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Six Pitching Lessons from the Dragons’ Den

Dragons’ Den was a surprise hit for BBC2, and (along with The Apprentice) made business programmes sexy and aspirational. Watching the would-be entrepreneurs pitch is an uncomfortable experience, especially for those of us who have pitched to commissioning dragons.

The spin-off book  Dragons’ Den: Success from Pitch to Profit, is a book that profiles the dragons and examines case studies of people who have successfully or unsuccessfully pitched in the den. If you read it with your development head on it has a number of lessons that can be applied to the development and pitching of factual TV programmes.

by The Shane Hby The Shane H

Know the international market.
Many producers see formats as the holy grail of programme development because they can sell the format rights around the world – if you manage to pull it off, it’s much more lucrative than making a show in just one country.

What if you don’t have a format of your own to sell? You could find a successful format and put a different spin on it. The trouble is that a look-a-like programme is never quite as successful as the original. Commissioners do commission them, as they are a safe bet, they are most often heard asking for ‘fresh, new’ ideas.

Fresh, new ideas are hard to come by – but imagine if you could offer them something that had a proven track record and was fresh and new?

Enter Dragons’ Den – originally a Japanese format that aired (in a different form) on Nippon TV as Money no Tora (Money Tiger).

Subscribe to The Wit to research and keep abreast of international formats.

First impressions are important.

“When someone comes up the stairs in the Den I look first at their presentation – how they look, how they speak, how concise they are, are they getting the key messages about their product or service across?” Peter Jones

“I would say that 95% of the time, I have made up my mind within the first minute.”Theo Paphitis

If you have a longstanding relationship with a commissioner you don’t need to worry too much about how you present yourself or your ideas – they probably accepted and embraced your eccentricities many years ago.

However, if you are just starting out, or are pitching to a new channel or commissioner for the first time, you need to put a little more effort into your presentation. You have three opportunities to (fail to) impress them:

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1.Professional –

  • Turn up on time, introduce yourself and your company.
  • A short show reel of the programmes you’ve made can help to reassure a new commissioner that you have the experience and credentials to make the programme you are proposing.
  • Make sure you’ve watched their channels and are familiar with their programmes. Know where and why your idea fits in their schedule.
by TooFarNorthby TooFarNorth

2. Proposal

  • Keep it short. Many commissioners won’t read past the first paragraph. You’ve got about 40 seconds to impress the rest.
  • Make it relevant – they need to know the who, what, where, when and why of your idea not a scene-by-scene breakdown.
  • Spell check it and get someone to check your grammar if you’re unsure where apostrophes should go.
  • Make sure you put your contact details are on the proposal.
by Brian Teutschby Brian Teutsch

3.Pitch –

  • Be clear about what it is you’re pitching – is it a docudrama, makeover or reality show? Once they know that the approach is a good fit for their schedule they can relax into your pitch. It’s irritating to sit through a long pitch only to find out at the end that it is a drama when you only commission ob docs.
  • It can be good to start with an anecdote, but don’t ramble on. Get to the point.
  • Tell them what they need to know – What will the audience see/feel/learn? Who are the characters? Have you secured access? Is there a presenter? What are their credentials?

Be passionate about your project.

“One of the signs as to whether a particular investment is worth the risk is whether the entrepreneur presenting the idea has that particular confidence, that certain spark that shows me they are desperate for it to succeed.” Richard Farleigh

If you are pitching an idea that is unusual, or slightly outside of a channel’s usual remit resist the temptation to start the pitch with “you probably won’t like this, but…”.

You can sway a commissioner to greenlight a slightly riskier idea if they feel that you are really invested in the project and will drive it through – enthusiasm and passion are infectious. If you don’t believe in it, why should they? Remember – they’ve probably got to go and sell the idea to their boss or the channel head – you need to fire them up so they are as excited as you are.

Demonstrate your idea.

Television is a visual medium, so it makes sense show the commissioner some pictures, so they can actually ‘see’ the idea. In some cases photos will do, in others, you will only do your idea justice if you make a pitch tape.

Dragons’ Den: Success from Pitch to Profit doesn’t convey any of the tension or drama of the TV programme, and would be a hard sell on paper. However, a 3-minute tape that showed a pitch would make it a much more compelling proposition (if you are pitching a foreign format you already have something to show).

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Be prepared for difficult questions.

“I never cease to be astonished by the numbers of people who turn up and fail to tick the basic boxes…do your homework and know your business and there is nothing that will come up that you won’t be able to answer with style.” Theo Paphitis

Every time a commissioner greenlights a programme they are taking a risk. They are looking for reasons not to commission your idea.

Red flags will go up if there might be any budget, legal, access, casting, schedule or compliance issues. Make sure you have addressed these in your pitch or are prepared to be quizzed afterwards.

Before you pitch, run your idea past your executive producer, production manager, technical support or multiplatform team to make sure there aren’t any glaring holes in your proposal.

Some pitches can break all the rules and still be successful.

“Try and shove a square thing in a round hole sometimes because if you don’t do that you never try new things!” Levi Roots, inventor of Reggae Reggae sauce.

If you want to stay in business, you need a steady stream of commissions, so it’s wise to pitch the kind of ideas you know the channel wants.

Developing the more off-the-wall ideas is what makes Development interesting, and the breakout shows are often the ones that seemed too risky.

And all new producers have to start somewhere – having the guts to pitch an idea can be all it takes to get someone to say yes.

Levi Roots became a Dragons’ Den legend after he sang his pitch for his Reggae Reggae sauce. He thought he had no chance of winning investment, as Dragons’ Den wasn’t a place for people like him because, “black people were not going to win”.

Afterwards,  Levi said, “You’ve got to be in it to win it. And I decided to be in it, and I won it”.

Learn from your failures.

“You learn more from the ones that don’t work than from the ones that do…the experience of failure is sometimes more valuable than the experience of success.”James Caan

If your idea is turned down, take a moment to work out what was wrong, and then fix it.

Did you pitch to the wrong person at the channel? Find out who is the right person and set up a meeting

Did you pitch to the wrong channel? Do some homework and find a channel that is a better fit.

Is your idea unworkable? Sort out the talent / access / budget / legal issues and try again.

Is your idea just no good – too derivative or too dull? Kill it and start again with a new idea.

For more lessons from the Dragons’ Den:

Watch Dragons’ Den: Series 2

Read Dragons’ Den: Success from pitch to profit

See also:

How to Write a Proposal a Commissioner Will Actually Read

Where to Pitch Your Idea (and Avoid the Commissioners)

Six Ways to Allay Your Commissioning Editor’s Fears and Get the Greenlight for your TV Programme

Get more development and pitching tips in Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch


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