What are some ways to avoid anxiety before pitching your screenplay?
Your new agent or manager has arranged meetings for you around town.
You've won a screenwriting contest or fellowship and have the opportunity to pitch your screenplay to some Hollywood insiders.
Or maybe you've traveled to a film festival and have purchased tickets to take part in a writers conference where you're allowed to pitch to agents, managers, development executives, and producers.
You have an opportunity to get your foot into that Hollywood door that never seems to open for you otherwise. But there's one problem — you're kind of freaking out.
Your anxiety has been spiking every day and hour leading up to the pitch. Now it's game time. You're just minutes away. Your palms are sweaty. Your voice hasn't cracked this much since middle school. Your mouth is dry. The butterflies in your stomach are turning into violent pterosaurs. Your bladder is toying with you. You are chastising yourself for getting into this mess when you could be sitting at home, safe, behind your laptop screen.
Anxiety is common among everyone — even those that seem calm, cool, and collected under pressure. It doesn't matter if it's a job interview, a sales presentation, or a screenplay pitch. Everyone is plagued with some form of anxiety leading up to the big moment.
“When we perceive that we are in a high stakes situation, the brain doesn't distinguish the high stakes of a job interview — where it would help to be calm, cool and collected — from the high stakes of being under threat from attack (say, from a tiger),” says Dr. Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety. “The body responds the same way — gearing up to run or fight for our lives. We experience a myriad of highly inconvenient and uncomfortable reactions which would make complete sense if there really were a tiger there.”
And to screenwriters, that's what a pitch session is — a job interview. In your mind, it's a high stakes situation — a moment that you feel could make or break your screenwriting career.
In your eyes, a successful pitch could mean a dream come true, bills that could be paid, financial security, and the ability to make a living doing something you truly love.
In your eyes, a failed pitch could mean money and time wasted, a heart broken, a soul shattered, being stuck in a job you hate, and low self-esteem. It could even force you to decide whether or not this venture is worth all of this rejection.
Take comfort in knowing that all of these thoughts — good or bad — are nothing more than your mind and your survival instincts trying to regulate this anxiety and fear that you are feeling.
You imagine best-case scenarios to get your motivation in line. You also imagine worst-case scenarios to prepare yourself for disappointment.
Regardless, anxiety sucks. But it's manageable. You can overcome it. And if you can't overcome it, you can manage it enough to survive those scary minutes. With that in mind, here are ten ways to curb your anxiety before that big meeting or big pitch.
1. Be Prepared, Then Let That Preparation Go
First and foremost, you need to be prepared for your pitch. You can't simply go in there and wing it. So do your homework, know your script, know your story, know your characters, know the genre, and know your writing strengths.
Develop a strong logline and know how to elaborate with a longer synopsis.
Read ScreenCraft's How To Write Effective Loglines!
Start with a paperback synopsis, which usually consists of three short paragraphs or so — representing the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Then have an extended synopsis with more details — story beats, character moments, twists, turns, and reveals — in case they want to learn more. Treat the pitch like a three-act story of its own where you open with the title, then the logline, and then into the synopsis.
Practice a 2-5 minute pitch with those details at work — to the point where you can recite it in your sleep. Rehearse the pitch with a friend or peer and have them ask you questions that may come up within the actual pitch.
And then let all of that go.
You've trained your mind to the point where it's second nature. You've honed your reflexes to the point where reciting those details is like breathing. It becomes second nature.
The anxiety leading up to the pitch grows if you continue to practice, practice, and practice your pitch. You begin to question whether you'll remember the details. You begin to wonder what will happen if you miss a beat. If you don't let all of that preparation go as the pitch nears, your anxiety levels will skyrocket as you try to remember everything. And then even if you do hit each and every beat, you may likely come off as overly rehearsed and unauthentic.
Let it go. Trust your preparation. Trust that you know your story and let your passion for it ignite those reflexes.
