Pitch Perfect? Part 1: The Prep… Serial inventor Ellie Dix shares her private pitching tips
Ellie, hello again! You recently did a series of three blog posts about pitching at the Mojo Nation event…
I did! And thanks for inviting me to talk about it.
Not at all! I think you gave some excellent advice; great posts. People can read the original articles at darkimp.com; they have the headings ‘Mojo Pitch: An Inventor’s Guide’. I wanted to go over some of the stuff here, though, because I think an awful lot of what you said is useful to any inventor – old or new – that’s looking for tips relating to a pitch…
…but this wouldn’t just apply to the Mojo Pitch, presumably?
No, not at all. I focused on the Mojo Pitch due to the scale of that event, but I treat other pitches in a similar way. And perhaps it’s worth saying – right at the start here – that no one needs to follow my plan. The important thing is that you do have a plan, though!
That might sound like obvious advice but it’s surprising how many people come up – as you put it – with a plan the night before, then discover it isn’t going to work too late to change it. So now! In the same spirit as your original blog, perhaps we should divide this into three sections… Before, during and after the pitch. And your idea of “before” starts when? As soon as you get the publishers’ wishlists?
Yes. As you know, inventors get sent the wishlists of publishers that are attending about seven or eight weeks before the event. From that, inventors can choose who they want to pitch to. I spend a lot of time researching each games company. I look at their websites, search for reviews and read interviews with their inventor relations people. Of course, that includes the Mojo Nation site…
Yes, you were very generous in your praise for the site. Thank you! What in particular do you find useful there?
You have so many interviews! And not just with different publishers, which is the obvious resource… I mean, you and Billy Langsworthy often ask publishers outright how they like to be pitched to, what sort of products they’re looking for and how they want inventors to follow up. So I’ll always do a search for the publisher and read their interviews. The other thing is that there are a lot of chats with other designers: I learn a lot from their experiences.
And why is all that necessary, Ellie?
In short, because some publishers are better than others at providing information about what they’re looking for. I try to be as prepared as possible because I’ve seen wishlists that more or less say, “We’re looking for great games…” I’m paraphrasing, but only a bit.
Oh, yes; there are plenty of publishers that mostly ‘know what they’re looking for when they see it’.
Exactly. So getting a good picture of the kind of products – games, in my case – that publishers have developed in the past, and which of those are selling well, gives me a context. It helps me choose which games are right to pitch to them. I think that’s important because I’m not one of those designers that looks to pitch to every company. In my experience, there’s absolutely no point in doing that… I don’t want to pitch – you know – a ‘thinky’ card game to a company that’s just looking for a big, plastic game for kids.
You’ve also said something in the past that closely aligns with my thinking… That this research puts you in the position where you able to reference a game in their catalogue. “This is Snap meets Scrabble!”, say… It’s clear you’ve done some legwork.
Oh, yes. When you’re in the pitching room, I think it’s quite obvious whether or not you’ve done your homework. And as you say, when you’re familiar with their output, you can refer to it: “This game would be a great fit for your XYZ line”, or “I see this as a natural progression from ABC…”
So everything we discussed up until now is just research ahead of the event. In what format are you keeping these notes?
I create one Excel document that has a section for each publisher I want to meet. I type my research into that, along with concise notes. That might include notes taken directly from their wishlist, or based on past conversations I’ve had with them. Also, I use that document to identify common strands.
For example, any time a company mentions wanting family card games, say, I’ll mark it up; I keep a tally. That gives me a really good overall picture of what companies are searching for in that particular year. And that lets me concentrate on the most common wants first. So I more or less ask myself what I have that fits those categories.
And do you ever create a game specifically based on that tally?
Yes, usually I do; one or two. And if I have things in development that I realise are a good fit that aren’t quite ready, I’ll fast track them through playtesting; I make sure they’re ready in time. Finally, when I’ve picked the things I’m definitely going to pitch, I write out an index card for each publisher. It just has the publisher’s name at the top, and the names of the games I intend to pitch them. In a 20-30 minute meetings, that’s usually around six games.
Which some people – new inventors, mainly – would think is a lot of concepts to pitch in that time! We’ll come on to that soon enough… For now, I’m really interested in your views on sell sheets and sizzles. Let’s start with sell sheets. This is a tool you find useful?
Oh, yes! Very!
I always find this fascinating… I know some people actively discourage the use of sell sheets. But I’ve yet to hear a publisher say anything against them.
