Storytelling

Conversational Writing: The Art of Keeping it Real

Conversational Writing

How often do messages on websites or marketing emails make you wonder if a human wrote them? A lot of content supposedly “targeting” us completely misses the mark. The writing is not conversational. It doesn’t sound like us. It doesn’t make us want to engage, and it lacks personality altogether. Some brands still confuse professional with formal and corporate with serious. Others forget how important it is to tailor content for each medium, coming off stiff and dated in social media and blog posts.

What is conversational writing?

Conversational writing is the kind or writing that makes readers feel you’re talking with them, not at them. It’s meant to keep things fresh and casual, and to help establish a brand’s voice across their website, social media, blogs and contributed articles.

Is conversational content better?

Conversational writing works better in some contexts. When we read content that sounds like us, we immediately feel a connection. As content marketers, our job is to inform, connect, persuade and inspire. We focus on finding the right “voice” for our audience and then on tailoring messages for each medium so they are more likely to convert. Sometimes this may mean relaxing our tone in client’s website’s landing page to establish trust and open opportunities for more personalized connections. Sometimes it’s about writing friendlier, shorter emails with one ask instead of five. It’s not about ignoring all brand guidelines, it’s about tweaking them to match how readers speak in different touchpoints. Some industry experts view conversational writing it as a form of copywriting UX, a way of using language to create more engaging experiences for readers.

But what about the serious technical and business stuff?

There’s still a place and a purpose for jargon and technical writing in formal business pieces like case studies, reports, RFPs and white papers. But don’t expect visitors to stay on a website that reads like an obscure instructional manual or to click on a link inside an email that sounds like a bank’s automated phone system message.

writing, conversational writing, copywriting, audience engagement

Can we write conversationally and still respect grammar rules?

Most regular rules don’t apply in conversational writing because it’s often full of slang and crutch words, creative punctuation and sentence fragments. It’s personable and unpredictable. While it’s never okay to sacrifice clarity for the sake of style, it’s okay to start a sentence with “and” or “but” to match your natural cadence in a blog and to use contractions or #hashtags on social to keep your messages light and your character count low.

A few tips on conversational writing

Conversational writing doesn’t have a style guide. What sounds like a conversation to me may not sound the same to you. The level of flexibility depends entirely on your target audience and the style they connect with. Below are a few tips to start using a healthy dose of conversational writing.

  1. Write as if you were talking to a friend. Start by reading your content out loud. Does it sound like something you’d actually say, or does it sound like something out of the Pelican Brief?
  2. Don’t write for everyone. Know who you’re talking to and write for them. Attempting to write for everyone will only dilute your message.
  3. Start with clarity. Start with your main message first so it doesn’t get lost when you add personality.
  4. Keep your sentences short. You know that amazing white paper intro you want to share on LinkedIn? Try chopping up the sentences to sound less academic. Unless your English teacher is your target audience, you definitely want to keep it short, sweet and light.
  5. Skip the long word when the short one will do. You don’t have to flaunt your vast industry vocabulary everywhere. Don’t let poor word choice stop a reader in their tracks.

Women’s History Month Wrap-Up: 4 Brands Celebrating Women

International Woman’s Day has come and gone, and we’re approaching the end of Women’s History Month. Over the last few weeks companies and brands throughout the country and world have been celebrating women. Using a variety of strategies, many businesses utilized International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month to announce ongoing initiatives, campaigns or a commitment to a gender-related cause.

From paper towels to financial investors, here’s a quick review of a few creative favorites:

Proctor and Gamble #WeSeeEqual

The same company that launched the #LikeAGirl campaign during the Olympics last summer kicked off a campaign called #WeSeeEqual. The video depicts women and girls conquering their fears, loving on their families and achieving their goals.

Western Union

Western Union released the results of a global survey that found women across the globe believed education to be the key to advancing gender equality. Citing the survey, Western Union announced new education initiatives targeting girls on International Women’s Day, including a new global scholarship program.

