You know what advice I LOVE? It’s the advice that has me nodding my head and thinking, yeah, that confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. This advice makes me feel good about myself and I should remind myself to keep on doing what I’m doing and everything will turn out just fine. Oh look, a butterfly! Isn’t life wonderful?
The problem, however, is that the advice we really need isn’t always as fun to hear. It’s the advice that challenges us, means we might have to change something in how we do things, makes our life harder. Seriously, who wants harder?! Certainly not me.
But that’s the very advice we might need sometimes. Here’s the thing – improvements require change. And change is hard. Keeping that change up is even harder.
I saw one of those videos about how finished is better than perfect. That’s good advice. You’ve got to finish and deliver and faffing around forever, no matter how lovely your unfinished work might be, is no use to anyone. Some people really need this advice.
I was just about to share the video when I thought of some people I have encountered over the years who would watch this and nod their heads and think, yeah, this confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. I’m going to just throw this work down, shove it in an email, might even stick some words in that email and I’m going to hit send. Finished is WAY better than perfect. When actually, the advice that those particular people need is the harder advice to hear – that they need to spend more time with their work, really push themselves to get it better and better and build up their own sense of internal quality control. Because while finished is better than perfect, great is much, much better than sloppy.
Different people will benefit from different advice. We are not all the same. Not even close.
So listen for the advice that is harder to hear. We may not like hearing it but it might be exactly what we need to hear.
The world is divided into two groups of people – those who will read that heading and say “Hammer Time!” and those who will say “Collaborate and listen!” As it happens, this post is not about MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. It’s about creative careers.
Here’s a thing: creative careers aren’t easy.
I started as an animator many years ago in the days when everything was pencil and paper. I remember seeing older people in their thirties, maybe some in their forties, travelling the world as they moved from production to production in search of animation clean-up jobs or whatever. Even back then, I got this feeling that I didn’t want to be that person. At some point, I was going to want to settle down. To stop having to chase that next job.
I looked ahead and, even just starting out, I knew that continuing exactly what I was doing probably wasn’t going to lead to a place I wanted to be.
I worked hard over the years. Not always focussed. Not always knowing where I was going. But I still amassed a good set of skills and, now, each role I can play in this business helps inform and support the other roles. So I have been very fortunate. I need the work and that is often dependent on productions, just as it was back then. But it’s easier to do from here, settled with my kids, and I can often create my own work in many ways.
And yet it is still true for me that a creative career isn’t easy. Even now, I have to project ahead and look at the path I’m on and try to figure out where that will lead me in the next 10 years. Or 20. I have to stop (no, not Hammer Time or Collaborate and Listen). Stop that day to day, to-do list to to-do list motion that just keeps me on a fixed path. Stop and review – where I am, what I’m doing, whether it is working, where I want to be and how I might get there.
It is a little time out to assess directions and I think it is hugely important. Probably in every career but definitely in ours.
My advice is that you start this early. Not all the time. It might only be once every few years. But do it. Stop. Take a look at where you are. Take a look at where you want to be, keeping in mind that it might not be where you thought you wanted to be the last time you did this. And consider how best you might get there.
People know I don’t buy into the cult of failure we have had over the last few years. A fear of failure is what pushes me to do better. It is what keeps me from giving up too early. And it comes as a package with a strong desire to succeed. Just as I can’t see a fear of heights being all that much of a bad thing (it has so far kept me from plummeting to my doom), I have never seen much of a reason to invite failure openly.
Failure is too easy. Anyone can fail. Anyone can put their hands up, declare their work a disaster and go do something else. That’s why so many unfinished books stopped at three chapters. It’s why some would-be screenwriters have folders full of movie openings and no finished work. Working hard, sticking at it to do something right? That’s the hard part.
The problem, the one which I think gave the cult of failure its good intentions early on, occurs when that fear of failure prevents you from trying altogether. That’s when it beats you. If you’re trying something you haven’t done before (and you should), it comes with the risk of failure. You need to accept that. I’m not so convinced about embracing it, but accept it. Because the possibility of failure should never stop you trying.
But as soon as you get started, you’re going to need a drive for success to make it work, to give it the absolute best shot you can. That’s whether you’re writing a story, selling a show, running a business, making anything. Imagine that feeling of finishing that last page of script and knowing you wrote that, you finished it. Picture getting it to a point where people read it and think, wow, I need this. Think about that moment your show gets greenlit. Or its first broadcast, finished exactly the way you want it. I remember when learning to drive being told that I should look where I want to go. We tend to veer in the direction we’re focussing on. There’s probably some sense there. Definitely when it comes to goal setting, I think having that clear target and focus is crucial.
So once you get moving, look to the success and leave that threat of failure far behind.
In the world of media, I have seen a lot of unrealistic expectations over the years. I see people with what might be the beginnings of an idea who expect others to throw a fortune at them to take it off their hands and actually do the work to turn it into something good. These people tend to wonder what is wrong with the entire industry when that doesn’t happen. Oh you’ll regret it when I’m rolling in money and this is the biggest property on the planet.
I also see a lot of more humble people daunted by how intimidating the industry can be. Gripped by that fear and a sense that they don’t have what it takes. Afraid to sit down and really develop their idea because it may end up awful and it will all go horribly wrong. I’m not a writer. I’m not a creative. I can’t draw. How will I get anywhere?
And this may come as no surprise to some of you but, regularly, I see these two things in the same person. Because the fear of sitting down and doing the work can often result in a defensive need to offload a project long before it’s ready. Someone take it! Now!
This is a fun business to be in with lots of wonderful people doing wonderful things. But the truth is, it comes with hard work. Sitting down and just doing the work, often on your own before anyone else believes in it, comes with the territory. It’s what you take on when you decide this is what you’re going to do. You have to work hard to prove what you’re doing has any value or has a place in a world saturated with high-quality media already.
It’s not an easy path to walk down.
But if you do, if you put in that work, you will find people who like what you’re doing. You will get to know why something you tried didn’t quite take and you’ll be better prepared next time. You’ll find the enthusiasm grows as you get closer, as you help others on their projects and as you get to be a part of the process. Then, when you find champions for your own work (and if you stick at it, you will), you realise you can do it. You have probably already been doing it. It’s not easy. It’s unlikely that someone will ever dump a truck full of money at your house for your concept, even when you put in the work. But it is still rewarding. It is still worth it.
So do the work. Keep your expectations realistic and do the work. Enjoy it and keep doing it.
A lot of people have passion for their own work and the desire to create something wonderful. The dream of really really take ownership of their work. And yet, more often than not, those people achieve much more when working for someone else than they do on their own projects. They might tinker away at their projects once a month or so. Or just wish that’s what they were doing and then feel bad that they haven’t actually achieved anything. Sound familiar?
So how do you focus yourself on your own work when you get a bit of time? For me, there are several ways of doing it but what they really come down to is replicating the pressure of having a job. When you’re an employee, usually someone tells you what they need and when they need it. And once you have a goal and a deadline, you have a target and you get to work and great things happen.
When you have your own projects, you probably know your big end goal. But you may not have broken it into smaller tasks yet. And I’m willing to bet you have no deadline.
So set a deadline. Better yet, get yourself a deadline. What’s the difference? If you set a deadline, you can shift it. You get busy and so you put it off for a week. Two weeks. Months. But if you acquire some sort of external deadline, that’s likely to be fixed. An application to a funding body. A submission to the Cartoon Forum. A trip to a conference or a market. Set up a meeting for that market with someone important and then put that date in your calendar. Congratulations – you just got yourself a deadline.
Now put that in whatever diary you use to keep track of what you’re doing, whether it’s your phone calendar or a series of scrappy post-its stuck to your computer. Break down what you need to do into smaller goals and create smaller step deadlines between now and your fixed deadline. Never lose the pressure of that big deadline. In fact, if it doesn’t feel pressured enough, get more deadlines to meet. Become a gatherer of deadlines.
Then meet every one of them. Before long, your project will have turned from an idea to a developed pitch concept and, if you keep at it, hopefully much more than that.
Recently, I was exploring an art piece in collaboration with an artist online who really inspired me when I was exploring pixel art for fun. A case of mutual admiration, which is always fantastic. One thing he said to me in a mail was: you really put a lot of love into your pieces. A lovely thing to say and it meant a huge amount as it was, but it was one of those little sentences that opened out into something much bigger as I realised that all the people I admire and all the people who I have loved working with and the people I want to work with in the future share this one thing: they put a lot of love into their work.
You can see it. You can feel it. You might not use those words but, on some level, you know. The love shines through in great work. The love even shines through in work that isn’t so great technically but is approached with honesty and passion. It elevates work.
Find something to love. To really love.
When you find what that is and you try it, no matter how raw you are at the start, you will put more into it than just time or hard work. You will put a little or even a large piece of yourself into everything you do. And people will feel it. It will count. And they will love it too.
I think it might be pitchforks and torches time when it comes to gender in toys. My main reason for this is: it affects so much more than just toys. It spills over into so much more. How many of us were surprised when it came out that the reason focus was taken away from women villains in Iron Man 3 was down to a perception that women don’t shift toys? After #WheresRey and Black Widow and so much more, this is just a common story now. It’s barely a story.
I know how it happens from first hand experience. I have had that discussion with distributors, with producers. Of course most will tell you it’s not down to them. I have to wonder if toy companies and toy stores even know how much they are blamed for every bad gender decision in kids’ media? People in media, people like us, will eventually remove themselves from the decision and it comes down to: “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” Oh those silly toy companies.
Not only will they get the blame but, importantly, they will be shown to be right. They will demonstrate that gendered products sell more. Of course, there is confirmation bias in here and they have created an environment in which this can be shown to be true. After putting boys on all the Lego boxes for years and realising they have a problem, nobody should be surprised that Lego Friends sold well. It just patches a problem they created themselves. This isn’t just Lego of course – they just provide an example most people know. It runs through the whole toy chain right down to people working in toy shops. Yep, lady who shouted after my girls “but that’s the boy’s aisle!”, I’m talking about you.
It is a toy culture the industry created. And so it desperately tries to sustain it, knowing nothing else. Having made the ‘rules’, the huge hits that have to cross gender in order to become such big hits (such as Dora and Peppa) are branded exceptions so these big sellers won’t shake insiders’ confidence in that culture. And you know, the people working in these companies are all real people too. They aren’t just the cartoon villain scapegoat at the end of this media chain. They’re looking at their figures from their gendered strategies and afraid of messing with that in case their jobs end up on the line. I feel bad for anyone in that position, just as I feel bad for people in media who genuinely want better gender representation but they know that they have to stick with certain strategies because that has been shown to work, at least in the conditions that we have all built. We’re all just people here.
And I guess that’s what it really comes down to. Us as people.
So here is a question for you, no matter what end of the industry you are in: do you personally believe that placing clear gender limits on children is beneficial to kids and society in general?
Not your company, not your financial bottom line. You. A single individual.
If you answer yes, if you think that what we should play, who we should be and how we should think of ourselves and others should be limited by notions of gender, I can do nothing else but hope that someone will shine a light on the wider gender problem, the pressures and limits on girls and boys, the toxic environment illustrated by comments on Ghostbusters trailers or the Rogue One IMDB board, and hope that you will one day change your mind.
But if you answer no, if you believe that, actually, it would be better for everyone if we shouldn’t impose limits on children and people based on gender, then let’s all acknowledge that and pull together on the same team. From here on the inside. Let’s call out the bullshit where we see it. Let’s push media that is gender inclusive. Let’s create characters that don’t all conform to basic stereotypes. And let’s fight for them when we’re told “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” so that we don’t pass on the wider problems to the next generation. So we give our girls and boys every chance to be strong, happy and to do what they want to do, and can all do.
Where cultures have been created, cultures can be changed. Just because you think it works one way doesn’t mean it won’t work in different, better ways. Anyone in this generation should be well used to that with the amount of change we have seen in our lifetime. We don’t need to fear that change. We just need to make it happen.
Last week, I was speaking on a panel about pitching at the Cartoon Forum. I have pitched there six times over the years, starting with some pretty awful presentations but getting better each time, to a point where I have been told (modestly blushing here) that I have given some of the best presentations of the forum.
For those of you unfamiliar with how it works, the Cartoon Forum is a place to showcase new projects in search of broadcasters or distribution. In the morning and afternoon, short trailers for each project are shown and interested parties can choose which projects to see. There are usually three projects pitching in every slot, so this is competitive and your trailer counts.
Once you’ve got them in the room, you have their attention and it is up to you. We covered quite a lot in our panel talk and we could have kept going for hours so there is too much to go through in one post but here are a few core pieces of advice:
Learn from the pitches of others
Practice only makes perfect if you actually learn something in the process. You have to constantly re-evaluate your own presentation. It can be hard to get any kind of objectivity about our own pitches so my advice is to watch others pitch. Make a note of what engages you, of what keeps you interested and what bores you. When do start looking at your watch? When does your mind drift to thoughts of cake? Whatever they are doing at that moment, make a note not to do it in your own presentations.
I had a pretty shocking eureka moment watching one pitch that bored me to tears. The big shame about the pitch? It was a lovely project. But they made it really hard to like. And it hit me that, much of what they were doing, I was also doing. My pitches changed forever that day. And I learned many positive ways to present from watching Robin Lyons present, who is always entertaining.
Last time I was at the Forum, a local company of some good industry friends gave an excellent pitch. They told me afterwards that, when crafting their presentation, they asked themselves how I would pitch it. Learn from others, both the good and the bad.
Know your material
You have to know every beat of your presentation. It’s not like learning a poem where you know just the words. You have to know every point, every piece of information and why that information is there. You have to learn it and then go far beyond that, to the point where your presentation is part of you. Why? So that you can deliver it naturally, so that it fits perfectly within time, so that you cover everything you need to cover, so that it doesn’t sound like you’re reading a script. And most of all, so that you can deal with interruptions. There is always a chance that something will disrupt your presentation. You have to be able to get right back into it. Don’t go shuffling through notes or running to your laptop. If you truly know your material, you’ll flow right back into your presentation.
Engage with your audience
The default setup in the Cartoon Forum is a desk you can put your laptop on and hide from your audience. Perfect for introvert creators. Terrible for actually interesting your audience.
Find a way to connect with your audience. As obvious as this sounds, they are real people. They are there to find out about your project. They want to be there. So talk with them. Not just at them. And certainly not at your laptop screen or back wall. Look them in the eye and see them as the individual people they are. Smile. And start a conversation.
People love to feel a part of the show. That should be true for the show you’re pitching and also your presentations. Bring them in, let them feel a part of it.
Lastly for now (I could go on for days):
Have a great show
You could give a knockout pitch. You could be the best sales person on the planet. You could start a bidding war there and then, having all broadcasters want your show.
Then they have to go home, back to the office. Your pitch fades away and what’s left is your actual show. And they invariably have to pitch it internally to their own teams. And maybe it doesn’t sound quite as good coming from them? And actually they have a whole bunch of questions that your documents don’t seem to have covered. Maybe this show isn’t quite as well thought out as it seemed?
A great pitch is important. Crucial, actually. But your show needs to be solid. It needs to be interesting. It needs to be well developed. Because at some point in the process, it’s going to have to sell itself.
Every single time I work on a project, I have one goal in mind: this will be the best thing I’ve ever made. This is true whether it is the start of a whole new concept or just one more episode of a continuing series.
Does it always turn out to be the best thing I’ve actually ever made? Not always. But having that as the goal always pushes me to make something better, try something different and give the audience something a little bit special. It prevents me from being overwhelmed by deadlines and letting something go that just isn’t ready yet.
This goal is its own quality control.
And really, why would you possibly want to do anything less?
So whatever you’re doing, whether you’re mid-production or coming up with something new, set a high goal. Make it the best thing you’ve ever made. Simply keeping that as your core goal will vastly increase the chances that it is.
90% of getting by in this business is doing the work – sitting down and writing that script or making that short or whatever it is you need to actually make stuff happen. The other 90% is selling your work or yourself. The remaining 12.5% is a basic grasp of mathematics.
I remember being told decades ago that there is no point in creating something and having it sit in your desk drawer. I listened to that. And I created stuff. I put in that first 90%. Then I chucked it into my desk drawer and wondered why nobody ever came calling.
So I spent many important years putting in the work and getting better at what I do, trying to improve in different areas. Actually being okay with telling people about my work was a very slow process. Learning to pitch was hellish… until it eventually became fun. And it would be many more years before I would overcome the even greater challenge: pitching not just my work, but myself.
Even now, I love to let my work speak for itself. But the reason for that is down to me having a hard time saying to someone: I am really great at what I do and you need to know that. I don’t know if that’s me as a person or a cultural thing but it’s a hard thing to do and I realise that there were times in my career that I could have let people know about skills I had… but I didn’t.
On the few occasions I did, good things happened. And so I’m a bit better about that now.
But I still know people who do the work and leave it sitting in their desk drawer (or computer folder) where it will do no good. You have to let people know what you can do. You have to tell them about your work. And yourself. And you have to keep doing it. That’s the second 90%. And in the end, it counts for more than the first 90%. So it’s more like 97%.
Actually, let’s just forget the percentages. Just go out there and tell people about your work and what you can do.