The 20-Second Elevator Pitch

Following on the topics of two previous posts (The Value of an ‘Elevator Speech’ and Thoughts on the Synopsis), I’ve been asked how one can successfully pitch their book (or screenplay) concept in just 20 seconds. Here’s an answer.

First, please recognize that you are probably capable of spending five minutes or more describing your project and what makes it unique. But just because you could, that does not mean you should. Agents, publishing houses, and readers generally don’t have either the time nor interest for so much detail. Instead, they want a short, concise summary of your material.

How short? Your target is 20 seconds. Or less.

If you gain their interest, they will then ask for more detail (such as a synopsis) and you now have an interested buyer.

What to Include in Your Elevator Pitch

Your pitch should be unique to you, but think in terms of three sentences:

  1. Your name, genre, and where you are in the writing process;
  2. Your book title and possibly its tagline or subtitle;
  3. An enticing description of the main story.

That’s it. Consider it a tease. Leave out all non-essential window dressing and boil it down to its core, highlighting any elements that make it unique.

Oh, and keep in mind that this is not the time to go generic or be a generalist. You need to be as specific as possible and pitch just one story (or concept for a book series) at a time.

Some Examples

Sample 1 (20 seconds)

“My name is Bo Folsom and I’m writing a comedic memoir drawn from my stand-up comedy sets. Titled ‘My Life So Far,’ I’m probably a third of the way through what I expect to be about 30 short chapters. The core of the material derives from my personal experience as a rocket scientist and coming to terms with being gay. It also delves into pop culture, politics, and relationships, all told from my personal sense of humor.”

Sample 2 (25 seconds)

“I’m Bo Folsom, collaborating on a non-fiction historical manuscript that tells the tale of seven World War II seamen, most of whom perished aboard their submarines, and the journey of their offspring to rediscover their lost fathers. In the process, they ultimately find reconciliation and empathy spanning three continents. Titled ‘The Enemy Was War,’ the author and I are currently in final edits en route to publication in advance of the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.”

Sample 3 (18 seconds)

“Hi, I’m Bo Folsom, developing a collection of short stories intended to be self-published by the end of the year. Titled ‘Dusk to Dawn,’ the four non-fiction pieces are complete, and I am nearing completion on the first of two fictional works. The collection addresses historic civil rights issues, commentary on pop culture, and tragic shortcomings of science fact.”

If I’ve written these adequately, each provides an opportunity for the listener to grasp the fundamentals while quickly determining if they hear more. All three are packed with a lot of info.

In my voice, Sample 2 is 25 seconds. Is that too long? Maybe, depending on circumstances. If pressed, I could cut the phrase “…most of whom perished aboard their submarines…” and/or the reference to a publication date. However, both phrases are directly relevant to a potential agent so I’d weigh the balance between brevity and the fuller description. In any case, all three are under 30 seconds.

Create Your Own 20-Second Pitch!

Can you create a 20-second pitch for your own work? Of course you can, you are a writer. Write, edit, revise, and edit again.

And as with your regular work, recognize that your elevator pitch can also benefit from critique, feedback, and revision. Good luck!

How to Format Your Manuscript

A recurring question posed to me concerns how to format a manuscript. I have three answers, depending on the author’s objective and where they are within their writing process:

  1. If the author is in the creative phase, it doesn’t matter how s/he formats the work. Whatever spurs you to write is as good as anything else. Cursive fonts, purple ink, beige parchment paper: it’s fine.This also applies if you want to create an “advance copy” of your manuscript to share with friends or family. I would suggest, however, inclusion of page numbers in the off-chance that someone prints a hard-copy of the manuscript since it’s easy for loose pages to get jumbled.
  2. If you are in the critique phase (such as our weekly Writers Workshops), virtually any format remains acceptable as long as it affords readability — in other words, avoid overly-expressive fonts and cramming too many words densely onto a page. To facilitate feedback, page numbers are essential.If you are requested to provide a specific number of “pages,” it is expected that an average page will contain about 250 words (equivalent to an 8.5″x11″ page with 1″ margins of double-spaced type in Times New Roman font).

