Pitch Perfect? Part 2: The Actual Day! Serial inventor Ellie Dix shares her private pitching tips.
Ellie, in our last chinwag you told us a heck of a lot about how you get ready for a pitch. Picking up where we left off, what’s the one thing everybody needs to know about the Mojo event before we look at the nitty-gritty of your advice?
Well, what I said in the blog doesn’t, I hope, sound offensive if I say it to you! But the Mojo Pitch is a test of stamina…
Ha! You’ll be happy to know that’s not the least bit offensive! In fact, perhaps it doesn’t go far enough!
Ha! But what I mean by that is that the day itself is hard work; it takes energy… If you play your cards right, you end up pitching all day, to multiple publishers – sometimes back-to-back. You dash about a lot, and you’re in and out of the zone mentally.
Yes, it’s mentally and physically draining – you run about like a dog at a fair! It’s exhausting!
A dog at a fair! But yes… And you need to remain enthusiastic for long periods of time. You’ll be saying the same things over and over again. So on this point, it really helps to make sure you’re well prepared in the same way you would be for any big day. I always clear my calendar for the duration, for example, and I make sure I get enough sleep the night before.
I completely agree. And to that I would add – and I know this sounds like I’m nannying people – but I would add that you should absolutely eat well in the morning. The Mojo team does its best to feed and water everybody sufficiently throughout the day, but it is a draining morning – and lunchtime can simultaneously feel like it happened too fast and was never going to happen! So, dare I ask: how does an actual pitch typically go?
First, I’d say no two pitches are the same. Even if you’re pitching the same game in an identical room – your audience is different. And on that, I’ll say that I think it’s worth knowing the names of the people you’re pitching to. I like to know that before I walk in but, if I don’t, it’s the first thing I ask – and I make a point of remembering.
Yes. That does seem like a must. What then? A little small talk?
I do always make time to ask the people how they are, how the event’s going for them… If I’m on a virtual pitch, I sometimes ask where they are. I might also find out how long they’ve been with the company. It doesn’t necessarily seem like much but I’m aware the days are hard work for them as well… So it’s a good way to connect. Even though you only have 20 minutes, it’s time well spent.
And in terms of transitioning from small talk to pitching, how do you go about that?
I ask, actually! I like to check if they want me to tell them anything about myself, or if they’d rather get stuck into some games!
Out of interest, what if they say yes? “Yes, tell us about yourself…”?
I’m always ready with a 20 to 30-second biog! But let me stress: don’t be tempted to launch into your full CV – they’re not usually THAT interested, and it can be a terrible waste of time.
Right… “Born in 1973, I’m the younger and better of two sons…” No need.
Ha! When it’s nearly time to start showing the actual games, though, I ask what I think is an important question… I ask if they’d prefer me to go through all the games I want to show them first – and then get feedback – or if they’d prefer to comment after each one. Their answer affects my time management!
Oh, I love that… And I think it illustrates a point that I’m keen to communicate: that there is no one set way to do this. What’s good for the goose is, in fact, not necessarily good for the gander! You can pitch to people who like a certain format in one room, and you can pitch to people who absolutely despise that format in the next! But you’re not a slave to your best guess… You can ask people what they prefer.
In terms of your pitch rate, Ellie, I know you manage to show five or six games in a 20-minute session. You’re not the least bit intimidated by that. How come?
Well, as you know, Deej, I used to be a drama teacher. During that time, one of my favourite improvisation exercises was called ‘Half Life’.
Right. The idea of Half Life was that the whole class would divide into groups. Then each group would create a five-minute improvisation and perform it to the rest of the class. After that, I’d tell them they had to reduce their performance to two minutes. So they have to go off, make cuts and rehearse – but still retain all the key moments, all the emotions of the story. Then it’s cut down to one minute… 30 seconds… 15 seconds… And finally, it’s just a freeze frame!
Like one pose?!
