The Serious Side of Funny: Presentation Tips from a Comedy Super-Agent

In the entertainment industry, the road to success often starts with "the pitch," a brief presentation to a studio executive by a writer, actor, director, or producer (or a team of these people). If the executive is intrigued by the concept, it might be discussed further within the studio, and eventually a decision will be made about funding production. With so much riding on this short presentation, it’s a high-anxiety event, and making pitches is a vital communication skill. In fact, the ability to pitch effectively is so important that it has its own industry slang term: being "good in a room." Pitches can fall flat for a number of reasons, whether the concept is just not a good fit for a particular studio, the idea is so unusual that the executives are unwilling to risk investing in it, or the pitch is just poorly presented. A presenter may fail by being unable to summarize what a new show or movie idea is all about, by smothering the executives in too many details, or by trying too hard to sell the concept. Comedy super-agent Peter Principato, recently profiled in the New York Times, gives his clients presentation advice that lends itself to a wide range of business presentations in just about any profession or industry:

  • First, come up with a single compelling sentence that describes the show or movie. If presenters can’t do this, chances are they haven’t thought the idea out well enough, or the idea is so complicated that it would be too risky or too expensive to attempt. This one-line summary is essential for another reason, in that the first studio executive to hear the pitch will usually need to share it with other executives or potential financiers before a decision can be made. A catchy, succinct idea is a lot easier to repeat than a rambling, confused concept.
  • Second, expand on that one sentence with a single paragraph that builds interest by substantiating the concept and helping the listener envision what the show or movie would be like.
  • Third, for a proposed series, explain how the concept would play out, week by week, by describing several episodes.
  • Fourth, fill in the "big picture," such as by describing how the show would look on screen or by rounding out the main characters.

(You’ve probably noticed how this advice follows the classic AIDA model of getting attention, building interesting, increasing desire, and asking for a decision, which is what makes Principato’s advice valuable for just about any profession.) As a fresh take on presentation projects for your business communication class, have students "reverse engineer" a favorite TV program to craft a pitch, including the one-sentence grabber, the one-paragraph interest-builder, and the broader explanation of how the TV series would play out. Have individuals or teams pitch their program ideas to the rest of the class, who play the role of studio executives.