Top Pitching Tips from Whicker Alum

“Begin with your story – that’s how you win over your audience”

Danny Tynan asked 5 documentary makers – all Whicker finalists and winners – for their advice on how to give a great pitch.

One filmmaker told me to smile during my pitch, the other told me to wear lipstick (‘Ruby Woo’ by MAC was her recommendation) and another told me to drive around an abandoned space while talking to myself…

I began doing this quite odd thing with my last few pitches and public speaking events, which is getting in the car and driving round to a bit of abandoned space next to a big field near my house. It overlooks Edinburgh and is fairly quiet so I won’t be disturbed. I basically just ‘pitch up’ there and rehearse my speech, and then go home. I don’t like rehearsing in the house as my Mum and Dad would think I’ve lost the plot.” – Duncan Cowles (2017 Film & TV Funding Award Runner-up).

I would be up for that, except I can’t drive so I think I’ll have to scrap that one! Doc-maker Patty Pajak (2019 Film & TV Funding Award finalist) told me that it would be a good idea if I rested before my pitch. I’m good at that so that shouldn’t be a problem… Okay I’m well rested! Now what? What am I actually going to say during my pitch?

“’Concentrate on telling a story’ – that was the best advice I ever received. Don’t start with production detail, or money issues. Don’t even start with your super impressive CV (if you have one). Begin with why your story is the most compelling thing on earth right now. That’s how you win over your audience and make them buy into your idea, whatever the costs and difficulties involved.” – Alex Bescoby (2016 Film & TV Funding Award winner).

Okay, I’ll make all of the potential financiers sit on a mat on the floor as I apply my lipstick before I read them a story. How do you like my heels by the way? I thought I’d wear some fancy ones for my pitch. So that should be enough shouldn’t it? I can just make the pitch up as I go along.

I’ve learnt a few important lessons through a few disasters. All of which have taught me to always, always prepare carefully, even if it’s supposed to appear quite off the cuff. The safest approach is to come up with a simple structure for your talk (beginning, middle, end) so you can do it without notes as you’re taking yourself on a simple narrative journey in your head. Oh, and short is sweet – really.” – Alex Bescoby.

You want me to prepare? But I’m resting! I’ve got killer heels on, great lippy and now you want me to come up with a beginning, middle, damn…so where’s the manual? I’ll stare at it for a while. I’ve got a feeling I’m going to fail outright!

I once got told after a practice pitch in front of Paul Pauwels, the former director of the European Documentary Network, that I’d broken every single piece of advice he had written down in his ‘How to Pitch’ guide, and yet my pitch was perfect. This made me really happy. I think I might have even smiled, or nervously laughed.” – Duncan Cowles

OK, so I’ve read the manual (skimmed it), now can’t they jus’ straight up give me the loot? Do you lot actually enjoy pitching?

[It’s] barbaric and should be done away with. It’s like Jeremy Kyle Live! Let the introverts of the world have a go! Aside from that it’s been really great for me and I’ve felt fully supported from the get go. This last year has been really wonderful because of the support I’ve had from The Whickers. It’s worth the sleepless nights before the pitch.” – Isis Thompson (2018 Radio & Audio Funding Award winner).

Did someone say… SLEEPLESS NIGHTS?! Everyone off the mat, I need to lie down. All of this stress is getting to me. God, these heels! Let’s have a bit more positivity now…

I enjoy [pitching] very much, it is a way of reconnecting to the project in a different way and to remind myself of the important points [in my documentary].” –  Susanna Cappellaro (2019 Film & TV Funding Award finalist).

I mean, you lot aren’t like me. You have poise and confidence. I bet you find public pitches as easy as pie!

I think I switch into a more nervous, terrified, awkward, mumbly version of myself. It’s not something I have much control over though… my body just reacts to the pressure and feeling exposed on stage by doing this for some reason. When you speak to one person you are in a bit of a rhythm; you are both adapting a little to what the other is saying and reading the tone. However, when I step up in front of hundreds of people it’s like I unintentionally switch to my ‘factory default’ settings and hope for the best.” – Duncan Cowles

Well, I think I’m going to need some support. I can’t be expected to pass out on stage in the hope of some cash now, can I?

Rebecca Day who is producing my feature film [is] great on both pitching advice and the mental health side of things. She recently set up ‘Film in Mind’ as a therapeutic aid to doc filmmakers (” – Duncan Cowles

Thanks Duncan, I’ll take a look at that.  A pint, I think we need a pint! There’s a Wetherspoons down the road, you lot up for it? I’ll wear my flats.

It’s different for everyone. If I can attempt to [give advice to] any awkward ‘shy at heart’ people like myself, it’s that you need to push outside of your own head and realise that people want you to be good. They are all wishing you well in the audience. This is your moment. All those times people have never listened to you or talked over you and you’ve remained that quiet, shy person in the corner: this is the time to take control. Show them what you’re made of… you’ve got 7 minutes of uninterrupted space where they have no option but to listen to you. What a gift. Make the most of it.” – Duncan Cowles

Okay, I’ll get my story sorted out! This is going to be the greatest pitch you have ever seen… just let me get a little shut eye first…

Here are the documentary filmmakers’ top tips for great pitching:

  • Try and look smart.
  • Know your audience.
  • Don’t overrun your allotted time, try to finish early if possible. There’s nothing worse than being cut off or fizzling out.
  • Brainstorm questions you will probably get asked and have answers prepared in advance. If you show cracks in your answers it’ll look like you don’t know your own project, and your direction might be questioned.
  • Learn your pitch off by heart if you can, and start doing this a few days in advance to allow it to set in your brain over time.
  • Be yourself. It sounds horribly cliché, but it’s fairly on point. I would expand this and advise you to pitch in a way that will be entertaining to those in the audience and on the judging panel. Draw people in with questions, get them thinking, and then throw in a twist, for example a crisis that needs to be resolved. That crisis might well be that you need hard cash, that would be appropriate…
  • Listen to the panel, appreciate their feedback and questions – and definitely don’t get into an argument with them. (Even if they’re wrong.)
  • Lay off the parties and alcohol for a few days in advance. This might not be for everyone, it’s just a personal thing I like to do to prep for a big pitch and to keep myself sharp.

By Danny TynanDanny is an aspiring filmmaker who participated in The Whickers/BFI Documentary course in early 2018, where he won an award for his authored short documentary, Phone in