Brawny #StrengthHasNoGender

The paper towel brand known for plaid and biceps produced a series of mini-videos about strong women. The move accompanied the announcement of a campaign called #StrengthHasNoGender. The Brawny website revealed its commitment to contributing $75,000 for STEM education programs to Girls Inc, a nonprofit that helps girls grow up to be healthy, educated and independent. They also created a timeline of important events impacting women throughout history.

State Street Global Advisors-Fearless Girl

This viral sculpture installation is now seeing requests to have a permanent residence on Wall Street. The Boston Globe reported that the fearless girl was commissioned and placed by Street Global Advisors as part of their initiative to encourage their investors to increase the number of women in leadership roles. SSGA’s official press release referred to the statue as “a Symbol of Need for Action”.

Photo credit: Reuters

Photo credit: Reuters

These campaigns are eye-catching and inspiring reminders that while there is still work to be done for girls and women, there is ample support behind ongoing efforts. While the month of March shouldn’t be the only time businesses evaluate their commitment to supporting women, it provides an opportunity to share stories of successful women and reminds us they’re all around us.

 

What My Public Relations Degree Taught Me

What My Public Relations Degree Taught Me

“What My Public Relations Degree Taught Me” is part two of a mini-series on education and being a millennial in the world of PR, from some of our young professionals at A.wordsmith. Read part one here.

 

I veered towards PR after five years in the education and nonprofit world. The overlap between development and communications is significant, but I realized that specialized training would give me an advantage in the market and elevate my skillset. I pursued a Master’s in Management Communications with a Concentration in Marketing and Public Relations. This mouthful of a degree combined a wide mix of journalism, sociology, social media, marketing, research, and rhetorical methods courses into a surprisingly cohesive curriculum. While I certainly had a lot to learn post-graduation, I graduated with an excellent grasp of the core capabilities required in public relations. These are a few  of the things my public relations degree taught me that helped me get a head start in my PR career:

What makes great writing

The writing skills taught in kindergarten through college programs often focus on grammar and basic style guidelines. I believe that great writing requires this knowledge. I can easily bore even the most earnest listener with my zeal for the Oxford comma, my personal relationships with Strunk & White and Harbrace, and my embarrassing crush on The New Yorker’s diaereses.

However, advanced writing requires something richer. One of my courses focused almost exclusively on metaphors. Another guided me through sensory writing about music and food. Still others spent time on the logistics of understanding and cooperating with your audience. These exercises gave me the toolbox and the je ne sais quoi that makes great writing great, and the ability to tap them for the vast range of topics and markets that our PR clients belong to.

How to become an expert in anything

When I explain that much of my work involves writing and working on articles with media outlets, the next question is always, “About what?”

“Whatever the client needs.”

On any given day, I may be producing content about anything from the FDA approval process for prescription drugs to the hidden gems of southern Oregon wine country. The tasks can rarely be boiled down to simple copywriting or editing – most of the time I am researching, developing, and presenting complex subjects. I spend hours poring over articles and blogs, perusing competitor thought leadership, and interviewing subject matter experts. Fortunately, rigorous research requirements in school left me quite adept at zigzagging through academic databases and lay publications. My marketing coursework primed me in strategic competitor research. I owe my interview skills to a fastidious journalism adjunct and a supportive qualitative research methods professor. These skills let me become an overnight expert in just about anything – and I couldn’t produce quality work without them.

What My Public Relations Degree Taught Me

Why we tell stories

We tell stories because they work. Stories are at the root of communication. They’re more engaging and can reach a wide audience. In every course I took – from Social Media and Culture to Applied Marketing Strategies – the importance of storytelling was pounded into our minds. Journalists and editors can sniff right through a pitch about a nonstory. The case studies A.wordsmith writes tell a company’s success story with a certain goal in mind, and even web copy has greater impact if it illustrates the point. PR shares messages, and the best messages are usually couched in stories.

Look for part 3 of this series next week!