    Also note, if you are looking for grammatical and/or editing feedback, use of a standard “publisher’s format” will be beneficial to reviewers (see next item).

  3. For those looking for an agent, publisher, or credibility as an author who-knows-what-they-are-doing, you must use standard formatting. Yes, this means the creativity of your work must shine through in the words, not fancy formatting.Also, if you are submitting your material to an editor, the first thing they’ll likely do is reformat your manuscript into their preferred standard. You earn respect — and potentially save money — if you abide by the universal standard in this case.

So what is the universal standard that editors, agents, and publishers want to see? Rather than type it up myself, I’ll point you to another editor’s excellent blog post on the subject (thank you, Beth Hill):

If you have questions about grammar, punctuation, or style conventions, use the “Chicago Style Guide” (online Q&A is free):
More on the subject of the Chicago Style Guide likely to come in a subsequent post.

Finding Your Story: Thoughts on the Synopsis

Previously, I discussed developing an elevator speech, or abstract, as a technique to help “find your story.”

Which brought forth the question:

Bo, I am working on my abstract. Do you have an example I can follow?

So to start, let me provide a link for initial guidance:

Early in your writing process, making your abstract (or synopsis) perfect is not the objective, nor is formatting important (but it’s the same as a manuscript: double-space, 1/2″ indent, Times New Roman font). Rather, it is to distill the story into its key elements.

As you write the manuscript, you may find you need to change/update the synopsis to match, but I like the exercise of asking yourself “what is my story?” And then answering the question as succinctly as reasonable…

In three paragraphs, what is your story?

In one paragraph, what is your story?

In 25 words, what is your story? Etc…

The exercise is simply meant to give you insight into “what is my story?” With that focus, your actual writing is likely to be more efficient and less likely to follow bunny trails that don’t progress the story.

I intentionally am not including examples (since it is your story and I think your pre-manuscript synopsis benefits from also being in your own words). But since that may not stop you from wanting to see examples – or doing your own google search for that matter – here are some additional thoughts from others that do include examples:

Note Susan Dennard’s comment from the last link regarding her own synopsis worksheet:

I use [this] as a general guide every time I write a synopsis. Sometimes, I even use it before writing a novel to help me get an idea of the general plot I want to follow.

So, while most advice on an abstract or synopsis centers on writing them AFTER completion of a manuscript, I am not alone in finding them of value as an early step in “finding your story.”

Bonus thought: if outlines are easier for you, feel free to develop an outline of your book in lieu of a synopsis… Either will help convey the essence of your story to yourself and others.

Finding Your Story: The Value of an ‘Elevator Speech’

With the initial two Writers Workshops and soft-launch of the online “South Bay Creative Writers Group” behind us, it is time to kick the blog into action.

Today’s short topic: the first step of my “first things FIRST” writing process. And to the extent that the Writing Workshops assign homework, here comes the first ‘assignment.’

Finding your story

As obvious as it may seem, writers sometimes launch into Telling their story before they’ve given consideration to what the story actually is. A simple technique to refine and clarify your story is to explicitly develop an abstract or logline. Essentially, you are distilling your story into maybe two sentences that capture its essence. You could also consider this to be your 15-second “elevator speech” (how you might describe your story to Brad Pitt or Oprah if you found yourself in an elevator with them as a captive audience).

You’ll eventually need this brief description for Amazon or the Library of Congress anyway, but developing a draft of it early in the process can guide you to Find your actual story, and allow your ensuing pages to flow more freely.

Your assignment (should you choose to accept it): For the July 25th Writers Workshop, write a concise abstract or elevator speech for your story. You’ll likely find the exercise beneficial to your overall writing process AND it will allow our introductions to go quicker!

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