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How to Fail at Pitching

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 20, 2017

I was pleasantly surprised at the positive reception that came when I wrote my Comprehensive Guide for Pitching. It was originally aimed at pitching to magazines but the guidelines (which have subsequently also appeared in the ATA Chronicle) apply just as well to writing pitches for guest blog posts or even asking for work.

 

That brings me to today’s post. Recently, I have begun receiving more pitches asking for a guest post on this blog as well as companies trying to sell me their products and services. Sadly, however, most of them have not been of a high standard. Since it seems that several of my colleagues are experiencing the same thing, I thought I would put together a hit list of ways to ensure that your pitch fails.

 

  1. Don’t bother checking the contribution history

 

Does it really matter that the blog or publication only ever has posts from the same people or that everyone comes from the same company? It’s not as if they will have made a deliberate decision as to whose voice they want to publish, right? Obviously, if they have made a decision as to what to cover, offering them something completely different will rarely result in acceptance. In fact, they are more likely to see you as a time waster.

 

The same goes if you are trying to sell a product. If the person running the website only ever talks about conference interpreting equipment and building interpreting teams, attempts to sell them Desktop Publishing services or expensive Translation Management Systems are unlikely to succeed.

 

  1. Forget the hook

 

All that stuff about reading previous issues and doing research sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it. Maybe you should just lob a generic pitch on a subject that has been covered a million times. It will be fine, won’t it? Guess again.

 

  1. Don’t proofread

 

Should we expect someone calling themselves a professional writer to send pitches that are grammatically sound and don’t contain any spelling errors? Or should you just hope that the no editor or site owner is not going to judge your writing skills based on your pitch? I will leave that to you to decide.

 

  1. Leave out all the stuff about targeting your pitches

 

Maybe I am the only person in the entire world who ever wonders, “why on earth am I getting this email?” It does surprise me to receive a pitch for a post on computer assisted translation tools supposedly aimed at a blog that deals with interpreting and events management. Trying to work out where a post will fit is the sort of challenge that busy people will tend to pass up.

 

  1. Start with a bunch of qualifications and history

 

We all know that the one thing editors and bloggers absolutely love reading on a Friday afternoon is the history of how long your company has been running and how many degrees your founders have. They fall over themselves to read about all the different services you offer, especially when a sum total of none of them are actually relevant to your pitch. In fact, the longer it takes them to actually figure out what on earth you are trying to tell them, the happier they are. That might just have been sarcastic.

 

  1. Use a generic salutation

 

We are in the 21st century so surely no one actually wants you to bother finding out their name or address them personally. “Dear Linguist” has that impersonal feeling that makes us all warm and fuzzy inside. And of course “hi” with no name will always be a classic. Even better, go all formal with “Dear Sir/Madam”, especially if you have sent them a message via the contact form on the website that actually tells you their name! There is no quicker way to get rejected than failing to even write a personalised salutation.

 

  1. Completely ignore guidelines and forms

 

Websites are designed with forms for a reason. Shove your email in the topic line, drop a call to action in the email box and do whatever you like with the rest of it. It will really make you stand out from the crowd in ways you cannot even begin to imagine, none of them good.

And please, if there are pitching guidelines on things like length and style, do adhere to them. If you don’t, you might as well give up before you even start.

 

 

Yes, I admit, this post has been rather heavy-handed in places. I have no doubt that those sending requests for blog posts or trying to sell their services are doing so for all the right reasons. But, since pitching essentially boils down to asking someone you have never met to do you a huge favour, it really does make sense to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes. Whether it seems fair or not, they will expect you to have done the research and targeting necessary to make your pitch relevant, professional and compelling. After all, it’s exactly what they will expect from your contribution and services too.

Crafting the Perfect Pitch – A Comprehensive Guide

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 9, 2017

Of all the ways that you can market your skills, getting an article in a publication or blog that your clients will read is my all-time favourite. It is much cheaper than advertising and has the added bonus of making you look like an expert in their business as well as yours. If that wasn’t enough, there is the rather bizarre possibility of a potential client spotting you at one of their events and saying they saw your article. That makes the conversation much easier.

 

So how do you do it?

 

There are several stages and you won’t master any of them first time out. I accrued a lot of rejections and missed opportunities to begin with. While it hurt like mad at the time, it really did help me to hone my craft. To make this little guide easy to follow, I will go through the process chronologically.

 

First, pick an audience

 I really shouldn’t have to write this but bad targeting is a really common mistake. I have lost count of the number of people who have pitched to my blog with no idea which audience I target or which audience they wanted themselves!

 

The more specific your audience definition, the better. My top target at the moment is UK-based events managers who organise international events but who don’t have an interpreting team or are looking for a change. My secondary target is event managers who want to shift into the international events market but don’t have the supplier contacts to do so. In both cases, I am aiming more at the younger, tech-savvy market than at the massive established players. I am also more interested in those who don’t specialise in fashion or medical products.

