Can't Think of a Pitch? Try a Trope
Pitching is a big part of PR. It’s the act of reaching out to people in the media (reporters, podcasters, editors, etc.), introducing them to yourself or your company, and helping them find a perfect story – one that will attract readers while bringing your startup the attention you deserve.
And you’ve likely noticed that it’s hard. Reporters don’t want to write about you or your product in a vacuum. Before they decide if they want to write about it at all, they want to have context and to make it relevant to as many readers as possible.
That’s why pitching is hard. Doing it well takes time and practice. We feel your pain.
You have to research potential targets and their audiences to see who might want to cover you – and know what about your story is relevant to them.
You have to get enough distance from your startup to figure out what its most interesting stories are – and tell those stories in a way that puts you in a good light but without overt promotion.
And you have to figure out how to tell that story in a compelling way – in just a few words since reporters don’t like long pitches.
All that, of course, during a busy day of actually running your business.
I’m here today with good news: if you’re stuck on pitching, tropes offer a handy shortcut to new ideas.
Here’s how to think about tropes and how to use them to pitch your company’s story.
Tropes Make the New Familiar
When a startup describes itself as “the Uber of X,” it’s relying on a trope (though admittedly an overused one – more on that later).
We use tropes like this because they’re time savers: by referencing something familiar that your audience already understands (Uber), you’re able to reframe the unfamiliar thing (your company) within a larger context (its industry).
Tropes are the “standing on the shoulders of giants” of journalism (which, for those of you playing along at home, was itself a trope).
We know tropes work because we see them all the time as headlines. Reporters often use tropes to communicate a lot of information in a tiny amount of space.
When you see a title like The 7 Deadly Sins of Retirement Planning, you immediately understand that the article will explain things you absolutely shouldn’t do if you don’t want your retirement to be hell.
… Sometimes Too Familiar
Be warned, though: when it comes to tropes, there’s a fine line between “useful” and “overused.”
When tropes are repeated too often, they slip into the realm of cliché, at which point our minds gloss over them because they’re so familiar, which is not useful in pitching.
At this point, it’s safe to say “the Uber of X” is off the table. Ditto for “X is the new Y” and any assertion of “taking x to the next level.”
But there are still plenty of tropes out there to use when you pitch. Here are a few I’ve seen work.
Tropes to Try
Next time you’re having trouble fitting your company’s story into a concise pitch, try one of these handy tropes:
What X Can Teach Us About Y, where Y is a topic unrelated to X
- What it does: Ties together two topics that seem to be unrelated
- Why it works: The juxtaposition automatically creates interest, making readers want to click and read
- Example: What Kylie Jenner Can Teach Us About M&A
The Future of X: A Conversation with Y, where X is an industry and Y is a founder in that industry
- What it does: Promises to predict the future
- Why it works: We all like a good prediction, especially from an expert
- Example: The Future of Payments: A Conversation with Hassan Ahmed of Venmo
(This) X Startup Wants You to Y, where X is an adjective and Y is an action (the more outrageous, funny, surprising, or ostentatious, the better)
- What it does: Establishes clear desires for a main character (the startup)
- Why it works: It taps into our love of storytelling. This structure is basically the whole premise of fiction: following characters as they get closer to and farther away from what they want.
- Example: Millennial Booze Startup Haus Wants You to Ditch the Aperol Spritz
The X’s Guide to Y, where X is a relatable label (millennial, misfit, nerd, entrepreneur) and Y is anything at all
- What it does: Promises targeted and useful information
- Why it works: This trope makes an incredibly clear promise; if you’re targeting the right audience (i.e., someone it can benefit), you’ll likely strike a chord
- Example: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to World-Class Customer Service
Your Most Important X May Be Y, where X is something your audience values and Y is some descriptor indicating that it’s not being valued
- What it does: Strikes fear into its audience’s hearts
- Why it works: Classic FUD – fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Too much of this can get old, but a little strategic FUD can be a great way to get people’s attention
- Example: Your Most Important Workplace Benefit May Be the Most Overlooked
They Were Trying to X. Instead They Y-ed, where X is a verb and Y is a completely different verb.
- What it does: Again, this trope sets up clear wants for a main character, while also hinting that things don’t go as planned (i.e., creating conflict, another key element of storytelling).
- Why it works: In addition to giving us some really interesting stakes to latch onto, the juxtaposition of the unrelated things intrigues us
- Example: He Was Looking for Opals. Instead He Found a New Dinosaur Species
The X is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It, where X is anything big or small
- What it does: Makes a bold claim and promises new ideas
- Why it works: We all want the world to work better. People who come up with ways to make that happen are exciting.
- Example: The Welfare State Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It
X Is Big Business, and Ys Are Z-ing, where X is something surprising, Y is people in a given industry, and Z is something they’re doing
- What it does: Offers new information about a familiar topic
- Why it works: We all want to be better informed; this structure promises that we will be
- Example: Drones Are Big Business, and Chicago Firms Are Diving In
The X Who Founded Y, where X is a type of hobbyist and Y is something impressive
- What it does: Offers a human interest angle to a business story
- Why it works: We all like stories about people; plus, again, the juxtaposition of unrelated topics is compelling.
- Example: The Tae Kwon Do Blackbelt Who Runs the Nasdaq
This X Is Doing Y, where X is a profession and Y is something interesting they’re doing
- What it does: Offers straightforward insight into something that’s happening
- Why it works: For one, it’s basic storytelling. For another, the “This” construction offers a sense of immediacy that tends to resonate and signals to the readers that it’s a personal story.
- Example: This Scientist Is Creating Fictional Asteroids to Save Humanity from Armageddon
What Xes Are Saying About Y, where X is a type of professional or expert and Y is a news story
- What it does: Offers an expert or industry-specific take on current events
- Why it works: It promises a look beyond the headlines at how events are affecting various groups
- Example: What Agents Are Saying About Zillow’s Self-Guided Home Tours
Besides these examples, you may also want to consider seasonal tropes (“Spring Cleaning Your Portfolio”), holiday tropes (A Cryptocurrency Carol: The Ghosts of Bitcoins Present), and tropes that play on familiar groups of things (the good, the bad, and the ugly; the 10 commandments, the seven deadly sins, etc.).
Other Ways to Land the Pitch
Like any tool, tropes won’t work in every situation. If you’re looking for other ways to get your story out there, see how startups have found success: