing conference or fair, and ask ten random writers what their book is about…

…5 of them will ramble for a long time about the topic, because they’re passionate enough to write about it and assume everybody else finds it exactly as interesting as they do…

…3 of them will give you an “X meets Y” pitch like they’re at a meeting with a slick Hollywood agent…

…1 will stare at you, dumbfounded, with no idea what to say next…

If you’re lucky, the one remaining will know exactly how much to tell you, and how to tell it in a way that makes you so excited about their book that you do the rest of the selling to yourself. 

Today, we’ll look at how to be that one person who knows the best way to tell people about their book without oversharing, underselling, or freezing in the moment with your tongue stuck to the top of your mouth. 

A Tale of Three Pitches

The key to winning the pitch game is to have a series of pitch possibilities, each more detailed than the last. You start with the first. If it perks an eyebrow, you see if they’d like to hear the longer version. If they’re still excited about that, you go into your full spiel. The three possibilities are:

  • Elevator Pitch
  • Paragraph Pitch
  • Questions and Answers

We’ll go into each of these in turn, then talk about how to practice, combine, and move from one to the next in person, on the phone, and over the internet. 

Your Elevator Pitch

The term “Elevator Pitch” comes from the idea that you can tell it, start to finish, during a ride in an elevator with somebody with the ability to help your book succeed. That somebody has no time for you once the doors open, but if your pitch really sticks with them, they can reach out later to help make things happen. 

That’s not very likely for most self-published authors, but that same time span roughly equals how long somebody in regular life will listen to you talk about your book before either their mind wanders or you hook their more complete attention. 

Your elevator pitch should last no longer than 60 seconds. If you can get it to 45, or even 30, so much the better. In that time frame, you want to accomplish three goals:

Hook them with an interesting statement, question, or image. This should be a single sentence that really grabs hold of them. It should be compelling, shocking, funny, surprising, scary…whatever emotional impact is appropriate for your work. Make it sharp. Show instead of tell. Imply more than you say. Make them desperate to hear the remaining seconds of your pitch. 

(NOTE: here is where it’s all right to do the Hollywood “X meets Y” thing, just don’t make it kitschy and follow it up by explaining why your intersection of X and Y is even cooler than it sounds, and how you’re uniquely suited to execute it well.)

Explain the scope and frame of the book. In no more than two sentences or three fragments, give the big picture description of the book. Make the genre clear, outline the one or two central points of plot, character, or setting. The listener should leave this part of the pitch with a reasonably accurate expectation of what they’ll experience by reading the book. 

For fiction, wrap this around the central dramatic question or most compelling aspect of your fictional world. For nonfiction, make this about how your book will solve a real and meaningful problem your readers are experiencing. 

Differentiate yourself from the competition. Spend a single sentence about the most unique aspect of the book. This might be about you as an author, about what turns the whole plot up to eleven, or just another layer of awesome in the big twist. Remember, while you were writing it, the thing that made you smile while you were writing it? End with that. 

That’s it. Polish this and practice it. A/B test it with listeners and see which versions get the best results. Know it back and forth so you can say it stressed, exhausted, and a little bit drunk. This will be your default answer when people ask you what you’re writing.

Once you’ve delivered the Elevator Pitch, you will be able to tell whether or not you’ve gotten their attention. If you have, move on to the Paragraph Pitch. If not, talk about something else for a while and see if their curiosity gets the best of them later. Few things will drive off a potential slow sale like continuing to talk about a book after they’re no longer interested. 

Would You Like to Know More?

Your Elevator Pitch should last less than a minute. Your Paragraph Pitch will include less than five minutes of you talking, but might take longer as you do a back-and-forth conversation around the details. Overall, it should feel like the ad copy on the back of a book, on the inside flaps of a dust jacket, or on a short Amazon book description. This won’t be as polished and cookie-cutter as your Elevator Pitch, but you should know the linchpins of it well enough that you can tell it quickly while also adjusting in response to how your listener reacts. 

For your Paragraph Pitch, you should move through the following key points:

Re-Entry, where you recommence pitching your book. Most of the time, the Elevator Pitch ends and your listener says a few things. The conversation might veer off for a while, then return to your book. Here you say something like “Remember about X?”, referring back to your Elevator Pitch. When your listener says they do remember, you’re ready to move on. Pick the part of your Elevator Pitch they seemed most excited about. 

Character Connection. Introduce your main character in connection to your point of re-entry. That character is your reader’s entry into the tale, and is likewise your listener’s entry into caring about what you wrote. Give a few compelling details so the listener cares about the character as well as whatever part of your Elevator Pitch got their attention. 

Pinch Point. Now that your listener is interested in the story and cares about the character, introduce the first major challenge they face. Don’t give away too many details, and tell nothing about how they overcome it, but put the character in peril with the flavor of your overall story. Leave them hanging there, then move on.

The Big Picture. Spend no more than one sentence describing the overall storyline of the book between the pinch point and the climax. Go heavy on emotion here, light on theme, world-building, and plot details. 

Climax Tease. Tell them just enough about the book’s climax to establish a cliffhanger right there at the end of the conversation. This is the punch line of your Paragraph Pitch. If the listener wants to know more, they have to buy the book…or at least move on to the question and answer pitch. 

That works for any fiction book you can imagine. If you write nonfiction, the basic concept is the same, but the key points are slightly different:

Re-Entry. Just like with fiction you want to remind the listener of whatever got their attention from your Elevator Pitch. 

Personal Connection. Here you create a meaningful connection between your listener’s pain points and/or curiosity and what your book is about. Sometimes this is best done with a question. Sometimes it’s best done with an anecdote. Sometimes it’s something else, but it always tells the listener why they should personally read your book. 

First Takeaway. With your listener fully involved, give them the key takeaway from your book that you think would most make them want to read the rest. Usually this will be the main topic of one chapter or another, or an action item from within a chapter. 

Big Picture. Spend no more than one sentence describing the overall scope of the book. What does it cover? What questions does it answer? In what kind of format?

High Concept. Close with a reminder of why the book will be interesting or useful to the person you’re talking to. Again, this is the punch line. Sink emotional hooks into your reader — curiosity and relief are two of the best — and leave them wanting more. 

Think of your Paragraph Pitch as like memorizing a joke. When you tell a good joke, you don’t memorize every word. You remember the key points, let the joke live, breathe, expand, and contract as feels right in the moment. You get to the punch line at the end, and everybody laughs.

Most of the time this will be the end of it. Leave the listener wanting to buy and read your book. Sometimes, they’ll want to have a conversation with you about it, which is when you move to…

Questions and Answers

This is less of a pitch and more of a conversation. Here, you let the person receiving your pitch direct the conversation. They will have questions about the characters, world, and action of a fiction book, or about your expertise and your journey for non-fiction. 

The key to navigating this pitch is to have a set of informational blocks, each about the length of an elevator pitch, that you can pull out in response to key questions. Having these answers at the ready helps you keep the conversation on point, and to always say the most exciting thing about the most relevant points of your book for the talk you’re having at that moment. 

Resist the temptation to accidentally summarize your book here. Your conversational partner will have questions, but if you tell them the whole story they’re less likely to buy. Instead, wind the conversation around how you wrote the book. Talk about your personal journey and discoveries along the way, sprinkled with tempting morsels of information about the book itself. 

More of an art than a science or checklist, this last pitch is the hardest to master or even talk about in detail. You’ll need to practice it with people, and without people. Watch interviews with famous authors about their upcoming books. Better yet, watch multiple different interviews with the same person talking about the same book. You’ll notice the kinds of information blocks they have mostly memorized, and how they bring them out to wow interviewer after interviewer, each in their own turn. 

Okay, What’s Next?

Your next step is to make bullet points for all three kinds of pitches. From there, practice them alone, with a partner, and on the internet in chats. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Refine them by expanding on the former and jettisoning the latter. Keep working and evolving your pitches until all three levels are your secret sales weapons wherever you bring them out. 

Image by StockSnap.