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.
Here we go. The definitive rules to children’s content:
1 – Characters must be aspirational. Make them older and cooler.
2 – Girls will watch shows for boys but boys won’t watch shows for girls.
3 – Think second screen. For some reason.
4 – Your animal character must know a martial art of some sort… urrrggh…
Sorry, I can’t go on. My fingers won’t let me type any more. Really, I’m just going to give you one piece of advice here: if someone insists there are rules to successful content, run far away. There is a huge amount to learn and research, studies you should look for, people you should follow for information (David Kleeman, for example), many guidelines, important case studies and stories that will greatly inform your decisions (and your decisions should be informed). But rules? No.
This is not an exact science. Or at least, it is such a complex and ever-changing science that we will never fully understand it. It is certainly not a box-ticking exercise. Use the knowledge and stories and experience you can gather, carefully consider your options and go with what feels right for your project, your audience and you.
I was at a roller disco a few weeks ago (I’m the roller disco king). It was my daughter’s birthday party and I thought the idea of roller skating was a little bit crazy because of the varying abilities of the kids and the potential for accidents. Nevertheless, the kids got on great. Even those who were skating for the first time just went for it.
Sure, they fell over a lot but they got up and kept going. And one kid who fell over a lot soon started to get the hang of it and the speed of progress was pretty astounding.
I was skating around and I saw him skating with all the other kids and he was doing brilliantly. It was like he had done this many times before. He looked smooth and confident. I gave him a big wave and said “Well done!”
And he fell on his backside.
I broke his flow. I was just trying to be encouraging but I interrupted him while he was making real progress. He had focus, he had momentum and I pulled that away from him. I guess at least I was being encouraging so he got up and set off again with a smile. I wonder how much worse it would have been had I shouted something like, “Bring your feet together! Go faster! Not that way, this way!”
So today’s thought is very simple: when someone is doing something good, let them do it. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t become an obstacle. Just allow it to happen.
You’re pitching your idea, it is special to you and, wow, it’s a pretty strong idea. Amazing that nobody has thought of it already yet. So what happens if someone you pitch it to rips it off?
In reality, I think that probably never happens. For a start, the chances of nobody having thought of a similar idea to yours are negligible. Ideas are just ideas. We have them all the time and we have similar ideas all the time. It is common that many similar projects can be in development completely independently of each other. I have seen this happen many times. There was the witch year at the Cartoon Forum. And the vampire year. They didn’t rip each other off. It just happened.
More importantly, if someone loves your idea and they hadn’t already thought of it, it makes much more sense for them to just deal with you to take it further. You’re a step ahead. You’ve done the groundwork. And really, you’re probably cheaper than their own team.
I think the question you should be asking yourself is not what happens if your idea gets ripped-off but how can I be essential to realising this idea in the absolute best way possible?
That’s really what counts. An idea is just a start. It’s important but not really anything on its own. What is important is how that is developed and explored and made real. If someone could easily rip off your idea and do it better than you, that’s the problem. You need to be the one who can do it best. You need to be the one everyone wants to develop this idea with.
At times in our work life, we will have a realisation that can improve what we’re doing. We find a new focus or a new aim. It can be large overall goal or a realisation that we should be changing direction. Or it can be small thing that will make a project better, something you’re now going to look out for as the project develops.
Any realisation about a way to improve something is a positive.
But they rarely stick. Why? Because we already have our daily systems and habits. Real life throws stuff at us constantly. Remembering to check for that new thing is next to impossible. It shifts to the back of the mind and then it’s gone until insomnia decides you should remember about it in the middle of the night when you can do nothing but feel bad that you let things slip.
The flaw here is relying on your mind to hold it front and centre the entire time. Your mind is busy enough as it is. So make those reminders external. If you have something new to add as part of your routine, add it to your to-do lists. Every to-do list so you can’t forget or ignore it. Write it on post-its and stick them where you can’t miss them. Make sure those reminders are where you actually need them.
Only by having constant reminders and nudges will you really integrate new changes or a new focus into your day. Without them, the second you get busy you will shift back to the old habits all too quickly.
Trends, eh? They’re important. If your animated TV show hits right at the beginning of a trend, pop the champagne. If it’s running counter to the trends, it could be a great project but the timing could kill it and never give it a chance. So how do you target the trends when creating your show?
My answer: you don’t.
It takes so long to develop a concept from scratch that, if it can already be identified as a trend, you missed it. Just develop the concepts that you think are awesome, that your audience respond to, that inspire you and others around you. Forget the trends.
Now when your concept is developed and you’re pitching and certainly when it is in production and you’re selling, that’s a different story. At that point you can look at the trends and see where it fits. Use it as a story.
But really, let your project just be the best at what it is.
When we start on a new project or a new job, our thoughts often go like this: OMG what am I supposed to do now?! How do I muddle my way through this one and not get fired?! When we reach a certain level, I think we become a bit more sure of ourselves and what we can offer.
If you find yourself in the former situation, there is an easy way to help that. If you are in the latter, it is something that becomes even more important because it is when we get complacent that the real problems can start and soon we find we’re not doing as great a job as we thought we would. So what to do? It’s simple: ask.
Ask how your client would like a job done. Ask how you could be most helpful to your peers or collaborators. Ask and you’ll get the answers you need to do a better job.
Take script editing as an example. I have found over the years that there are many different types of script editors, all offering completely different things and all with the same title. Some take a big picture view looking at theme and form and they ask the big questions. Others don’t want to mess with a writer’s story but will help them tell it better by getting into the details and working on a line by line process. Some are just looking for the red flags and are like a quality control process. All of these have value and they will help different types of writers in different ways. But they won’t all help all the writers all the time.
So if I’m script editing, it makes sense for me to ask: what will be the most helpful to you? What are expecting out of this process? We will often find that the job needs more than we’re told (because what people want and what they need are not always the same thing) but it gives us a fantastic place to start the process.
When in doubt, ask. When not in doubt, ask anyway.
Last week I was at Cinekid for Professionals in Amsterdam on a panel discussing the Dos and Don’ts of Storytelling in Digital Media. It was my first time at Cinekid and I was impressed.
For a start, Cinekid isn’t just a professional’s conference. It has family events and screenings and children are everywhere. This is fantastic. When you walk outside and you’re among families, it is an instant reminder about why we’re talking about what we’re talking about. It was no coincidence that listening to the audience and reacting to feedback was a common thread in our discussions – it is all too easy to lose sight of the audience in this business. To get caught up in trends and advances and all sorts of abstract concepts. Too easy to forget about the kids we want to make great stuff for, and their parents.
Cinekid doesn’t let you forget and I love that.
Cinekid is also home to an incredible media lab. A huge hall full of what are effectively cutting edge toys. Huge screens where your actions will sweep bubbles away. A rolling game where you roll huge tyres to make progress and much more. Some I couldn’t even figure out but there was a little bit of magic in just about everything in the room. That’s if you got a go – the kids liked to hog the best stuff! There is also a co-production market and workshops.
The conference itself covered a good mix of topics. An inspiring talk by Gary Pope. A little bit of frowning at Minecraft Story Mode (I like it and think it contributes nicely!). A great piece of research into girls and media from Pineapple Lounge – the main message: celebrate who she is, not who she feels she has to be. Some excellent insight into virtual reality from Nicoletta Iacobacci and the always wonderful David Kleeman leaving us with some real challenges as content creators (I’ll pick that up in another post). We had a live Let’s Play with the excellent Minecraft educator Wizard Keen (Adam Clarke) and a glimpse into Maker Studios from Robbie Douek which left me conflicted as he told us it was about authenticity while playing a car ad that, as far as I could see, wasn’t labelled as such.
Then there was our panel with Ida Brinck-Lund (consultant for Lego’s Future Lab), Caitlin Burns (business strategist for brands from Microsoft, Nickelodeon and more), Julien Fabre (Ankama) and me, moderated by Warren Buckleitner who guided the whole day. I’d like to think we were brilliant and probably the highlight of the conference but it is always hard to know how our discussions impact others. What I do know is that we covered a broad range of topics and each brought a different view. All four of us are in different spaces and yet similarities could be identified – needing to engage with our audience and also needing to learn and adapt as we work.
No matter how long we have been doing what we do, no matter what history is behind us, we are in an ever-changing space in an ever-changing world and each new media form and device provides a whole new set of challenges. It’s exciting. As I said to Warren on the day, from having made Dino Dog I could write books on how not to make an app. It was a steep learning curve and sometimes that rich history in one form of media is walking you right into a trap in another. That is one huge reason to do your homework. No matter what it is you’re making, no matter how confident you feel, do the research. Learn. Ask questions. And be open to the answers you get.
So there is an easy Do for Storytelling in Digital Media: do your research.
And a Don’t? I guess don’t always assume that the research has been interpreted correctly. If we knew it all, the big hits wouldn’t surprise people the way they always seem to.
So that was Cinekid 2015. My trip also included bicycles, ferries, odd street layouts and the ever-present smell of pancakes and weed. The real highlight? Meeting a lot of really great like-minded people all doing different things. I enjoyed your company and I hope we see each other again soon.