Yes, exactly! And when I’m planning how to pitch a game, I’m effectively doing the Half Life exercise – because it forces you to edit. It makes you focus on what’s special about your game, what’s innovative, what makes it stand out. If you only had 15 seconds to pitch – what would you say? And every time you playtest your game, you can be refining this; refining your spiel. Eventually, it can become your pitch. You just have to distil it down to a name, a strapline and a single sentence.
Fantastic! And I can’t remember exactly where this has come up before, Ellie, but it is worth saying: when you look at the TV adverts for a game, or a toy for that matter, you don’t have 20 minutes to sell that idea… You don’t have 10 minutes, you don’t have five… You rarely even have 60 seconds. You’re lucky to get 30! And even that’s a great more time than many people give a game if they pick it up in a store. So, like you, I often encourage people to pitch very succinctly…
On top of that, I’ll add that I think it helps to front load your pitch with the things that make your game interesting and unique. Once you’ve piqued their interest, you can expand a bit – they’ll be listening far more intently.
Yes. I think it’s a mistake to more or less come at it in chronological order… And you have an example, you can share with us, do you not? Something about cows?!
Yes! And this one went nowhere fast, which wasn’t a bad thing – I’ll come back to that! So I said: “This is a game about disco cows: Discows. A deck-builder like no udder.” No sooner had I said that than I got a definite no! Now, keep in mind that I’d designed this with their wishlist in mind. I thought they were going to love it, so much so that I chose to pitch it first. But what I didn’t know was that their CEO doesn’t like deck-building games… They’re never going to do one!
And not to pre-empt what you’re about to say, but presumably you don’t see this as a problem? Because getting a fast “no” saved you wasting time?
That’s exactly right. My attitude is that I’ve saved time! Mentioning the key mechanic in the first sentence told them exactly what the game was. They knew from that – immediately – that it was a non-starter! So we just moved onto the next game. So I tell people: if you feel like you’re flogging a dead horse – or a dead cow – move on.
Mooooove on! Let’s just do cow puns from now on! And, just out of interest, did you ever sell Discows?
No, Discows is still available – in case anyone’s interested! In any case, it shows that it doesn’t matter how long you spend researching, or how much effort you’ve made to tailor an idea to a publisher… There are times when it’s still essentially wrong for them. But that doesn’t mean there’s a problem… As soon as you get a ‘no’, move on.
Assuming the pitch lasts beyond the first sentence, though, what’s the best way to show a game, Ellie?
Well, inventors have wildly different approaches! Some take a laptop around with them and show a series of sizzle videos – one of each game they’re pitching. As I said last time we spoke, though, this – to me – is madness! I don’t need to be sitting in a room, virtual or otherwise, for a publisher to watch a video. They can watch a video anytime! A video is a great thing to upload to a portal… It’s a great thing to have as part of your follow up, and it’s great to have to hand if they ask to see one! But if you’re face to face with a publisher, I think you’re pissing that opportunity up the wall if you spend time looking at a video.
And I know some publishers would agree with you – and some would not! It’s a very divisive area, but this is why research is so critical. But let’s assume that the majority of people will go with the flow; the majority of publishers are happy for you to pitch the way you want to pitch. What is that for you?
In my experience, nothing beats showing them the actual game. And with live pitches, if you have super-quick card games, you may be able to play a round – and in which case you definitely should. But with more complicated games, or longer games, you only have 20 minutes! And – as we’ve discussed – that doesn’t include setting up, packing up or running down the corridor… So if you’re pitching six different games, you do have a bit of a logistical nightmare.
You have a couple of solutions to this, one of which we discussed in our first interview. Tell us about that.
You’re referring to my pitch boards?
I am; I think they’re fantastic!
Thank you. So – in short – I create a large poster board with my game stuck down on it! One board for each game… The idea is to show the game in mid-play. In other words, when I hold up the board, publishers can see what it would look if they were standing over the table looking down. And because I’ve staged the game on the board, I can make sure I’m showing a key moment, or key examples of cards or resources. The beauty is there’s really nothing to set up or pack away… I just flick open the right page of this massive portfolio and I have the game in front of me.
