The Best Way To Use Visual Aids In Your Pitch… Don’t!

visual aid sock puppet

It may surprise you, but in general, the best way to use visual aids in a pitch is… not to use them.

Here’s why:

Visual Aids Limit The Decision-Maker’s Imagination

In the idea selection stage, pictures of your vision can work against you because they constrain the decision-maker’s imagination.

If you say, “a handsome man steering a boat down a river,” listeners supply the details that work best for them. If you show them a picture of Adrien Brody canoeing down the Amazon… you better hope that they love Adrien Brody and the notion of filming in South America.

When you show a decision-maker something specific, you’re telling them that your vision is exactly that. If you use words, listeners will imagine your pitch in the way that works best for them.

Visual Aids Can Make You Seem A Little “Kooky”

When I was a studio executive and a writer would pull out a picture or other visual aids, I would think, “Oh, no.” This is because the group of people who used visual aids to pitch included a:

  • Guy who used marionettes
  • Team of dancers
  • Man in a diaper
  • Fully costumed pirate with a sword
  • Stripper who gave a Powerpoint presentation with 50 slides
  • Team of writers who acted out the scenes with sock puppets while Mark Harmon delivered the pitch from an audio recording. (Though they must have pitched Mark Harmon well to convince him to participate.)

And that’s just off the top of my head.

The best pitches do not use visual aids, even for sci-fi or epic adventure stories. That’s why when you use visual aids (even if they are great), right away you seem like you could belong in the “kooky” group.

Visual Aids Carry A Higher Standard

Studio execs are used to seeing materials produced by marketing departments with big budgets and teams of experienced pros. It may not be fair, but that’s the kind of standard you have to meet if you want a decision-maker to take your visual materials seriously.

So when they’re looking at your cartoon, mock-up of a poster, cast collage, treasure map, or drawing of a space milieu, they’re not thinking, “Wow—that’s pretty good, he must have Photoshop,” they’re thinking, “This is cheesy and straight-to-video at best.”

Words Travel Faster And More Easily

If visual aids such as a picture or reel is a required component of the pitch, this makes it slightly harder for decision-makers to discuss it. For example, they can’t just make a phone call and pitch it—they also have to email the accompanying materials. Or, if they’re at lunch, they probably aren’t carrying your artwork with them, and might have to show a low-res pic from their phone.

That might not seem like a big deal, but decision-makers receive hundreds of phone calls and emails every day. You don’t want to add anything to your pitch that takes more of the decision-maker’s time or energy.

In contrast, a verbal pitch travels up the chain of command more easily:

You might pitch your story by phone to an agent, who then calls a producer.  The producer calls and pitches a junior executive at a studio. The junior exec pitches to a senior exec, who then pitches the idea to the President of the studio.

A verbal pitch is easy to spread around. It can be delivered by phone, email, or in-person, and it takes less than a minute. It’s ironic, but in the visual worlds of film and TV, the purely verbal pitch is most effective.

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13 Comments

  1. Okay, this is confusing because I am currently hearing differently that posters,storyboards, even diary entries for specific characters can be used in the pitch process. I created an animated pitch using some amazing story-boards to pitch to some agencies.

    The verbal pitches don’t work if you are an unknown and more an more people are using these tools just to get jobs. I read about one woman who got a job by using a visual aid to pitch herself and it was done really well. I can understand if you secure a meeting with executives not to use them but what about pitching without a meeting (first time)?

  2. What about pitching for TV? We have a web series pilot that we filmed and want to turn into a 1/2 hour comedy. We will go out with both the 10 min full version, and a 2 minute “sizzle” for the time-crunched people who can’t watch the full version. We are modeling after several successful web-to-TV pitches that sold this development season. Do you think that’s an effective way to go? Thanks!

  3. Wow. I am so torn. I have this great poster and now I find out my efforts are wasted. But I’m happy to discover this now than later. I like erring on the side of caution when “audacity” is not necessary. I just hope my pitch can paint a thousand words for the listener.

    Thanks, Steph.

    • Your efforts aren’t wasted, Paul. Creating a poster can be a helpful exercise to help you clarify your pitch. If your idea can be conveyed in a poster, that’s great news– I just wouldn’t use it during your verbal pitch.

  4. A stripper with a power-point? Wow, you’ve seen some interesting pitches in your day! Great advice on showing less, and leaving it up to the audience to come up with their own mentally-derived images and expectations.

  5. I don’t disagree with your post but I did think it was funny to read, “Pictures Limit The Decision-Maker’s Imagination” when trying to get a motion picture made. Almost as if, “we’re in the business of limiting the audience’s imagination not our own.”

    But, like I said, I agree. I recall Stephen King commenting on a concern he had for films made about his books (or any books) because they fix an image in the mind of the viewer (and it may or may not agree with who they saw in their head)and could work to restrict the imagination of potential readers.

  6. Okay. Basically you’re saying that if I don’t show it to them I am allowing the decision maker to let their imaginations set the limits to how great the concept could look like on the screen vs. seeing a demo of what it could look like might limit their expectations of the potential production value of the concept.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    • You can consider using a demo reel if it meets the quality standards the decision-maker expects. This is a judgement call and I would err on the side of not using it because decision-makers will likely use it as a reason to pass.

  7. Wow, this is in contrast to something someone was pitching me. Someone had pitched to me to use a show reel in replacement to a verbal pitch. I was skeptical and now more convinced that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Thanks for the post.

    My one question is: What if you had created a demo of what the first 3 minutes could look like? Could that be offered as bonus material at the end of the meeting?

    J.W.B.

    • If you are the screenwriter, I don’t recommend creating demo reels. Your pitch and your script should speak for itself. You can make a reel for fun, to learn, or to experiment with directing, but don’t share them in meetings.

      If you are up for a directing job, creating a “proof of concept” or “sizzle reel” can be an effective sales tool. To give you a sense of the level of quality that is expected for a studio film, here’s a reel director Joe Carnahan used for Daredevil: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92cVd9HalHs

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