Top 4 Takeaways from Art + Science of Storytelling across Platforms

Book

I recently had the opportunity to attend a PRSA webinar presented by Geoff Livingston and Andrew Gilman called the Art and Science of Storytelling across Platforms. Given that a huge portion of a PR professional’s job is crafting stories for their clients, this topic was relevant and applicable. Here are my top takeaways from the webinar:

Emotion and fact are the building blocks for your story

“No facts without stories and no stories without facts” – this was one of the first messages the presenter pressed. This is a useful framework through which to filter story concepts. When building a story for a client, start with a headline. Ensure the headline is factual and straightforward—but also unique and with emotional interest. Gilman used an example of UPS and their “no left turns” story.  Their headline UPS values sustainability, is factual, but generic and did not differentiate UPS from their competitors. However, adding the interest element, UPS values sustainability—never takes left turns provides a differentiating factor and unique appeal.

Gilman also recommends crafting a story that can be localized to smaller markets. For instance in the UPS example, a PR professional could pitch to their local outlet and encourage them to follow UPS drivers and see the story for themselves.

Consider a communication wheel

Once the story has been built for the client, it’s time to consider your platform options. Gilman presented the option of creating a strategic communications wheel for your client. The wheel has the client at the center with all the forms of communicating their message as the spokes. Laying out all of the possibilities in a visual can show the breadth of opportunities available.

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Pick your media venue

The primary media venue will determine your primary platform. Livingston recommends that the primary outlet reach the broadest audience possible. The type of content may determine your primary venue—e.g. if there’s video content you may use YouTube or Vimeo. Once you have your primary platform selected it’s crucial to have all secondary and tertiary outlets connect to it. Secondary outlets should appeal to a more specialized audience—they may provide more details or insider information that would attract a more enthusiastic group. Which secondary outlet platforms are best depends on the story, but they tend to be social media outlets and blogs.

Repeat your message—not your story

Do not copy and paste your message onto all your platforms. No one wants to read the same word-for-word content on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—the content should be tweaked for each. Consider the key elements of your story, then consider the platform and audience. How can it be reshaped to fit a new platform? In-depth, lengthier content? Visual imagery? Interactive elements? Use these questions to make changes to the story as you spread your message across different media.

How to Leverage Big Data for PR and Marketing Communications

Big Data

Image courtesy of photoexplorer at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big Data has become a vital tool for large and small businesses alike, with Big Data software able to help analyze the vast amounts of information to today’s organization. New, simplified tools like Amazon Mechanical Turk allow organizations and individuals to more easily collect data from around the world, providing the ability to predict future purchases, fight the spread of Zika or even find missing kids.

These solutions can also provide key insights that allow PR teams to tailor and deliver more relevant content to engage people and help them take action. Effective use of Big Data in PR can enable you to:

Big data mind

Image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  • Use data storytelling. Big Data allows you to identify trends and look for patterns, and the easiest way to get started with data storytelling can be by offering quirky, interesting insights – oftentimes one in which your organization has no particular stake in what the data shows.
  • Visualize your message. Using rich infographics that combine or visualize large data sets help explain a story in a clear, concise manner – helping you spread information about your product or service or share a story about data that affects your organization. Especially infographics are great tool to tell a story with data that impacts your organization. Our brains process visual data 60,000 times faster than text, making visualization one of the most effective ways to communicate.
  • Find insights about your stakeholders. Understanding where your customers or supporters spend their time and money can help you precisely tailor the message you send. Big Data also allows you to track how sentiment changes in response to your PR activities.
  • Identify influencers. Big Data tools can expedite the process of finding journalists and influencers in the media: Influencers can be identified in a number of ways, including participation velocity data, social graph data or reputation engines.
  • Deliver results through actionable insights during a crisis. A rapid response is critical for crisis management. In a natural disaster, for example, Big Data enables fast and accurate decision-making. Big Data allows you to track sentiment, intensity, authors and subjects of the conversations and media coverage to determine how serious the threat might be and the potential impact to your business.

 

Big Data tools and analytics can provide critical insights into who is driving conversations around a brand or issue, and into what content they are searching for online. Leveraging it effectively – and aligning it with specific business goals – will allow you to inform and propel your PR and marketing communications.

What Thought Leadership is Not

thought leadership

Thought leadership” is often considered a buzzword in the marketing and PR world – little more than a spruced up advertisement for a company. However, if your content marketing pieces fit this description, then you’re not doing thought leadership. Thought leadership can be a strong, useful addition to a content marketing program and goes well beyond stuffing a reused blog full of keywords and hoping a Forbes editor will run it.

