So in a couple of weeks I’m returning to Raindance to run my one day seminar on Writing for Graphic Novels and Screenplays, and part of my seminar is about networking, and more importantly what not to do. They’re rules I’ve used all my career, and now I’m moving into film and TV, I’m finding that they’re even more vital for a screenwriter.
Today, I write about how knowledge in one market can help in another – in this case how being a salesman can help someone be a writer. Not in every manner of sales, but by looking at some of the basic skills that a salesman is taught to do, and showing how it can help you at a convention.
It’s a lesser known fact that before I was a journalist or PR / Marketing chap, I was a salesman. Door to door, shop assistant, telemarketer, I did all the jobs that someone who looks to pay the bills while pursuing a separate dream does. And I was good at it. I listened. I looked at how the game was played and I played it very well. And over the last decade there have been countless times that I’ve realised that my knowledge of sales techniques has actively helped me with my writing career.
Firstly, most of these suggestions are based around the art of ‘networking’. This is something that all writers do. The days of the writer who’s work speaks for themselves are almost a thing of the past – many editors / producers / publishers / directors that I know will Google a writer the moment they receive something. So, make sure there’s something to Google. A web page. A blog. A Twitter account. Something that gives them that first link to who you really are. How is this linked to sales? Well, every small fry sales company I worked for had the biggest and best website in the world, as on the Internet you can look like Tony Stark while working from your parents spare bedroom. First appearance is everything.
Let me repeat that. First appearance is everything.
A salesman is taught at the very beginning that a client will decide if they like you within the first thirty seconds of meeting you. I’d even go down to ten or fifteen seconds. Your first appearance with a client is vital, as you’re not there to be a friend or a mate. You’re there to make them buy something off you. And as a writer? The thing you want them to buy is your script. So, make them like you. If the client likes you, they’ll overlook things in your product that someone more critical wouldn’t.
Which in writing equates to a producer or editor that gets on with you, will give you a second shot at a pitch if the first one sucked.
So how do you make a great first impression? Simple. Firstly, remember one of the first rules of sales. You have one mouth, two eyes and two ears. You should be watching and listening twice as much as you talk. The worst pitches I’ve seen are when people go in guns blazing, desperate to be remembered, but in the end are memorable only as ‘the loud guy who kept going on about himself’.
Listen to the client. Obviously talk, but let them lead the way. Find a moment when saying ‘I have a pitch that I’d like to send you’ becomes related to the conversation. In the corporate world, salesmen are not sellers. They are solution providers. If they want to sell you a vacuum cleaner, they don’t turn up and go ‘hey! Want a vacuum cleaner?’ the moment you open the door. No, they say ‘hey! You just said that your carpet is a state and your vacuum’s useless. What if I could provide you with a solution to that?’
In the same way, if a producer bemoans the lack of good low budget sci fi movies set during the Civil War, you can then go ‘actually, I have something that pretty much fills that niche, if you’re interested…’
Of course, ensure you know which Civil War they mean. But at the end of the day, observing is everything.
Also, in your first appearance, remember your appearance. If it’s a three day convention like San Diego, or even the London Screenwriter’s Festival – and you’ve not slept or bathed in three days? When you meet that producer, they’re going to remember this first image every time they speak to you. If you’ve been hitting the vodkas constantly since the end of the last seminar, and you’re hammered in the convention bar as they walk in? You might think it’s a great idea to go and say hello, but then their first image will always be ‘that drunk‘.
Remember, pitching a producer or an editor, even meeting them for the first time - that’s a job interview. Think how you’d want to be seen in a job interview. Personally I dress up a little, stay professional. It used to be that if I was at a bar and I’ve had a few, I wouldn’t go to the editor / publisher / producer and try to pitch. Nowadays, I barely drink at all in conventions. And I sure as hell don’t try to cold-pitch producers or editors in a bar. Remember, they’re off duty too.
Now remember, this is what I call the salesman and new client talk -This is the way to act before you meet them. Once you’re in the room, the world’s your oyster. I know comic editors who, once they get to know you will only take pitches when in the bar. But you have to get through that door first.
