Pitch Me Your Day

There’s a story of a movie pitch meeting where a producer goes into a meeting with the studio head, just says “Eddie Murphy in a dress,” and on the basis of those seven syllables is given millions to make a movie.?? This YouTube clip spoofs what would happen if pitching came to the family dinner table:

My teenage kids love this clip in part because a mild version of it happens on an almost nightly basis at our own house – with me playing the role of the movie executive dad.

One of the endemic problems of having teenagers is getting them to talk about their school day.? Many parents have had verbatim versions of this non-conversation:

Parent:? How was you day?

Child:???? Fine.

Parent:? What happened?

Child:? Not Much.

I’ve never asked my kids to pitch me their day.? But many a time I have asked them to tell me a story.? A story is more than “I got a B+ on my math quiz.”? My kids know there has to be two or more people in dialogue and probably a bit of action.? Like movie producer dad, I have sometimes rejected my kids’ stories as insufficient.? The “tell me a story” trick isn’t quite as good as just chauffeuring my kids around with their friends and listening to what they say to each other, but it beats the heck out of “How was your day?”

By the way, here’s a wonderful clip from Ira Glass, which teaches the art of story telling:

I find myself using Glass’s basic building blocks – the anecdote, the bait, the moment of reflection – all the time.

I’ve written before about the?art of the perfect pitch. And it never ceases to amaze me how few academic can bring themselves to succinctly describe a take-home point of their research.? When academics asks one another “What are you working on?” we’re really saying “Tell me a story.”?? When an academic tells me he’s studying network neutrality or the right to privacy, I yearn to say, like movie executive dad, you’re “wasting my time.”? Much better to start with:?Thomas Jefferson adjudicated his own election to become President of the United States. Or, mediation can help resolve even seeming intractable disputes that “pit ‘gay rights’ against ‘religious liberty.'”? Or, even,?buying stock on margin can reduce retirement risk.


Cowen vs. Ayres

Ian Kemmish

All I can remember is "Be quiet! The news is on television!"

In time I learnt to be grateful for these non-conversations. As it became increasingly clear that I was headed for Cambridge University, my father's attempts to show an interest usually foundered on mutual incomprehension within a just a few seconds. Our syllabus was alien to him. "Our English teacher performed a one-man synopsis of A Clockwork Orange" is indeed a wonderful story, but meaningless to someone who grew up in 1930's Newcastle....


Interesting. I read and enjoyed Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, but something has always bugged me about your approach, and I think this is partly why.

You continually reduce difficult and abstract subjects to 'pitches,' and let naive gut reactions to an idea overshadow the more subtle implications the idea has when properly understood.

Perhaps this is pedagogically necessary; it's hard to sell young people on an idea with "hey this is neat! But of course if you look harder it doesn't REALLY say this because blah blah blah..." But as someone who lives in the details I can't help but feel your approach is profoundly, profoundly destructive. This just isn't how things should be done around here.

Of course I can't honestly blame either of you for this Levitt or Dubner for this; Levitt has admitted he doesn't have a firm grip of these issues, and Dubner strikes me as an intelligent guy who came of age in an intellectual culture where this is the norm. If I were to attempt honestly to pick villains I'd have to finger C. P. Snow's entire literary culture.

Fair enough. Literary culture, consider yourself On Notice. And Levitt, Dubner: tread carefully among actual experts. As you know, you've made yourself all manner of enemies this way.

(I'm aware of the hypocrisy, thank you. In person I would eschew it; on the internet I sometimes prioritize effect over civility.)



Immediate solution to the Oil Spill Problem using Crowd Sourcing would be A Story to Tell.

Eric Mertzlufft

Haha... good clip.


Narratives are key. Narratives have so many virtues, not least of which that they demonstrate beginnings, acknowledge problems, propose solutions, look to endings, and resonate with the human mind. A good story about research is the same, in fact, as the perfect abstract: what is the problem, what is your proposed solution, what are the technical challenges, how might/have you addressed them, what will/are the deliverable results.
It doesn't have to be bragging.
It does probably paper over some of the luck, some of the meandering, some of the dead ends, but you can't include every committee meeting, hiring action and so on in an abstract.
If you can't make your research a narrative, you need to rethink it.

Sam Horn

Thanks Ian, for another intriguing blog.

You're right, people today are BBD.

Busy. Bored. Distracted.

We've got 30 seconds, max, to get their attention.

If people don't like the word "pitch," they can reframe it by asking, "What do I care about?"

My idea? This contract or job opportunity? My cause or non-profit? Winning buy-in from these customers or decision-makers?

What can I say in the first 30 seconds to get their eyebrows up?

What can I say that's so unexpected, it motivates them to look up from their Blackberries?

What can I say that's so intriguing, current and relevant to what they care about - they want to know more?

That's all a pitch is.

And the success of our business, interview, presentation and meet-up depends on it.

Sam Horn
Communication Strategist and author of POP! Create the Perfect Pitch, Title and Tagline for Anything!


Just want to say what a great blog you got here!

Thumbs up, and keep it going!


Your observation of how academics can't succinctly explain what they're doing reminds me of a line from Cat's Cradle: "A scientist who can't explain his work to an 8-year-old is a charlatan."

Conor Neill

A friend recently told me "you got to tell them the most important thing. Only professors get to tell you every-thing". This ADD culture is forcing the rest of us to cut to the chase... when will it hit the world of academia? (do we want it to hit the world of academia?)

Eileen M. Wyatt

For the important thing in itself to be enough, your audience has to already have learned the context that will make sense of the important thing.

Somewhere, something has to not be reduced to a bullet point or an elevator pitch.

Surely that's the point of the video: because the father cares only about whether the narrative is exciting and applies no "family" context, his ethical judgments are cattywampus.