April 27, 2012

Ever tried telling your life’s story in a minute? Melting years down into seconds is tough. Summing up a long-simmering passion project can be equally hard.

Whether you’re pitching a new journalism project to a friend or to a financier, you often have to pack your message into a few fleeting moments. To persuade people to invest, collaborate, or even just try out a site requires a special kind of compact communication.

Journalists have ample opportunity to present new ideas. Some 2012 journalism conferences, like the Unity 2012 Convention, feature sessions expressly for startups. Beyond online competitions, like the Knight News Challenge, journopreneurs are increasingly finding alternative outlets for presentations ranging from library talks to Hacks/Hackers Demo Nights.

Whereas slides were once expected, a backlash against traditional PowerPoint presentations among journalists and funders alike has opened the door to more inventive approaches. Here are tips on three approaches for anyone preparing to pitch a project.

Illustrate the impact of your project with evergreen multimedia

Video is a powerful pitch tool. When investigative journalism project Matter raised more than $140,000 in March on Kickstarter, its primary tool was a great video about the need for better science coverage. Similarly, Honolulu’s Civil Beat has used a sleek video to convey the value and impact of its news site.

Honolulu's Civil Beat Introduction Video

The mini-vid has become a new persuasive craft form. Most of the best such videos, like great presentations, answer the following key questions: What’s the problem you’re solving and why is it important? How does the proposed solution work and what’s distinct about it? Who’s leading this and how can others get involved?

Creative pitch videos can take on myriad forms, from animated explainers of the sort popularized by Common Craft and GoAnimate, to simple Webcam recordings and fancy micro-documentaries. Excellent pitch videos are often more informative than slick. One example is this video by Blank on Blank, which publishes otherwise-lost interviews. Here’s another from Colorado’s I-News Network, which received a Poynter entrepreneurial journalism prize in 2010.

Those that are less successful, like this one for MyNetworkOne, often try to stuff too much in, or misfire at humor. When you’re prepping your own video, start by picking a few pitch videos that inspire you. Make a list of their key attributes. To get you started, here is a sampling of 20+ demo videos I gathered into a channel on Vimeo as well as a separate playlist on YouTube. Both include non-journalism projects to illustrate a range of styles.

Make the most of spontaneous pitch opportunities

Sometimes visuals are impractical. When you bump into someone at a conference, you often have to pitch quickly with words alone. No slides. No videos. In these personal pitch situations, it’s crucial to have persuasive snippets ready to go. Here are four components to help get your idea across quickly and effectively.

  • The first ingredient is a brief value proposition that sums up your projecThe Value Propositiont in one to two sentences. “For parents with school-age children, K12Update is a subscription news and photo service that provides a daily stream of photos and news shared by their children’s classroom teachers.” Trim unnecessary details. Don’t get into mechanics until asked. Just clarify the basic value — what it’s useful for.
  • The second key ingredient is a brief founding story or other anecdote that illustrates both the need for the service and its utility. “At the PTA meetings, parents kept saying they wished they saw more of what their kids did in school, like the art projects they were producing. Now they say they feel more connected to what’s going on in the classroom.”
  • The third step is where it’s easy to stumble. Don’t spend time on further details until you stop and listen for clarifying questions. If there’s an empty pause, probe for questions. “What’s your first impression?” or “Does that make sense?” or “How does that relate to your own experience?” Those kinds of questions let the person you’re pitching to signal what s/he is most interested in. That, in turn, increases the chances you’ll find a point of mutual interest.
  • The last part of the personal pitch process is the follow-up. Given that we’re exposed to hundreds of ads each day, we grow accustomed to blocking out messages or quickly forgetting them. That’s why advertisers insist on ensuring recall by running the same ads seven times. When it comes to personal pitches, follow-up with a brief email. Keep it to five sentences or fewer. Refer to something specific you discussed and remind the recipient of your idea, its name and its value. Include a relevant URL and a single phone number and email address. (Don’t give people multiple contact numbers and addresses because that burdens them with figuring out which one to use.) Close with a specific question if you have one (i.e. Would you be interested in serving as a pilot tester?) to simplify their response.

Stretch beyond PowerPoint

When you’re in front of an audience, demoing your product or service is often the best way to illustrate how it works. Getting an audience member up front to participate — or just having all those present try it out live — can be engaging. Number-crunching spreadsheets don’t always have to make an appearance, though mastering key facts and figures around your business helps bolster your credibility.

For elements that are difficult to demo live, check out tools like Projeqt, Jux, Hype and Prezi, which can help you create a free, immersive presentation. Or try other resources I’ve gathered into this Delicious.com stack of new storytelling tools.

If you must use slides, leave behind default PowerPoint templates by working with more design-friendly slide tools like Apple’s Keynote or Web-based tools like SlideRocket. Google Presentations, part of the Google Docs suite, offers a new range of clean designs after a recent upgrade. Include a single prominent image or a few key words per slide.

Guy Kawasaki suggests a 10-20-30 rule: 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30-point font. When you see slides like this one, this one, or these, you’re reminded that visuals can be confusing, distracting, or superfluous. Keeping each slide simple means the audience can focus on you and your message.

In live settings, refer to a Twitter hashtag to spread the responses beyond the live audience. Alternatively, use a tool like Todaysmeet.com or backchan.nl to set up a private backchannel that those present can use to ask live questions or comment on your presentation. That ensures people don’t have to sit on their hands or wait passively for you to finish talking to engage with you. To further draw out those present, try using Socrative.com or PollEverywhere.com to offer up live polls or trivia questions, or to probe for live feedback.

After public demos, gather the most noteworthy comments, Tweets and images into a Storify summary, like this one, to further distribute the impact of your presentation and to serve as a digital scrapbook. Keep a private list of takeaways from each presentation you make. Note that a particular joke got no laughs, or that your first example generated lots of nods of agreement.

Try to keep a record of every question you’re asked after pitching. Questions provide a valuable window into what people are most interested in, and can highlight elements of your pitch that might be unclear.

The late, great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich said that he kept careful track of each performance early in his career so he could consistently improve his stage presentation. Whatever pitch you’re giving, chances are it’s not your last. Keeping a presentation journal can help you consistently refine your message.

Jeremy Caplan, director of education at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, will be teaching in Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Entrepreneurial Journalists. You can apply for the camp here.
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