More on first appearance – you’ve showered. You’re wearing clean clothes. How’s your business card? In these days a business card is vital. And I don’t mean a pack of the free giveaways that moocards give you – If I was a producer and was given one of those, or an obviously home printed one on photocopy paper, I’d wonder about the level of your own work, if this was the card you were happy to give out. No, spend the money. Get a nice, stand out card design. The producer you give this to is going to get a hundred of these today. You want yours to be memorable. Maybe a piece of art. May a QR code on the back, your call. I have a simple design that gives my name, web site and phone numbers. I also have a line with Twitter, Facebook, Skype and LinkedIn logos next to my ‘handle’, as I’ve unified all of these for ease. It also means they can find me quickly on the internet. On the back is a back quote. I know writers who put their agents details on the back. It’s your call.
All you want to do is make sure they have it. They don’t even have to talk to you much, the chances are they’ll forget anyway. They’ll probably never use the card either, I’m sorry to say. It’s mainly so when you call them a week after the con saying ‘hey, we chatted and you said to contact you’, they can work through their pile and look for confirmation. They’ll find it. They’ll remember you.
Do you have a script to give them at the festival or convention? Great!
Throw it away.
Seriously, leave it in the hotel room. They’re not going to take it back with them, their carry on weight is already at max and they don’t want anything more. Again with the salesman – a salesman doesn’t walk up to a client with the product with him. Instead, they excite the client with stories of solution providing, and arrange for a second meeting where they can bring it. And that’s the same with you. No producer is going to look at you when you walk up with a script and go ‘awesome! Can I have that?’ Instead, ask if you can send it to them later, when everything is relaxed again.
So. You’re clean, tidy, cards in hand, and you’ve had your first impression. You’ve said hello, shaken the hand, said you’ve got a great idea for a script and would love the opportunity to speak to them down the line. The chances are they’ll have said yes, or passed you to someone who would look at it for them. But, be aware that they might say ‘go on then. tell me it.’
Often in sales there are buyers and clients who buck the rules, who will turn around when you call them to introduce yourself and go ‘come on then, sell it to me.‘ They hate the hoops we all jump through, they cut to the chase immediately. So make sure you have something to give. However, don’t start with your five minute pitch. Imagine you have twenty seconds, no more. Tease them. Give them the high concept. If they like it, they’ll ask questions. Each answer can be used to give out more of the story.
Be aware though that this stage would usually only come when you are hitting the ‘solution provider’ stage of the conversation. If you get this at the start, you’ve not had a chance to gain the intel you need to identify their needs.
So. How do you converse? By using open questions. I worked for a company that would make us roleplay these scenarios every day, and you know what? It works. Never ask a closed question. For example, ‘Can I call you Tuesday and discuss this?‘ – no. End of conversation. ‘What day would be better to call you to discuss this, Tuesday or Wednesday?‘ – still might be a no, but they can’t answer with it. They’ll have to explain a reason, an objection. And salesmen are taught to kill objections on sight. You narrow the conversation answers, constantly asking open questions to allow the client to give you more information, as information is power. Don’t jump in immediately the moment you hear something good, let them continue. At the end. you can go ‘Well, Teddy, it sounds like you’ve got a bumper year next year, but I agree with you that your Civil War sci fi quota is a little lacking. What are you doing to rectify this? You’re actively looking? Well, funny enough I have a story that could fit that market and currently it’s not with anyone else. I could send it to you next week, or talk about it over a coffee – whats a good day for you?‘
How. What. Why. When. Where. Think of the game where a kid asks you ‘why’ to a question. Each time you have to add more, only to be told ‘why’. It’s annoying as hell, but you know what? You keep answering.
So. You’re a writer and your work is amazing, but if you don’t have an awesome agent, you’ll need to sell yourself, while at the same time not looking like you’re selling anything. But more importantly, if you’re at a convention in the near future, don’t expect to seal the deal there and then. You won’t. At best you’ll have an invite to send something. Personally? Go for the first appearance and nothing more. Let them know you as a polite and professional person who exchanged cards and didn’t try to ram your script down their throat. Get to know them, use the eyes and the ears more than the mouth. Ensure they like you. Make sure you like them – makes it easier to work for them.
Now just because I say that being a salesman can help, a salesman couldn’t do this, because the first thing a salesman is taught is the ‘A, B, C’ – Always Be Closing. Always be looking to seal the deal. And writing isn’t that. Writing and networking aren’t about nailing the contract there and then. But there are things you can learn by checking a few sales related sites. And at worst, it might make you a little less nervous if you have a game plan.
Sell yourself, but make sure you don’t offer a closing down sale.