I just love it! I think that’s a really great approach. But I think you’ve mentioned other options…
Another approach I use is what I call a Pitch Box. I put the absolutely essential components from each game inside a little baggy. When I’m ready to pitch that game, everything I need is inside ready to grab. You can combine this with a large picture of the game laid out on the table, or your sell sheet. And of course, in an absolute pinch, you can just hand the publisher your sell sheet and talk them through the game live.
With virtual pitches, I’ve found it’s worth getting some foldable tables. I set up different games in different places around one room. Then I simply take my camera over to the game I’ve set up. As long as you’ve got decent WiFi, it’s simply a case of managing your space – and your relationship with the publisher! And actually, that’s an important point – is it worth discussing empathy here? Empathy with the publisher?
Absolutely. And this is in regard to their experience of your pitching? Or more generally?
More generally, but it certainly impacts my pitching. I think it’s just worth taking a moment to put yourself in the publisher’s position… They see one designer after another; all day at the live event – and a further two days with the virtual pitch. Not all of them get to take a break. It must be exhausting!
More so down Billy’s end of the corridor. He mistreats them horribly!
I have heard that! On top of all that, if they see four, five or six games in every meeting, there’s a danger they’ll forget your games… They might even forget you. So my approach is, in no small way, designed to make sure that doesn’t happen. Make sure you engage with them. Make sure you’re lively, pleasant and fun to be with… Even if you have to fake it because you’re running out of energy! And this might sound very obvious, but it’s easy to forget to smile when you’re tired or nervous.
Your energy is infectious. I often say that if your games make you smile, laugh, jump on a chair or moo like a cow, then publishers are more likely to do it as well. Well – maybe not jump on a chair, but I’ve definitely had publishers mooing.
And does that, do you think, also have the virtue of helping you stand out from the crowd?
Certainly. And that’s an important point, actually. It helps to ask yourself what you can do to bookmark yourself in a publisher’s brain in a positive way. This is going to be important when it comes time to do your follow up. We’re going to discuss this in more detail in our next conversation, but the importance of it can’t be understated – because while it’s possible that a publisher may be so blown away by your ideas that they sign them on the spot, it’s unlikely. But then – perhaps you know otherwise?!
No, on the contrary – I completely agree with you; it’s extremely rare. Out of all the thousands of pitches that’ve happened at Mojo events, there have been countless signings – eventually! But signing on the spot? Incredibly rare; I’m not sure that’s even happened. Options – certainly! But by no means is that necessarily common.
Well, one publisher told me they did sign something there and then at the live Mojo Pitch this year, but we can agree it’s not common! It’s certainly not happened to me… Yet! And the point I was going to make is that you can be waiting a very long time for any kind of feedback. So if inventors go into the pitch expecting to sign a game within two weeks – or hear back either way for that matter – they’ll probably be disappointed. So why not define success in a different way?
I think the aim of the pitch should be to develop good working relationships with the different publishers. Build rapport. Make sure you come across as the sort of inventor who can create exactly the sort of games this publisher wants. It’s not about a single event. Take a longer term view… By way of example, my first Mojo Pitch was 2021. I sold no games during the event, but I built a relationship with several publishers. I had follow up pitches with many of them, and I signed a game at one of those pitches.
This would be Spare Strike Steal? With Ginger Fox?
Perfect. And we had a conversation about that earlier in the year; people can find that here. How did you get on in 2022?
In 2022, I did sign a game – but it took 10 months to properly get it over the line. I signed it with Gamewright/Buffalo at the beginning of August. And it was worth the wait! There’s a reason development can take a long time… We had a lot of conversations about the game; several rounds of development, play tests and face-to-face meetings – none of which were about the game, oddly enough! In the end, while I felt the game turned out to be brilliant, we’ve also developed an excellent working relationship.
Fantastic! Great stuff, Ellie; I’m not just saying that; I’m loving all this. I think there’s one last tip we have to cover before we wrap things up… What’s the one thing you suggest people do for follow up before they leave the room?
It’s to lay the groundwork for your follow up! Before you leave the room, I suggest you make sure you know how to contact them. If you have time, feel free to ask about their follow up process, but whatever happens – definitely get the email address!
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