I think they’re really useful. They help make the follow up smoother and faster.
Alright. So for anyone unfamiliar with a sell sheet, this is usually an A4 page, sometimes laminated, which snappily sums up one concept… There’s no standard way of doing them, but I think – these days – they need to be image heavy and text light! In short, a sell sheet is like a flash reminder of a concept – but they should be able to stand alone… They should be able to sell the concept independent of your pitch.
Right. From that sheet, it should be clear enough what the game is that you’re able to feel confident That the person who first saw the game remembers it clearly… And that same person is able to explain the concept to someone else without you being there. That’s very important and I guess we’ll talk more about that when we address follow up.
Yes – and that’s an important point, actually: you create your sell sheets as part of your prep, you have them in the pitch… But arguably they come into their own during follow up…
That’s my view exactly! It’s really important to have them ready before you need them. Speedy follow up helps publishers remember concepts and act on them… You don’t want to miss out on a potential signing because you don’t follow up in a timely way!
And – not to stray too far from the direction in which we are heading – what are your thoughts on sizzles? You use those too?
Yes. In my experience, most publishers want sizzle videos and sell-sheets. If they’re interested, they want images, I think, and some want a copy of your rules. So leading up to the event, I spend about two weeks getting all that ready.
How long are your sizzles, Ellie?
Three minutes is my maximum! And I know different people tackle things in different ways, but I don’t want to depend on a sizzle. The way I see it is that I’ve only got 20 minutes in a room with the publisher… That time is precious; I want to use it generating rapport, building a relationship. Why would I spend that time watching you watch a video of me?! So I have sizzles and I have sell sheets but, while I’m in the room, I want to show the games myself.
Interesting. I know Bob Moog from University Games shares your view… He’ll often say something to the effect, “Never mind the video! Show me! Show me the game!”
Right. And actually, it’s really important to think about all this in advance. Because as you know, Deej, if you’re doing the live event, you only have 20 minutes per pitch. But that’s only half the story… It’s the changeover that keeps you on your toes!
And if someone hasn’t done it, it sounds crazy… But the publishers stay put; they stay in their separate rooms while the inventors move between them – and there’s no time built in for moving! And I should be clear – I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you, Deej – it does sound crazy, but it’s also brilliant!
Well, you know, I personally had nothing to do with the planning of that system, so I‘m immune from any criticism of it! In fact, I often look at that 20- minute limit, though, and wonder what would happen if we extended it by another five or ten minutes… Or what happens if we allow five minutes between rounds, maybe. Because I think Billy and Adam are completely open to the possibility that there are other ways of doing it.
Are there downsides to that?
When you look at the logistics of it, you look at the maths – well, it’s problematic to say the least. One example: on occasion, we have quite experienced folk suggesting that each inventor should have a private room, and the execs should dash up and down the corridor. I mean… Gawd help us! We’d need 200 rooms! But anyway, for those that haven’t done the event, perhaps we should describe how it DOES work! How many pitches did you do last time you did the live event?
I did sixteen live. Several of them were back-to-back. And yes, to paint the picture… In 2022, we were at Twickenham Rugby Stadium – literally overlooking the pitch! The publishers are in their own private hospitality boxes along a corridor.
Understandably, they’re in alphabetical order, but that means you might have one meeting with Amigo at one end of the stadium, then need to be right up the other end pitching to Tomy, say! And if that’s the case, you have to pack up, dash off and get there with zero time in between. So you do need to think it through… How are you going to pitch multiple games, pack up and walk – run, even – then be pitch ready for the next publisher a few moments later?
Well, I think you have an excellent answer to that as part of your actual pitching advice, so perhaps this is a good place to start wrapping things up. Worth mentioning, though, that while this pack up and dash approach doesn’t happen with the virtual pitch, there’s another challenge there…
Yes – on the virtual pitch, it’s important to think about how you’re going to explain and share your games when you’ve only got your computer camera. How do you get publishers to understand your interactive elements, when they can’t even touch your game? Also, you have to keep in mind that it can sometimes take a while to upload files on a call.
Great stuff! Ellie, let’s wrap this one up here, and when we come back to it, we’ll chat about the actual pitch itself. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts; you’re very generous and I know a lot of inventors could learn from your approach.
To stay in the loop with the latest news, interviews and features from the world of toy and game design, sign up to our weekly newsletter here