2. Laugh with a Friend, Peer, or Family Member Beforehand
Laughter is a proven natural form of medicine, releasing those "feel-good" chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are released during exercise and naturally fight off depression. And better yet, they kill levels of stress hormones and anxiety.
So before the pitch, spend some time with someone that can make you laugh. If you're at a writers conference or film festival, have a fun breakfast or lunch beforehand (eat and drink lightly though). If you don't have time for that, settle for a phone call on your way to the meeting — or as you wait.
Laughing with someone you know — and are comfortable with — can ease that anxiety once those endorphins are released.
3. Arrive Early
Much of the anxiety that occurs before a pitch is the result of the build-up to the moment. Arrive at least thirty minutes early (but don't go to the direct location). Now you've eliminated the worry about getting dressed, being late, finding a parking spot, and whatever else could go wrong in a time crunch.
When you're early, anxiety levels cool down. Take a stroll around the location. Let your mind wander. Use the time to center yourself within. A majority of your nerves will calm once you're in charge of at least part of the situation where things like traffic, parking availability, and any other number of stressors are eliminated.
4. Stay Off Email and Social Media
As a society, we are tempted to kill time by browsing our email and social media channels. As we all know, email and social media are full of anxiety triggers and distractions.
Why draw your mind away from the task at hand by distracting it with politics, news, life responsibilities, work emails, and funny pet videos?
Instead, take the time to just be.
5. Hit the Bathroom, for Two (or Three) Reasons
Anxiety puts everything in flux. It plays not only with your emotions but with your body as well. There are obviously two things you can accomplish in the bathroom — you've been doing them your whole life, so no need to elaborate.
Once you have "regulated" your system, take some time to look into the mirror. Stare into your soul. Remember that life is good, no matter what the outcome, and feel blessed that you have this opportunity. Smile and tell yourself, "You've got this."
6. Have Confident Body Language
In her TED Talk Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are, Amy Cuddy points out that "our bodies change our minds, and our minds change our behavior, and our behavior changes our outcomes."
When we get into job interviews and pitch sessions, we try to make our bodies feel small. It's that survival instinct where you think that maybe if they don't "see" you, you'll survive this situation. Then your anxieties — that negative energy flowing through you with no destination — forces you to clasp your hands, breathe faster, talk faster, and shift positions in your seat.
Confident body language, even if it feels fake, can curb that negative energy you feel from anxiety. Stand confident when you enter the room. Be the first to instigate that strong handshake. Smile that big smile and start the conversation first by asking, "How's your day going so far?"
Sit upright and open. Use your hands as you pitch. Be animated.
When you focus on this type of body language, your confidence will spike — even if you're faking that confidence at first.
And Cuddy offers an excellent two-minute pre-pitch ritual — the superhero pose. It's a true power pose. The opposite of anxiety. Stand tall, back straight, and place your hands on your hips with your elbows jutting out as if you’re standing on top of the world and observing everything in your domain. Breathe in and breathe out. This ritual — which can be done in the privacy of a hotel room, bathroom, parking ramp, or any secluded corner you can find — gets you into that confident mindset. Then take that into the pitch with you.
7. Breathe and "Flip the Switch"
When you are in a stressful situation, and that fight or flight instinct is engaged, your breathing increases dramatically. This forces you to take quick and more shallow breaths. When you do that, your speech is affected, forcing you to talk faster, which can lead you to talk more quickly than your mind can process the information that you are trying to communicate. A way to combat this is by breathing in deeply.
Deep breathing releases oxygen into your blood system, working as a natural relaxant.
Before your pitch, take some deep breaths to calm that anxiety. During the pitch, you'll have opportunities to naturally take in some deep breaths as they ask you questions. Take advantage of that time.
Before you walk into that pitch session, taking a single deep breath allows you to also "flip the switch" — so to speak — as you take on your confident posture, body language, and fake that confidence you need to get through the pitch.