 

The more specific your audience definition, the better.

 

That is how specific you need to be, at least at the outset. If you want the full reason why you need to be that specific, listen to any podcast on marketing. The tl;dr version is that it is much easier to write a brilliant but narrow pitch than to try to please everyone.

 

Next, hang out with them

Before you even think about what and where to pitch, you need to spend time (preferably in person) with people from your target market. Go to their events, subscribe to their magazines, join their Linkedin groups. Do anything, in fact, that allows you to sample their language and concerns.

 

If you try to skip that stage, you end up with the same farce as I got when I pitched an article to an events magazine on running successful multilingual events. I got a very nice email from the editor saying that my topic was outside of their interests … only for them to publish a very similar article in running successful international events the next day by another writer. One word, one mistake, one very annoyed interpreter.

 

You simply cannot write a great pitch without learning the language and style used by your target audience. This is, by the way, another reason for being specific. In my case, I need to learn how the attitudes and communities of younger events professionals differ from their older counterparts.

 

You simply cannot write a great pitch without learning the language and style used by your target audience.

Listen a lot

 This is an extension of the point above but the slight repetition is necessary. It will always be tempting to jump right in and pitch after receiving your first issue of an industry magazine. I can just about guarantee that it will fail miserably.

 

My mum used to say that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. And that adage applies here. In the same way as you might slice apart a project brief or comb through a source text, give yourself time (ie. at least three magazine issues, three all-day events or a couple of months in an online group or some combination of them all) to soak up the atmosphere and outlook of your target audience before you even consider pitching.

 

Strangely enough, over time, something amazing happens. As you get to know the people you want to write for, ideas for pitches seem to arrive by themselves. Suddenly, the gaps in their knowledge and, more importantly, the things they perceive to be important become obvious. Once you know the gaps in their knowledge and what they deem important, the rest begins to take care of itself. With practice.

 

As you get to know the people you want to write for, ideas for pitches seem to arrive by themselves.

 

One little note, based on brutal experience. Before you pitch, make sure that all of your interactions are professional to the utmost and try to resist the urge to correct misconceptions. No-one likes a smarty-pants and criticism will not be welcomed until you have built up a really strong relationship with the group. I have lost count of the number of people in my own profession who have thrown away any chance of having a positive influence by publicly slating clients and potential clients.

 

Practice in a safe environment

 At the same time as you are getting to know your target audience, you should be working on your writing craft somewhere semi-public but where you can’t be rejected. I will go a bit against the grain here and say that, for most people, a personal or business blog is not the best place to practice.

 

For most people, a personal or business blog is not the best place to practice.

 

There are two reasons for this. The first is that, in both the Event Sector and the Translation & Interpreting Industries, the posts that get shared the most tend to be those written for fellow professionals in that sector. And, unless you are extremely disciplined, you can get sucked into writing more in that vein to get your stats up and get praise from colleagues, rather than polishing a client-friendly style.

 

Places like Linkedin Pulse and the groups where you are listening to clients are much better. As far as Pulse is concerned, try writing a few posts on the basics of working with someone in your profession but aimed at people who don’t even know what an event manager or translator does.

 

As simple as those posts might sound, they are tricky to get right and they get a surprising amount of feedback and views. If you can make them sound informative but not preachy or didactic, you know you are on the right track. If your colleagues accuse you of writing really basic stuff but your potential clients start sharing your content, that is a sign you are getting it absolutely right!

 

When it comes to groups, practice writing brief responses to any relevant questions or blog posts that come up. You can get the same kind of practice by going to networking events in that industry and practising having good conversations that don’t turn into a sales pitch. In both cases, you should be aiming to sound like an expert in that particular area, who just happens to be a genius when it comes to translation or interpreting or events. Rather than someone from those professions who snuck in when no-one was looking!

 

Target More Than One Editor at Once

Once you have some practice under your belt and especially if you have gathered some positive feedback from people in your target market, you can start to find editors. Editors are your gateway to valuable space in magazines and should therefore be approached with due care and something nearing adulation!

 

Seriously, the best tactic I have found, which I still use, is to follow trails through articles posted in market-specific groups and cross-compare where I end up with the magazines that appear when I google search terms describing my target market and the words “magazine” or “publication”. Often, the leading magazines will actually be called something like [Field] News or [Field] Weekly. If you can see circulation numbers, all the better. But remember, you want the best publications for your specific target market, not necessarily those with the highest numbers.

 

Follow trails through articles posted in market-specific groups.

 

In my market, I could easily pitch to magazines with huge circ numbers which target the USA. Given that they are highly unlikely to hire me, that would be pretty pointless!

 

Once you have that kind of information, always have two or three potential targets at a time. Experience has taught me that all editors are juggling about a million things at once so it is likely that a large proportion of editors you contact will either never get back to you or won’t reply for at least a month. Don’t worry. By having a few on the go at once (get a system to keep track of what you said to whom!), you can reduce anxiety and increase the chances of getting an early win.

 

Do not, however, fall into the trap of blanket pitching to too many editors at once. Two or three at a time is about right. By the time you do proper research and spend time familiarising yourself with their needs and style, you will find that even doing two or three takes work! But it is more than worth it when your pitch lands you an article.

 

Pitch based on their needs (and your expertise)

 Editors have three basic needs: solid, relevant content that needs as little work as possible; coffee; and more hours in the day. Once you realise that, you can make sure that you hit two of them in every pitch (you can’t offer coffee, sadly).

 

I always pitch by first looking through one or two recent issues (or about a month of blog posts if I am aiming for a spot in a blog) and imagining where my content might fit in and what attraction it might have for their audience. Before I even start writing the email I ask myself this question: if I were reading this magazine, why would this content be important to me?

 

Notice that I didn’t say “for me”. We all think that our business is absolutely vital for our clients but if we can’t make a compelling case why they will agree with us, the editors of the publications aimed at those clients will just dismiss us. Answering that question badly or not at all has been the number one reason for me receiving rejections. And I have had a lot of rejections!

 

A simple way to reduce the risk of making that mistake is to try to include the phrase “I was reading the latest issue of [magazine] and I noticed that…” in your email. It could be “I noticed that you had a great piece by John Smith on events for international associations” or, “I noticed that you were going to discuss selling across cultures in a future issue” or whatever but hooking on to what they are already saying is a great start and it shows that you are reading carefully!

 

Hook on to what they are already saying.

 

A word of warning though, if you are going to finish that sentence with “I noticed that you haven’t covered [x]” be very careful. Often, that just gives editors a reason to tell you that your pitch is outside their remit, since you have just revealed that it isn’t a common topic. The only time that angle has worked for me is when I had found that they covered something near my specialism but left an important bit out. In that case, I could write something like “I noticed that Joe Bloggs wrote a great piece on international events but he didn’t talk about working with interpreters. Since that is such a vital part of making international events work, I would like to build on what he wrote.”

 

Make life easy for yourself (and the editor)

 The most important part of pitching based on their needs is making it easy for the editor to make a decision. Most magazines are split into sections so you should absolutely suggest which section your article might work best in, based on what they have already published there.

 

You can make life easy for yourself by reducing the entire article down to a three sentence paragraph, including the context, the problem and the solution. For a recent blog post on the website of a leading industry magazine, I mentioned the need for British events companies to win international business post-Brexit but the problem of the UK’s miserable record for language learning. The solution, I argued, was to work effectively with interpreters. To ease any doubts, I threw in some links to existing content that talked about some of those issues. Within 24 hours, the editor was in contact to offer me prime space on the blog.

 

Reduce your entire article down to a three sentence paragraph

 

That three sentence summary not only lets the editor quickly tell if you have a good idea but it also gives you a ready-made structure for your final piece, with enough wiggle room to allow your creativity to shine. In a pinch, you can also use it as the introduction of the final article, at least temporarily.

 

Think Snappy

 The very last part of writing the pitch is making sure that your pitch is way shorter than this post on how to write pitches!

 

Remember, editors are busy so make sure that your email can be read through in 30 seconds and skimmed in under 10. The longest version of your pitch should be three paragraphs long and look something like this:

 

  • a short, suitably complimentary intro, including your hook, a maximum of one sentence introducing you, and ending with the topic of your suggested article in five words or less.

 

  • the trademark three sentence summary of your suggested piece

 

  • a suitable friendly sign off, inviting them to get back to you.

 

If you can write it even shorter, feel free but do resist the temptation to stuff everything into a paragraph that looks like it has eaten too much Christmas turkey. When in doubt, cut stuff out.

 

Welcome Failure, Celebrate Success

 And after you have done all that, will success be assured? Sadly, no. Part of the process of pitching is the “fun” of failure. Some emails will never be answered. Some will come back with a rejection. Some, those precious ones, will come back with acceptances.

 

It always pays to remember that a “no” from one editor is often a stepping stone to “yes” from another. Some publications won’t be suitable for the content you want to write and that’s okay. For others, the timing will be wrong. And that’s okay too.

 

A “no” from one editor is often a stepping stone to “yes” from another.

 

The great thing is that the skills you pick up in reading clients and writing pitches become a vital part of your toolkit for other areas of your marketing and even for writing in other areas of your business. Add to that the joy and interest you get when clients see you as an expert in their field and the work is definitely worth it!

 

If you want to know what to do once you actually get accepted, you will need to read a later blog post.