To understand what good thought leadership looks like, it can be beneficial to know what bad content looks like. Here’s what thought leadership is not:

Thought Leadership is Not Link Building

The main goal of thought leadership is not boosting your SEO program. That’s not to say these two programs can’t work together – they certainly can. A well-written thought leadership piece placed in a publication important to your business’ audience might also include a link to your website in your author bio. This is a great bonus and can help your company’s SEO results, but this should be considered a plus, not the end goal. Editors are not looking for opportunities to publish links to businesses’ websites, they’re looking to partner with thought leaders who can provide useful, actionable insights for their readers. Draft and pitch your thought leadership ideas with this at the forefront of your mind, and you will have more success in placing your content.

content writing

Thought Leadership is Not About You

Since editors want content that is relevant for their readers, it’s important to remember that this also means your thought leadership content isn’t about you. While it seems counter intuitive to say that a program designed to position yourself as a thought leader is not about you, this concept is the foundation of well-written pieces. Your content can and certainly should involve things you’ve learned and how you’ve built your personal expertise, but you should frame your articles with your readers in mind. What is useful to them? How can you help them on this topic? Your purpose isn’t to highlight your accomplishments and boost your ego. Focusing on your readers first makes an article more relevant, useful, and likely to be published.

Thought Leadership is Not a Chance to Talk About Your Company and Products

It all comes back to your readers – thought leadership isn’t about your company or products, either. While this type of content ultimately boosts your brand image, it isn’t advertising. Many publications outright prohibit contributed pieces that mention the author’s products and business in the text, and will remove links back to your site. Thought leadership requires brainstorming and planning to come up with topics that don’t focus on your products and services. The key is that the topics will be mildly related to, but not centered on what your brand does. It’s also possible for thought leadership pieces to be completely unrelated to the products your company sells. Think of topics your audience is interested in and that you can talk about without using your own products as a case study or solution.

Thought Leadership is Not Copying and Pasting Your Blog Posts

Your blog can be a great starting point for topic ideas for articles. However, you can’t just take a pre-written blog and try to pitch it to an editor as a thought leadership piece. Many publications don’t want material that’s been published elsewhere, blogs included. Your blog posts will also probably need some reworking to become less advertorial and more reader focused. You can write about the same topic or a similar one, but make sure it’s tailored to your audience and the publication you want to see it in.

Good Thought Leadership Is…

Knowing what thought leadership is not provides a jumping off point to a good program. A good thought leadership article is not easy or quick to put together. It will require some research, brainstorming, and drafting. It will require a constant focus on your reader, and putting your own brand in the background. It will also require some patience – you’re probably not going to be published in Forbes right away. But focusing on quality content can lead you to opportunities with publications your readers know and respect, and eventually lead to a stronger brand image overall.

How are you a thought leader? Answer these 6 questions to find out.

If you are reading this you likely already understand the value of thought leadership products. A thought leadership product is anything – written, video, multi-media – produced to help inform an audience on something you do really well. These products are especially critical for service organizations that rely on the smarts and unique capabilities of its people to distinguish itself from the competition. And these are the kinds of products that A.wordsmith is really, really good at creating.

As developers of thought leadership content for our clients we are often faced with the daunting task of distilling the fragmented, but brilliant, thinking of our clients into easy-to-read, easy-to-understand thought leadership content.

To do that, we get on the phone or sit down with our subject matter expert, the SME. We typically have an hour or less. The SME is a senior-level, sometimes C-suite level, individual, with limited time and patience. Add to that the fact that we often come into these discovery sessions with only a rudimentary understanding of the topic – often just enough to be dangerous.

So how do we approach a critical SME interview given these challenges? We formulate really smart questions.

To get there, let’s go back to the importance of story.

Stories-are-about-22-1dxnj6v

This week my colleague Allison and I attended PRSA’s annual Communicators Conference in Portland. The speakers were excellent – everyone from Mike Riley Research to representatives from Edelman breaking down this year’s Trust Barometer – but my favorite session came from consultant Andrew Robinson of Eugene, Oregon. He advocated for the power of a single story in employee engagement, and outlined the basic elements of a captivating company story.

