Early in my pitch-writing career, I had an editor named David Wolf, who ran an art glossy called Pediment. Like many writer-editor relationships, ours was limited to email correspondences, and maddening in its combination of intimacy and distance. David and I would delve into finely nuanced conversations about voice, criticality, and description. And then, just as suddenly as it began, our communication would break off for months. It was no one’s fault. That’s just how magazine writing works. Writers take one another’s places in an unending cycle, as the editor struggles to give them the attention that we know or think we deserve. Emboldened by the confidence of youth, I certainly figured I deserved a lot. So, in order to make it nearly impossible for David to ignore my pitches, I’d send four or five in one email. It was that thing about throwing many ideas at a wall. Something’s bound to stick eventually.
Back then, ten years ago, I’d write my pitches in a glass-walled Vancouver cafe called Jerry’s. I wish that I had kept a log of the time I spent on Jerry’s torn pleather seats. I could stretch one Americano out for like five hours. Every so often I’d poke at the croissant going stale in front of my eyes. Sometimes I gazed out the window, through the shifting reflections, the crystal skyscrapers downtown and the mountains behind them. I wanted to make a contribution. I wanted to do good writing. And pitching was the way to make these things happen. But periodically I fantasized about fame. I imagined how, in the distant future, my collected work might be published as a book. My pitch emails could be included in this book. Maybe they would even require a separate book! It could be called The Pitch Writer. Big and thick like the yellow pages. A monument to failed ideas.
One thing I remember very clearly is how it felt to wait for David’s responses. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
The word I want to use is terror. Too strong maybe. I mean I’m talking about art here not car bombs. But then again maybe the word fits. Because when we get down to the grist of the matter I’m also talking about staying alive. In the head and heart, you know? The paradox of a magazine writing career is that in absolutely colonizing your mind, it also keeps it alive. This is why pitching ideas to magazines feels like pitching oneself to other human beings. You can’t pitch an idea without also pitching yourself. The idea is you. You become the work. Gotta give the people what they want. And what they want is you. Except when they don’t.
Pitching boils down to a simple question: Here is an idea I have just had; would you like to take it? The question seems so utterly harmless. And yet so much hangs on it.
I am a very confident person you see. I must be, to have asked this question so many times. I must be, to have gotten all this writing done.
Right, ok, let’s take that as being true. But then why does this feeling never leave my grey matter and flesh? An incessant, roiling, cortisol flow. If I had to translate this feeling, I’d make a list of questions:
Did I say something wrong?
Am I too much?
Am I enough?
Did I get the context right? The history? Do I even have a clue what the fuck I’m talking about?
And then into the nitty-gritty details: What about my voice — the pitch of my pitch?
Fucking hell here we go.
What if I say I love this thing, this artwork, this artist?
What if I told you that I woke up at night thinking about it? Thinking about them?
Then would I have said too much, gone too far?
And if I hate it and tell you so?
Suppose I said I haven’t thought about art all summer. Suppose I admitted how blissful this has been?
So… Too much? Too many questions?
Now a recurring memory. An eminent poet is giving a talk somewhere and I’m listening. The eminent poet quotes another poet who wrote incredibly: ‘You save me with your too much.’ I have searched for the origin of those seven words probably five times and have never found them. Maybe the eminent poet just made it up. Maybe I’m just making everything up too.
Head swirling now inside the too much.
That’s the feeling!
Same one that comes with waiting for the emails.
Or text messages. Like a hormonal teenager with eyes drilled on those three little dots at the bottom of the screen. Dot dot dot… Dot dot dot… A cardiogram heartbeat fucking terrifying. Except I haven’t been a teenager for eighteen years. So what gives?
Nerves like frayed piano wire. Wanting to almost puke because shit shit shit fuck fuck fuck maybe I’ve really blown it this time. Opportunity gone. Career too. That means livelihood. But don’t you dare let on! Because that would definitely be the end. And maybe you can pull your fat from the fire if you just be cool baby. Like you don’t even care. But not caring would be worse than anything.
- Elevator Pitch (The Dissociative Moment)
On the day that Michael accessed Craig’s video online, he was sitting in the cafeteria at Berlin’s National Library, working on a new exhibition review. A bowl of potato soup sat in front of him, on the rectangular plastic tray, along with several packages of salt and pepper. When Michael had first started eating at the library cafeteria one year ago, he’d had it in his head that German food was flavourless. So every day, he’d stir a handful of salt and paper into the mushy soup. Eventually Michael’s lips and tongue had started hurting. The extra salt sucked the moisture form his mouth, and inflicted hundreds of tiny incisions in its soft pink tissue.
As Michael stirred, he opened the Youtube video of Craig’s lecture. Craig, the man on screen, aged about forty-five, makes his living as a motivational speaker, and career coach. He wears the haircut of a boy groping for maturity. His hair is sandy brown and short, and at the front rises into a little wave, which breaks over his pink forehead. This cowlick is almost certainly reinforced with gel or wax. And it sends a message: Craig might have just rolled out of bed. But don’t worry, he’s in control even when he’s not.
This man-child knows how to sell himself, Michael thought, as he watched Craig speak. At least, Craig knows how to show you how to sell yourself. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks. Today Craig is speaking to a lecture hall of music students at a small university in the United States. He’s telling the students about The Art of the Elevator Pitch.
