Broadcasting Basics, Part 1
“This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 1, scene 3
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
– Lawrence Kasdan/Leigh Brackett The Empire Strikes Back
There’s a lot we can learn from both Polonius and Yoda about asking people for money over the radio.
Honesty is not just a virtue when it comes to pitching. It is absolutely necessary. If you do not believe in what you are asking people to support you will not be convincing. Pledge Pitching is no place for doubters, and, so, we would do well to take the advice of Polonius to Laertes, and start from a place of honesty. We can joke about faking sincerity but our audience is perceptive enough to see through that and feel insulted.
Another key to success in on-air pitching is as simple as it is difficult. It’s a lot like learning to walk. At first toddlers stumble around a lot and frequently fall as they slowly learn how to coordinate muscles, tendons, joints, and the various mechanics of balance. For a human being to successfully take a step in any direction many parts of the body and mind must act in perfect coordination without conscious thought or mental effort. Intellect is not involved. In fact, trying to walk by thinking about everything required to take a step is nearly impossible.
Can you cause neurons to fire in certain ways by an act of will? Of course you can’t. Fortunately your brain is wired so that the moment to moment business of operating the body is taken care of by those parts not needed for thinking. This only works if the thinking parts stay out of the way so that things like breathing, walking, hearing, seeing, etc., can take place in good order. Your intellectual self must trust your non-intellectual self to manage the physical things your body is required to do moment by moment.
On-air fundraising, pledge pitching if you will, operates the same way. You must trust yourself to deliver the message without having to think about technique. This is, of course, an oversimplification but I believe the premise is sound. Yoda told Luke to get out of his own way and give up trying to control his actions intellectually. Good advice for all of us.
Trying to pitch is a recipe for failure. Pledge Pitching involves getting out of your own way. Don’t try to deliver the script. Deliver the message. Yes, we can work on mechanics; things like avoiding certain phrases and focusing on others, verbal tics, and other mundane technical items, but first and foremost pitching must be both honest and, for lack of a better term, organic. Do or do not. There is no try.
Preparation is important. Familiarity with the message is crucial. Not just the language, but the meaning. What does it mean when we say that listeners are our most important funding source? We say that line over and over again, and it is certainly true. But what does it mean to you in the moment? Who are you talking to? The term “listener” is abstract. You’re talking to individual people. Prepare yourself to pitch by thinking about listeners as individuals who partake of radio by themselves, and who have given you permission to ask them for money simply by having made the choice to tune in.
The rationale for looking at pledge pitching material ahead of time is not just about mastering the mechanics of who talks when (don’t get me wrong – structure is vitally important for successful pledge breaks), or making sure you get every word on the page delivered exactly as it is written (if you’re using scripts, which I strongly recommend). The most important reason for looking at what you’re going to say ahead of time is to make sure that you understand the message. Since it isn’t practical to write scripts for each individual pitcher it is up to the pitchers to make up for that by shaping the material to their own personality and style.
Rehearsal helps people feel comfortable with the material and provides a sense of security which in turn makes it easier to approach the message in a much more natural and (seemingly) unscripted way. If all we needed to do was to say the words we could probably find a text-to-speech computer program to handle on-air pitching and save everyone a lot of work.
Ridiculous? Of course. Our listeners are human beings like ourselves and they need to hear the message from us that we value the same things they value about public radio. If they don’t get the message that we’re as passionate about public radio as they are they will have doubts about supporting us. Pitching is about reinforcing trust and a sense of common interests. The language matters, of course, but by itself it isn’t likely to persuade. You need to deliver the message with heart felt conviction. This is not to minimize the importance of words, but without an understanding of the message and without emotional honesty words alone are not effective.
The bottom line is that in order to be an effective pledge pitcher you need to start by trusting yourself. Why did you get into public radio in the first place? Why have you stayed in it? How do you see your station’s place in the community? What’s important about your station from the listener’s perspective? What do they get out of this? Keep these things top of mind as you interpret your pledge script and deliver its fundamental message.
Get out of your own way or risk falling on your face.