Andrew’s story elements interestingly aligned almost directly with the initial questions we ask during a thought leadership discovery session. The output of these discovery sessions are ultimately stories, powerfully effective in everything from driving sales to employee engagement. And powerfully relevant — just as Lemonade is to the Beyhive and “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” is to my kindergartener — in sparking a conversation and prompting action from the audience you most want to engage.

Beyoncé's latest thought leadership product was a multi-media blend of poetry, music and photography. (source: www.independent.co.uk)

As developers of thought leadership content these questions guide our process. For organizations struggling with what their thought leadership focus should be, these questions can help pinpoint your greatest opportunities to share and engage.

6 Thought Leadership Questions

Story Element: Villain

Interview Question #1: What are your client’s pain points?

Story Element: Hero

Interview Question #2: How are you specially equipped to solve those problems?

Story Element: Backstory

Interview Question #3: What are the external – market, industry, etc. – exacerbating this problem?

Story Element: Plot

Interview Question #4: What is the common turning point for your clients, the moment that they decide to turn to you for help?

Story Element: Crisis

Interview Question #5: What does it look like when you attack this problem? What is your unique process?

Story Element: Resolution

Interview Question #6: What are the proof points that what you do works?

For more information check out some of our thought leadership work.

Moodboards: Feeling Your Way Through Brand Discovery

mood1

Once relatively exclusive to the fashion design industry, moodboards are everywhere now–design, architecture, politics, education, therapy…basically anywhere one’s brand or identity is a work in progress. I use them a lot in the design work I do, whether for a brand identity project, or to determine the mood of an internal campaign for an already well-established brand. While they may seem a silly, touchy-feely exercise to some, this visual exploration of mood and emotion are incredibly useful in ways a verbal exploration can’t be. Moodboards can evoke immediate visceral reactions, acting as a litmus test of a brand’s perception. They’re immensely helpful in shaping the design plan, but also very helpful to clients trying to pinpoint what they want their brand to communicate. I’ve never had a client regret taking the time to work through the process.

So what is a moodboard? Simply defined, it’s “an arrangement of images, materials, pieces of text, etc., intended to evoke or project a particular style or concept.”

mood2

Digital Collections

When I talk about a moodboard process, it doesn’t have to be exceptionally complex or time-consuming. Many of us are creating moodboards on a daily basis, without even realizing it. Social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram are effectively digital moodboard tools, where we collect, react to, or follow image-based sets of ideas. Therapeutic exercises often encourage creating a collage of magazine clippings to help visualize and articulate life goals or emotions we’re struggling with. A moodboard can be a messy collection of clippings, or a highly-curated and designed piece, but the goal is to keep it emotion or “vibe” based.

Facts vs. Feelings

It’s common for clients to feel unsure of themselves when trying to communicate what they want in design terms. This is where moodboards are especially helpful. I don’t necessarily expect clients to have a favorite font, but I do expect that they’ll react positively or negatively to different fonts if I show them some options. So using the moodboard to create a visual conversation in order to work through likes and dislikes is helpful to both me and the client. It’s like this T magazine piece concludes: “When everything is available all the time and we’re inundated with information in every way, shape and form, we’re left no choice but to favor what makes us feel.”

How to

Here are a few helpful tools to create moodboards online (you may already use some of these in other ways!):

Pinterest

Mural.ly

Evernote

RealtimeBoard

It can also be as straightforward as collecting images from a keyword-based Google image search, and compiling them into a single Word or PPT doc.

Next time you tackle a project with unclear design or branding goals, consider putting together some moodboards (or working with your designer to do so). It’s a fun exploration, and can result in a much stronger final design.

Video Backgrounds in Web Design

Not everyone is doing it…yet. But video backgrounds in web design can be incredibly impactful and compelling in drawing the visitor into a brand. Longtime concerns over load times and usability are on the decline as web technologies improve every day, opening up new possibilities to creating an immersive brand experience online. Here are a few cool examples:

 

airbnb

We see guests waking up in their borrowed living spaces, exploring their environments, playing, having fun. The videos immediately communicate that the airbnb experience is an easy, safe, inviting home away from home for any kind of traveler.