Craig’s word’s command attention because they are very charming (as he notices this Michael thinks suddenly of murder, but knows it is unlikely that Craig has done such a thing). Once in a while, the lecture veers unexpectedly off course. But even these brushes with failure seem like part of the show. Because you never really doubt that Craig will steer his words — his own pitch — back on track. A self-deprecating quip is all it takes to regain the audience.
But there is another reason, Michael notices, that Craig’s words command attention. Namely, there is absolutely nothing else about Craig that could distract from them. Sure he’s handsome-ish. But he’s also basically forgettable. Just like his off the rack navy blazer, sky blue dress shirt, khaki slacks, silver watch, and wedding ring. Michael tries to imagine Craig becoming uncomfortable in any environment and can’t. That’s confidence boy. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine Craig actually being in any environment, including this lecture theatre. As convincing as he is, the truth is that he’s not here at all. His smoothness — inclusive of his exquisite awkwardness— is finely polished nothingness. Like a pasty smiling ghost.
At first, Michael figured Craig for an idiot. Or not an idiot exactly but at least a two-bit snake-oil peddler. That was, until he noticed himself listening a little too closely; taking a little too seriously Craig’s wisdom on how to deliver the pitch, sell the idea, cast the spell.
Parallel processes were running in Michael’s brain. There was the part of his mind that thinks it knows that this guy Craig is a deceitful bullshit artist. But then just beneath that layer of thinking was another. In this slightly hidden layer, Michael had begun notating Craig’s points, logging little tips about how to sell his own ideas: articles about art, exhibition reviews, ideas for interviews and books. ‘Shit,’ Michael said to himself almost involuntarily. ‘That’s a pretty good idea. Maybe I could use that. I know I could use that.’
The trick was to be confident but not aggravatingly so. That was the balance in which success hung. That’s how you get the job done. That’s how the pitch lands.
When Michael became conscious of his doubled perception of Craig, the realization came as a bit of a shock. But only a bit. This thing about the brain doing multiple, seemingly contradictory jobs at once, had become routine. And anyway this guy Craig was clearly on to something. It didn’t really matter if his advice worked. The point was that he was the one up there dispensing it.
. . .
At one point, about ten minutes into his presentation, Craig begins illustrating a particularly important point. He does so by recalling a conversation with a Business student, who presumably attended a previous version of this same motivational talk.
‘So I was talking with an MBA student,’ Craig says to the music students in front of him. ‘And I said: so, tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your greatest accomplishment?’
This is important information to include in any pitch, especially an elevator pitch. Craig tells this to the attentively watching students, before returning to his anecdote about the business student. His magic emanates from masterful incongruity; the transitions between his telling of the story and his engagement with the present audience are at once sharply annunciated and impossibly smooth. There is no space for interruption or confusion. The information flows from his mouth like a daisy chain.
‘So I said what’s your most meaningful accomplishment and the business student indecisively says “weellll…”’
Here Craig pauses, emphasizing the business student’s moment of indecision. Whereas the business student delayed his answer because of anxious nerves, Craig delays because he understands the power of language’s negative space. He wields it like a conductor’s wand.
‘…I graduated in three years’ says the student finally to Craig.
To which Craig replies ‘Me too!’ Craig’s fingers are splayed lightly across his chest, conveying surprise and pleasure at this moment of sympathy between him and the business student.
‘Me too,’ he repeats. ‘Me too!’ But the moment of mutual identification is only a foil. Craig has an ulterior motive. And this is where his lecture gets deceptively vicious. He wants to underline the banality of the business student’s accomplishment. In this way, he will push and inspire the students to find more effective language with which to make their ‘accomplishment more meaningful to the listener.’ And so Craig replies to the business student’s boast:
The two words are a punch in a silk glove. With words, Craig has moved like a boxer, baiting the student with a feinted moment of sympathy before delivering a crashing right cross. You can almost see the business student’s sweat glands opening, their face going red. This is tough love. But in the end, it will make the pitch better, stronger, more convincing. In the end, it will sharpen the student’s confidence, take the edge off their nerves, numb them. So Craig punches again. He repeats the two words:
At this point, Craig turns his palms to the sky and flares them out at his sides like a cheeky bird. The tremendous force of his condescension is delivered smooth like physical comedy. Repeating the ‘so what?’ Craig focuses on the letter ‘a’. Almost involuntarily he stretches that letter out. By way of this slight adjustment of a vowel, the question becomes playfully snarky, and the punches land harder.
‘So whaaaat? So whaaaat?’
With that, Craig turns back to his real-life audience, the music students. For all intents and purposes, they have become equivalent to the business students who Craig usually speaks to.
Michael watches. On the one hand, he’s revolted by smarmy Craig. On the other hand, he’s captivated by the certainty on display. These two hands, his simultaneous repulsion and attraction, work together whether he likes it or not. The students on the screen were learning how to sink the hook, how to deliver the pitch. And so was he. At that moment he thought again, as he had years ago in Vancouver, about publishing a book consisting solely of his pitches, big and thick like the yellow pages.
Mitch Speed is an artist and writer based in Berlin. His book about Mark Leckey’s 1999 video artwork Fiorruci Made Me Hardcore, was published Afterall Books in Autumn 2019. Last year he presented a solo exhibition of his work at Wil Aballe Art Projects, in Vancouver.