The other night I was watching "Face Off" - yes, I know, it's a reality show and therefore the enemy of all writers. What can I say? It's a guilty pleasure. For the uninitiated, it's a competition show for special effects make-up artists. If you've never seen it, it is worth checking out just for grins.
Anyway, at the end of each show the best and worst make-up looks are presented to the panel of judges. The first thing the judges say is, "Tell me about what you've done." Invariably, the contestants with the best looks ALSO have the best story. For instance, in the last episode one contestant said something like, "Well, it was supposed to be an homage to the Twin Towers, so he has pieces of the buildings on his arms and legs," and on and on. The make-up was as compelling as the story, trust me. On the other hand, the contestant who had one of the top looks, said, "His name is Gritty Jim (or whatever the name really was) and he was a detective who was left for dead..." Right off the bat you find yourself more compelled by this contestant's story AND his clear, detailed backstory showed in his make-up job.
Consider this when you go in to either pitch your story. Too many times writers stick with the generics -- "it's about a woman who (fill in the blank)", "or a man looking for x. The first thing that struck me about the example above is that the make-up artist gave the character a name. Ok, I don't remember exactly what the name was, but he still had a name which automatically makes it easier to care about him. So when you tell a story, think about starting off with at least a name. "It's about Kathleen, a woman who..." is already more engaging. If you aren't already thinking of your characters in those terms, if you don't know them as well as the make-up artist did and all he had to create was a mask and a costume, then your story is in bigger trouble than your pitch.
Keep this in mind when going to meetings with producers or agents as well. There is always the inevitable, "tell us about yourself" moment. Be prepared with a story that connects with the listener on an emotional level as well. I'm not saying to create a fictional backstory, but to find a way to let them get to know you on a more personal level than just where you went to school or where you grew up. Film producer Peter Guber gave similar advice in his LinkedIn "deep thoughts" column for anyone going out for a job interview.
At a Warner Brother's Writer's Workshop meeting (the consolation prize for those of us who came close, but not cigar) the point was made that if you claim to be a storyteller, then be able to tell an engaging, interesting story about yourself. Because after all, whose story is more important than your own?