You can also find another physical movement or alteration to help mentally "flip the switch" within as well.
Maybe you roll up your sleeves, undo a dress shirt button, loosen your tie, pull your hair back, clench and unclench your fists, etc. Maybe it's even a word or phrase you say to yourself.
Before any industry meeting, my ritual is taking a deep breath before I go in as I quietly say to myself, "F*** it." That's how I flip my switch.
Such activities, especially if they become a ritual, can activate your mind, body, and spirit to act and react in specific positive ways.
8. Make It a Conversation, Not a Sales Pitch
We've all experienced good and bad salespeople, whether they are selling us a car, a house, or a TV. The worst ones are those that are clearly delivering an overly obvious rehearsed sales pitch — it's like nails on a chalkboard. They think you're a sucker. The best ones are those that don't try to sell you on anything. They just talk to you. They have a conversation. And within that conversation, they drop some details, ask some questions, and share their own likes and dislikes.
You know your story. You know your characters. You've done the prep work. Now you get to talk about all of that to someone that likely shares the same interests — movies and television.
You need to treat your pitch as less of a wooden and rehearsed sales presentation and more as a conversation with a like-minded individual. Give them the title and logline, accompanied by some additional elaboration, and inject some conversational beats within all of that, including questions you pose to them and bringing up similar movies and shows that you love.
It's a conversation, not a sales pitch.
9. Mentally Bring Them Down to Your Level
It doesn't matter if they are an agent, manager, executive, or producer. It doesn't matter what movie titles they have on their resume. It doesn't matter what clients they have on their Hollywood roster.
The person you are pitching to went to grade school, high school, and maybe college. They struggled to pay their bills. They struggled to get that industry job. They have families of their own. They spill coffee on their clothes, they stub their toes, and sometimes they have stuff hanging out of their nose — just like you.
They're people — ordinary people — in a somewhat extraordinary job. At least in your eyes.
Treat them with respect, but don't put them on any pedestal.
When you realize this truth, your anxiety levels will go down because you won't be facing this intimidating Hollywood beast — you'll be having a conversation with someone that loves movies and television just like you.
10. Embrace What the Fates Decide
A majority of the anxiety that you are feeling is created solely from within you. There are little to no outside factors that dictate that you should be freaking out.
When you think that this pitch is a make it or break it situation, you're creating the anxiety. When you put that type of weight onto your shoulders, the pressure mounts, and the anxiety boils.
The truth is, you have no control over how they react to your pitch. Their reaction is subjective because they will bring in their own likes and dislikes. Their reaction is also objective because the company they are working for or running has their own agenda as far as what types of projects they are and are not willing to pursue.
So take that pressure off of your shoulders. All that you can do is go talk about your script for five, ten, twenty, or thirty minutes. If they want it, outstanding. If not, move onto the next with a content smile.
The fates will decide the rest.
Anxiety is a pain in the ass. But it's manageable.
Be overly prepared, but then let that preparation go and rely on your embedded instincts and reflexes to do the work. Have a laugh with someone you're close to, allowing those endorphins to manage the physical science of your anxiety. Get there early, so you have no other stressors affecting your situation — and then stay off of your email and social media to avoid even more.
Hit the bathroom beforehand to regulate your body and center yourself with a look in the mirror as you strike that superhero pose and take that confident posture and body language into the pitch. Take those deep breaths before and during the pitch, using that oxygen as a natural relaxant. Then make that final switch to the confident you that's going to slay this meeting.
Have a conversation with them, instead of performing a rehearsed spiel. Remember that they're a person just like you. They sweat, they bleed, they go to the bathroom, and they have anxieties of their own. And finally, take that pressure off of your shoulders by remembering that what is meant to happen will happen.
You'll do great! Have fun!
If you are headed to a writers conference or film festival anytime soon, Read ScreenCraft's How to Network & Pitch at Pitch Fests, Film Festivals, and Industry Events!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies