Do you get nervous about calling journalists?
Have you ever spent hours preparing a pitch (maybe you even wrote a script) but found yourself stumbling over your words or repeating yourself as soon as you got on the phone.
Or perhaps you mind went completely blank.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Most of us share the same fears and doubts about pitching:
Is my idea any good? What if they say it’s rubbish? If the answer’s no, how will I explain it to my boss or colleagues?
It doesn’t matter how well-prepared or diligent you are, pitching can be scary and that’s largely due to the brain's 'negativity bias' which means we give more attention to negative thoughts than positive ones.
This means you’re far more likely to remember the time you messed up your pitch or a journalist was rude to you than the pleasant conversations you’ve had (which - and I’d bet my house on this - probably outweigh the bad).
Fortunately there are plenty of things you can do to improve your technique and here’s three simple and effective tips for dealing with the fear of phone pitching:
1. Use the eight second rule
Want to know the secret of creating killer phone pitches? Pay attention to the way radio and TV presenters introduce stories that are coming up next or later in the show. They have seconds to a give a compelling summary of the story that will encourage their audience to stick around (rather than reaching for the ‘off’ button).
Have a listen to this montage of links from radio and TV breakfast shows (the whole clip is 31 seconds). The longest is around eight seconds - the shortest just five - but the ‘top line’ of the story is absolutely clear.
So when you’re planning a phone pitch, ask yourself the following question:
“If this story was going to be on a radio/TV show later today, how would the presenter introduce it…?”
Then summarise it...in less than eight seconds.
Or to put it another way, fill in the blank
(but remember, it shouldn’t take longer than eight seconds to say out loud).
To give you an idea of how many words you’ve got to play, here’s a transcript of the clip you just listened to:
“Also on the programme, we’re discussing how well we know our neighbours. 1 in 4 of us claim not to know them at all.”
‘Australian scientists have found that as facial hair grows more common, it becomes less attractive.’
‘Will a generation of children growing up on text messages lead to bad grammar?’
‘Why black cab drivers are furious about a mobile phone app that promises to save you time and money.’
‘Why one farmer has imported a herd of Swiss cows to make Kent cheese.’
2. Say what you want...
Before you pick up the phone, picture the journalist sitting at their desk. Perhaps they are writing, editing or looking something up online. Or maybe they’re deep in discussion with a colleague. The phone rings. Imagine them picking up the handset and hearing your voice at the other end. They have no idea who you are or what you might want to talk to them about.
Now if this sounds a bit ‘zen’, stick with me for a minute. I get regular calls from people who launch straight into a pitch without saying who they are, what they want, or asking if I have time to talk…all the usual things you’d get in a phone conversation. They gabble through their pitch without pausing for breath until they realise I’m not talking (because I’m desperately trying to make sense of what they’re saying), at which point, they stop and say something like ‘are you still there?’ I don’t understand what they’ve just said, so to save us both embarrassment, I say ‘can you put it in an email? ‘
When you phone a journalist remember that they don’t know what you’re about to say and may not have heard of your or your organisation before. They need time to process basic information, like who you are and what you want to talk to them about (remember that not every call they receive will be someone pitching an idea).
Opinion is divided on whether you should ask journalists if they have time to speak before you launch into a phone pitch. Those in the ‘against’ camp say that if they say no, you’ve lost your chance to pitch. I’m in the ‘for’ camp because (a) I just think it’s polite (most of us hate being interrupted when we’re in the middle of something important) (b) It’s in your best interest (journalists are aren’t generally at their most receptive when an editor is screaming at them for copy).
‘Hi, I’m x from x organisation. Do you have time to discuss a story idea?’ is the perfect opening line because it states the reason for your call and how you might be able to help solve a problem (finding suitable content to fill pages or airtime). And using the word ‘discuss’ (as opposed to ‘run an idea past you’ or ‘see if you’d be interested in’) implies you’re ringing to have a conversation - rather than give a sales pitch - which puts you on more of an equal footing with the journalist.
3. Get your ‘top line’ in early
When a journalist says they’ve got time to talk, don’t waste a time on background or context - deliver your ‘top line’ immediately (in eight seconds or less of course).
So the conversation might go something like this:
‘Hi, it’s Steph from the Alliance of Mathematics Teachers. Have you got a minute to discuss a story idea?’
“Yes, I’ve got a few minutes.”
“We’ve just done some research that shows that children born in the summer do worse in maths exams.”
“Hi, it’s John from Excitable PR. Have you got a minute to discuss a story idea?”
“Yep, fire away.”
“Well it’s about a fourteen-year-old boy with autism who’s already running his own million pound company.”
Obviously what makes a great ‘top line’ will vary according to the publication or programme you’re pitching to and its audience (to find out more read this: does your story pass the BBC Homepage test? ) but getting it in as early possible in your pitch will vastly improve your chances of success.
Want more tips and strategies for improving your pitching skills? Come along to my PR Bootcamp on Oct 20-24...