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Reviewing the Pitch: 10 Things I Learned from Engine28 About Press Pitches

06.20.11 | 4 Comments


CATEGORIES arts administrators, conversation starter, dance, ideas, marketing

I did not get to go to the Americans for the Arts and Theater Communications Group conferences this year, but thanks to an NEA funded “pop up newsroom” called Engine28 (and the smart folks at #2amt who were at the conferences) I did get the opportunity to follow along from my office.

As a bonus, a Portland journalist pointed me to a contest Engine28 was running on the art of the PR Pitch. The winner of the contest would get direct feedback on what worked and what didn’t in their pitch from the newsroom’s quite impressive pack of national arts journalists.

A had a bit of time to spare that Friday, so I posted a recent pitch for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s season opening production to see what feedback I might be able to get. And I won the press jury award. My prize? Detailed feedback on the pitch from the journalists in the collective.

The feedback was fascinating, but since it lacked a space to communicate back to the evaluators about what was learned, I thought I might post the feedback (and my take on it) here, in case it would be of value to any arts folk looking to build their own press pitches.

First, here’s the pitch I entered into the contest (exactly as initially posted despite extreme temptation to retroactively fix all the glaring typos discovered as soon as I hit “publish”):

Subject line: Will Rebirthing a Classic Be Bloody (Good) Business?

2 years ago Oregon Ballet Theatre came within a razor’s edge of closing its doors forever.

Over a million dollars in emergency community support later, the companys wavers on the brink of a turnaround.

It would be understandable if decided to play it safe for a while.

Right?

Petrouchka/Carmen Image

Instead, Artistic Director Christopher Stowell has upped the stakes, inviting world-renowned choreographer Nicolo Fonte and 10 new dancers from around the world to collaborate on a world-premiere re-imagining of two bloody classics, Bizet’s Carmen and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka this October.

Their goal: to create new definitive ballet versions of these iconic stories that will restore the organization’s position in the vanguard of national ballet organizations and cement the company’s financial recovery.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, creatively or financially. Will he succeed? Or will the company’s fledgling turnaround end, like Carmen and Petrouchka themselves, in a bloodbath?

What are the lessons to be learned on behalf of the national arts community?

Will it be a new model to be shared? A cautionary tale? Either way it should be a helluva story for anyone interested in taking the current pulse of the arts in America.

Petrouchka/Carmen rehearses in August and world premieres Saturday, October 8th at the Keller Auditorium, Portland Oregon.


My rationale for this pitch and how it was framed: It’s a pitch contest, not a media release contest, so the focus should be on the “hook” (what gets them to open the link) and what journalists would call the “lede,” or the first sentence that frames the conflict/opportunity/newsworthiness of the story. Assumptions: Most readers would not be ballet experts, most readers would not be Portland-based. My goal: link an upcoming show to a topic of current relevance to the journalists.

So, how did that work out in the minds of the jury? And what did I learn that might be of value to others? Here’s their feedback and my responses, with the 10 Things I Learned in bold below. Would welcome your feedback and responses as well!

– What’s great: The pitch grabs me, like good theater, with really high stakes.
What’s missing: I hear very little about the art itself and why/how this piece is going to come together.

My take: Were this a full release, I would definitely have included paragraphs with the detail this writer is looking for. A bit tricky though, since the project is a world premiere and that means its hard to get juicy details out of artistic folk this far in advance. Always a challenge, that.

Lesson 1: Keep the pitch short. But don’t forget the links to more information for the folks who like to delve.

– Too much about how the company was nearly doomed, and how “playing it safe” could be a viable option. Should lead with how daring the show is, then go to the administrative stuff. Also, the more images from something like this, which words don’t seem to do justice to, the better.

My response: This is a very good point. Having the opportunity to include a few juicy design tidbits that help frame the artistic audacity of the project would have probably helped balance the “financial risk” angle with the “creative risk” angle.

– Professional! Grammatical! Winning!

My take: Gee. Thanks.

– It’s got a grabber lede, I was sucked in pretty quickly. Watch those typos! Attractive photo composite, I liked the cliffhanger in the type before scrolling down to continue reading. Does “world renowned” choreographer Nicolo Fonte have instant name recognition? Plant a contextual clue so we remember where we’ve seen his work. Evidently this company, despite budgetary woes, still has a sense of humor and hope.

My take: Providing context on the choreographer was a tricky one because it can be dangerous to digress from the main topic of your pitch to explain who or what an element of the pitch is (you can lose their attention pretty fast if you get all “paragraph-y”). I would normally handle this in an “about” paragraph later in the release (or a link to the cool video showing the hidden yoga poses in his recent OBT performance, which I totally could have done. Facepalm.)