 

airbnb

 

Gravitate

Local marketing agency Gravitate (Vancouver, WA) gives a little tour of its offices, a “day in the life of” kind of video. If I’m trying to decide between agencies, I already feel like I’ve had a tour of their office—it’s a very friendly invitation to call and set up a face-to-face.

 

gravitate

 

Cantina Valpolicella Negrar

This wine producer’s website will transport you—the grape leaves gently blow in the breeze on a sunny Italian hillside, providing perfect inspiration to learn more about the wine they produce (as if anyone really needs convincing when it comes to fine Italian wine…but I digress).

 

cantina

 

Dadaab Stories

Storytelling is where video enhancement shines, so what better place than on a site devoted to the telling of refugee stories. The background video puts the visitor right there in the refugee camp, immediately conveying that these are real people with meaningful stories to tell—stick around to explore, listen, learn.

 

dadaab

 

What do you think? Do video backgrounds add to the brand experience, or risk detracting from it? Would you consider using video more as part of your brand in the future? It’s fun to imagine the possibilities.

7 Tips for Pitching Ideas from Improv Comedy

Pitching Ideas

There is nothing more uncomfortable than watching bad improv comedy. Except perhaps watching someone crash and burn while pitching ideas during a business presentation. Especially if that person is you.

As written up by Fast Co’s Joe Berkowitz, master improvisational comic Jason Mantzoukas has developed seven tips for avoid comedic, or boardroom, failure. In a presentation, success depends on our ability to have others see our vision and to making audiences believe in your point of view. Here are Jason’s hard-learned tips for doing just that the next time you take the stage:

Switch up your pitch

It shows when you’re just selling the same bill of goods over and over. Customizing for each individual audience helps forge a connection.

“Everybody pitches differently,” Mantzoukas says. “The way I’ve kind of settled into it, which I like and works well for me, is I loosely prepare what I want to do, what the show—let’s say it’s a TV show—what the show is. Kind of the macro conversation. Mostly what I want to do when I go into a room is I want to talk to that person and have that individual conversation, so that for that meeting, that is the version of the pitch that exists. One singular version that is just me and that particular room of executives. ”

Be agile and read the room

It’s not enough to merely prepare original pitching ideas for each situation; you have to also have the spontaneity and flexibility to respond to what happens once your idea starts landing.

“It’s a very improvisational process,” Mantzoukas says. “Even though I know loosely what I want to talk about, I let the people’s responses dictate how I proceed. So if I start talking about a show, and I’m saying, you know, It’s a modern-western! It’s like a Deadwood or something, and the person’s like, ‘Oh I love Deadwood,’ then the show is definitely like Deadwood. Good friends of mine, they write their pitch out word for word and read it off of paper, so they can really get out exactly what their vision is. But if you were to accompany me to five pitches, you might hear what sounds like five different versions of the show I want to make, because it’s malleable. A lot of it is reading the room when you’re pitching—what are people giving you?—because that stuff’s important.”

Be collaborative

Don’t just listen to your audience’s feedback; incorporate it in your pitching ideas.

“When people contribute,whatever I’m getting from the person is what I’m gonna keep pursuing or walk away from,” Mantzoukas says. “But ideally what I’m pitching is an idea and characters, and how it lives in the future has yet to be fully determined. More than anything I want, when I walk out of that room, I want people to feel like we together just had this great meeting where we talked about this show that we’re all excited about. Rather than, ‘Oh, I just heard someone talk about something at me.’ I want it to have been more of a ‘with me’ conversation.

Jason Mantzoukas on stage in 2008. Photo: Flickr user Alex Erde

Jason Mantzoukas on stage in 2008. Photo: Flickr user Alex Erde

 

If it seems like you’ve lost them, acknowledge it

Anybody can invoke an attention span snag, but not everybody has the wherewithal to rise above it and when the audience has checked out.

