Putting pitching in perspective

LFB journalist Andrew Mueller was on the phone to a Washington press office asking for an interview with a prominent US Government official for a UK national paper when the PR asked for some proof of who he was. Mueller was able to provide his personal website address, the PR plugged in while they were talking and promptly started to move the request along.

It's not exactly about pitching, the theme of LFB's November branch discussion cum teach-in, but it did reinforce Mueller's argument that any freelance approaching a potential new client will increase their chances if they can offer a URL address, "an internet presence", that shows off their work - whether they are talking to the commissioning editor on the phone, via e{mail or even by letter.

However, much of the advice on the night was far more low-tech, yet still very much to the heart of every freelance's most nailbiting moments: trying to interest a new customer in a new idea.

Di Harris, from Wiltshire branch, was invited as a guest speaker because she is writing a textbook about freelancing and has lately been interviewing commissioning editors about what they want from us. She set out some bullet-point basics which, however simple they seemed, according to her sources would put any freelance following them "ahead of 90 per cent of the people pitching to us":

  • aim your pitch at the right outlet for your subject and angle, and approach the right person at that outlet.
  • show you are familiar with the publication you are targeting.
  • be imaginative in looking for and identifying gaps in a publication's coverage - try not to merely offer more of the same.
  • when pitching material speculatively, don't send a "round robin" copy to a potential new client (eg don't show the Telegraph a dog-eared article with a rejection letter from The Times stapled to it!)
  • when dealing with magazines or magazine sections of dailies, try to avoid the editor's busiest times by checking out which day they go to press.

Harris added that, generally, editors declared themselves "hungry" for new contributors of all sorts and that "freelances were their lifeblood". Some even said they were willing to coach promising freelances into meeting the specific needs of their publication.

She conceded that she may well have interviewed a superior bunch of commissioning editors, because freelances she had spoken to often found the people they were pitching to "rude, dismissive and unprofessional" in that they didn't brief clearly nor answer emails.

In discussion of detailed follow-up questions, consensus was that:

  • freelances could usefully send several ideas at a time - maybe three to five - and should certainly have plenty to hand if they actually managed to meet an editor face to face.
  • even if a story did not have an urgent deadline, it was better to actively follow up a pitch - maybe saying in the conclusion to a written pitch that you would ring in a couple of days/weeks to check whether they wanted to commission it.

The only question that drew a shrug rather than an answer was "What happens if you keep on running into stroppy editors?"

Apart from arguing the merits of the personal URL, Andrew Mueller, regular contributor to the Guardian, Independent On Sunday, Esquire, Time Out and The World's Most Dangerous Places, promised that being able to point to an array of fairly lustrous customers didn't mean freelance life suddenly got cushy. "Rejection is a fairly large part of my professional existence," he said. "You can always get disheartened because, whatever success you have, you introduce yourself to an editor and he says he's never heard of you and you think, 'He must have! I wrote a cover story for another section of this paper, didn't I?'

"But it really is important to do all the basic stuff Di mentioned. And it's amazing how many bylined journalists can't spell or punctuate or construct a sentence. One editor said to me his job was less editing than translation. Putting your stuff together well is very useful. Timing your approach is too, though on daily papers the afternoon is best avoided, mornings are bad and lunch is, of course, a write-off."

In discussion, Mueller said that a potential new client would need to see your work - on paper or digitally - but not a CV, as generally they had no interest in your life, only in what you could do. One member said that he got a lot of writing work via getting to know commissioning editors while working subbing shifts, and Mueller acknowledged that as one way round the way e{mail had greatly reduced the amount of personal contact between freelances and staff.

The session closed with a commissioning rôle-play led by veteran writer, sub and journalism trainer Humphrey Evans. He said that, in his days as an editor, one of the worst pitches that ever came at him was from a freelance who said "You should commission me to write an article about X". "Why?" enquired Evans (intending no alphabetical pun). "Because I need the money." He said this was the most extreme example he'd encountered of the freelance failing to appreciate that he had to provide what the editor needed, not vice versa.

Don't do it in your nightie

Humphrey went on to emphasise that, when doing the deal got personal - usually on the phone, but sometimes face to face - it was important to sound lively and have confidence in your proposition. "Don't do business in your pyjamas," he advised. "Get dressed for work. Maybe stand up and walk about as you make the call. Smile - it will be audible. Bear in mind that the core of what you're saying is 'Your readers will be interested in my idea because...' And be in the frame of mind to ask questions straight away."

He also emphasised that to protect your idea from being stolen by the occasional unscrupulous commissioner, if possible it's best not to give away significant details such as contact names or other specifics but to use general terms such as "a certain Tory politician" or "an A-list celeb your readers know and love/hate".

Evans then ran a role-play which involved Matt Salusbury selling a story about a certain anniversary of a certain legume-related riotous disorder to Bruce Birchall posing as the Guardian. Happily, Bruce bought it. Drinks were on Matt.

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