Lesson 2: You have multimedia resources to support your show. Use them. In an online press pitch, just making the unfamiliar name a live link to an interesting post about that person could be the difference between story or no story.

– There was no other choice for me. Written like a feature story, the pitch’s lead was full of contradiction and had me at the words: “razor’s edge of closing its doors forever … ” The great picture sealed the deal.

My take: “Written like a feature story” is a really good piece of advice I have heard a lot from journalists about how to get a pitch noticed. Good takeaway.

Lesson 3: Write your release they way you would like to have the finished story written. If they chose to print your release verbatim, would you be happy with how it read?

– Bloodbath. Emergency. Razor’s edge. These 3 phrases are powerful, clear, intense. Placed near the top of this pitch I was drawn in to read more about Oregon. Ballet Theater’s risk taking techniques in wake of its financial crisis. Who doesn’t want to know how this game will end?

My take: I was leaning pretty heavily on the dramatic language, which was a risk (it could have ended up sounding SUPER corny). Glad that worked for this writer. For fans (and detractors) of my Kill the Adjective post, I would like to point out that each of the phrases this writer points to are NOUNS. Well, except for “razor’s.”

Lesson 4: Use specific, vivid language that creates the conflict or drama clearly in the mind of the reader. This is doubly true in press pitches as it is in other kinds of copy. You are writing for writers. Words are their passion. Use them carefully.

– Do a copy edit. The lead is missing a word: It would be understandable if [?????] decided to play it safe for a while. Send the message of professionalism.

My take: CURSE YOU TYPOSSSSSSS. Take away: it is so easy to distract a writer from your pitch by a missing or incorrectly spelled word. It matters, people. It really does.

Lesson 5: Writers make a living out of being very good with, and therefore very particular about, words and grammar. Typos are a slap in the face to them and a huge distraction. If you do absolutely nothing else, make sure your pitches are as typo-free as you can make them. Every time. Even in internet contests. The interwebz are forever.

– I love the bravery of taking risks in the face of–or even as an answer to–financial adversity in the arts. This pitch goes beyond the immediate show, asking some interesting questions and luring journalists to discover the answers.

My take: Was definitely trying to raise questions rather than answer them. Glad that worked for this writer.

Lesson 6: If you can connect your show to a topic of current regional or national relevance, do it. What’s there to talk about that’s bigger than the show itself? How can the show be used to illustrate a larger theme or concern?

– As a news story, this would interest me, but I’d need a bit more information about the ways that this performance could create a “new model” before I’d proceed to write about this. Also, use boldface sparingly, please!

My take: I admit to using a bit more boldface than strictly necessary out of an attempt to make a pitch easy to “scan.” But, duly noted- there’s a point at which leading the eyes to the “important bits” can become insulting.

– It’s a good pitch because it’s a good topic. But I would like to see more information. Are you saying the company IS playing it safe? Back that up — tell me what it is programming, compared with what it used to program.

My take: These all sound like excellent follow up questions to me. I would normally expect to address them once the writer expressed interest. Unless the lack of those immediate answers would keep a writer from following up?

Lesson 7: Be sure that the core point of your release will be clear, even to the non-careful reader. But don’t go overboard on leading the person who likes to “scan” through the release or you could insult the careful readers… and the careful readers are your best prospects.

– It’s a great hook – gives the context and background, sets the stakes and offers a window on an evolving solution. Like it a lot. BUT hate the headline. Doesn’t give an idea of what this is about. Language is overdramatic and reads like PR hype. And it’s not entirely grammatical. Can “rebirthing” be a business? And a bloody one at that? It would be much better if it were more specific. I would have skipped over this one because the headline was so bad.

My take: If you’ve given birth (which I have recently, so I guess it’s top of mind) you know that it is an inherently bloody process. As to whether it can be a business, I guess you’d have to ask a midwife. Also, the slightly mixed metaphor allowed for a pun on a British swear word. Who doesn’t like punny swear words? Perhaps it was just way too much. Metaphor deconstruction aside, what I get from this is that one person’s literary catnip can be another person’s exhaustingly corny PR hype.

Lesson 8: A subject line’s job is to be memorable and get them to open the email and read the thing. But beware you don’t cross the line and become memorable for the wrong reasons.