“Sometimes the audience just checks out in improv shows, and sometimes that happens in meetings too,” Mantzoukas says. “I’ve been in meetings where someone has just pulled their Blackberry out and checked it. And then it’s like, ‘Oh, shit, this is not going well.’ I’m somebody who will call it out, the same way that one time when someone fell asleep in the front row of a show I was doing, I stopped the show so that we could all go and take a picture with the sleeping person. So I will call it out, in a way to be like, maybe I’ve gotten off-track, let me dial back in to what we should be talking about.”

If an idea needs more explanation, bring proof of concept

In the early 2000s, Mantzoukas had done a stage show with then-comedy partner Jessica St. Clair, called ‘I Will Not Apologize.’ It became so popular that they both got agents and managers from it, and soon had an opportunity to pitch a show around it.

“We had just been doing shows at the UCB Theater in Chelsea and nobody was coming to see us, and suddenly within six months we had agents, and people wanted to meet with us, and it was exciting,” he says. “So we wrote a TV pitch, we filmed a little four-minute teaser of what we wanted to do, with a bunch of friends at UCB at the time, and then we took it out and pitched it all around town. We played the video right in the room. We would talk about what we wanted to do, and then we would show this little video as an example of how it could work. It was partially because the idea was a little bit confusing to explain—it was like that show American High, except it ends up being more about the filmmakers than the students—and so to explain it took a couple of steps. So we just shot a couple of scenes to show how that would work. And Comedy Central bought it, so we wrote a pilot for them.”

Relate your pitch to their experiences

Another show Mantzoukas and St. Clair performed together, called “We Used to Go Out” received similar attention, and earned the pair another opportunity to pitch a TV show. This one hit so close to home that it both helped and hurt.

“It’s so much easier for people to come and watch your show before you walk into a room because that way they’re excited to talk about the show they saw,” he says. “This show was about a breakup, a whole hour of just this couple breaking up. And it’s really funny, but it’s also really sad and heartbreaking, so every meeting we walked into, all people did was tell us their breakup stories. Like, I was in two meetings where people cried in the meeting. Because something in our show resonated with them, and it made them want to tell us their story. They wanted to relay their similar experiences. One woman we were supposed to have the meeting with was like, ‘I saw your show, I loved it, I called you guys in here for a meeting because, well, I always date guys like [a jerk character in the show] and, well, what is it about people like him that is so captivating?’ She just wanted us to give her, like, therapy on her bad romantic choices, and that was wild. We got to make that pilot too.”

Be aggressive when necessary, and make choices

Auditions are like pitches where the pitching ideas you’re selling is you. As a final example of Jason Mantzoukas’s fearless approach to pitching, this is an account of his experience auditioning for a major role in the 2012 Sacha Baron Cohen movie, The Dictator, which he eventually won.

“In most auditions, you’re just given lines and you’re on tape. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have the people there. But this was a case where they purposefully wanted me to improvise, which I was very happy to do,” he says. “It was with Sacha, and that was intimidating because when I started doing comedy, people would get, like, VHS tapes of the British Ali G Show or his early stuff, and we were just blown away by it. So the idea that I would go in and just audition with him was super intimidating. I knew some of the major people involved, but Sacha was the only real wild card to me. The part was written very passive, which is tough to do much with in that environment. And I knew from talking with those guys that they wanted a strong improviser in the role, so I kind of figured I would show that I was a strong improviser, at the very least. And so I made a choice to make the character much more active and less passive.”

“I kind of ended up going at Sacha more aggressively, just to give us something to do,” Mantzoukas continues. “Just so I wasn’t taking abuse passively. And I could tell instantly that that was the right choice, because the more I pushed at him, he would come back at me twice as hard. Which was fun. And so, for like 20 minutes, we got into it, just going after each other—poking at each other, busting balls, half of it in character, half not. There’s a point in the thing where we’re both still in character but he’s criticizing the fact that I haven’t memorized the pages he’s given me. It starts to get very meta, and be about the audition itself. I felt like he enjoyed improvising with me, so at the very least when I walked out I felt like, I don’t know that I showed them the character they wanted, but I think I showed them I can hold my own improvising, which was important. It felt good.”