My main thought: the story idea is a good one, but the execution in the pitch does not match the quality of the idea. It needs to sound/look more professional: that means copy-editing it before sending it out; not bolding certain phrases, which has the effect of infantilizing the journalist reading it (Don’t worry—we’ll know what the important elements are); and not using slang like “helluva” (perhaps it’s just my personal preference, but feeling like a publicist is One of the Guys (or Girls) is not going to make me more likely to write a story—plus, this is a professional interaction). Choose your descriptors more wisely. I agree with Linda–if you need to call Nicolo Fonte “world-renowned,” he’s probably not world-renowned enough to have instant name recognition, so tell us more about what he’s done that’s great (I’m a dance writer and have not heard of him, so that says something). Is “bloody” the best way to describe Carmen and Petrouchka? I don’t think so–and I don’t think you need to resort to cheap thrills to attract a journalist to writing about this story.

My take: Carmen opens with the heroine slashing another girl in the face with a knife. And ends with a duel to the death. Petrouchka also ends with a duel to the death. Neither are, say, Dracula bloody. But the plot points definitely revolve around pointy things interacting in slippery ways with body parts. Not sure what standard of bloodiness would need to be achieved if these things don’t qualify? Hm. The “world-renowned” point is a good one, and a #fail on my part for disobeying my own rule about sloppy use of qualitative descriptors. Saying “world-renowned” was just BEGGING to have someone say “Oh yeah. Says WHO?” Perhaps I should have mentioned Nicolo’s work with Royal Danish Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Royal Ballet of Flanders, Stuttgart Ballet, The Australian Ballet, The Göteborg Ballet, The Finnish National Ballet, etc. Or maybe I should have just hyperlinked to this.

As to the inclusion of the “helluva,” I have to say that I have also gotten feedback that a touch of irreverence and colloquial or casual language at the end of a pitch can help “personalize” the pitch, making it feel more like a conversation than a corporate release. But perhaps it is a tactic to be saved for writers with whom you already have an established relationship…

– The content piques my curiosity but I want to know what about these classic remixes will be new and compelling. What is Fonte’s angle and concept? Also the description of the project is vague-who are these 10 dancers, why them? Just a few more facts, please.

My take: I should absolutely have more juicy details about production concept. If only I had them! This is the tricky part about pitching a world premiere, especially when the artists are still very much in process and keeping things tightly under wraps. Many of these details would have automatically been included in a full media release, of course.

Lesson 9: Skip the aggrandizing descriptive words and focus on facts that provide interesting context. Which facts are relevant will vary depending on which arts writer you are pitching. A dance writer, for example, needs different reference points than a general arts writer might.

– Drama personified. Bravery brandished. Teetering on the edge of triumph or tragedy. Had I read this particular entry, it would have my vote, too. It deserved its landslide win and the company appears to deserve an audience, just based on its sheer nerve. But the play’s the thing, and how it plays, and how it connects and is received, will decide the company’s fate. I lived in Oregon for 7 years and never came close to going to see the ballet. And I’m on the periphery of ballet and open to it. If they didn’t reach me, who will they reach?

My take: Good questions. So, would you like me to arrange some interviews and some tickets to opening night so you can start digging up answers to these extremely excellent questions?

– A compelling headline, a hook, some tension: It’s a “helluva” pitch. One suggestion: a quick copy edit would polish it up (i.e. company, rather than companys).

– 1) something at stake, 2) someone to root for, 3) an outcome I (and readers) want to find out.

– The headline piques curiosity but I originally passed this over because of the first two lines. If you are on the brink of turnaround, is there really tension when there are still plenty of companies that teeter on bankruptcy? And I think the connection between mounting a specific production and the health of a company to be tenuous in terms of the interest to the typical reader. Reading it over now, I like the questions that finish up the pitch but, first time through, it lost me before I got to that point.

– Trisha’s pitch has three major things going for it: it gives the impression of transparency; it contains conflict; and it leaves the story unfinished. Pitches that don’t contain conflict are boring, and I delete them. Pitches that seem like they’re hiding something are deleted even faster. And pitches that contain a complete story leave me no work to do.

 

My take: Blushing. Thank you. Delighted to hear what worked.

Lesson 10: Ask for (and listen hard to) the criticism. But don’t forget to acknowledge and enjoy the successes too.

Taking your press pitches for your show from good to great is a process. A never ending process of testing, feedback and revision.  Anyone can benefit from  asking the experts for feedback. You might be surprised how happy they are to help you improve. After all, better pitches from you mean better stories for them.

So, here’s a challenge. Ask your local arts writer to coffee. Bring a copy of your most recent release. And a red pen. You’ll be amazed what you might discover.

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  • Kerryl

    Great post. I must apologize for my critique of the pitch. I saw a “shared” version rather than your post on engine28 – and it was just your first paragraph! The entire pitch was more than complete. – Kerry Lengel

    • Kerry,
      Which commenter were you? And I found all the feedback useful. Particularly because it becomes a starting point for a conversation. Which is the whole point. Right?

  • Great recap. thanks for sharing what you learned trisha.


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