A funny thing happens after you start a podcast.
Your inbox fills up with pitches—emails from people (or their publicists) trying to get on your show. You might open the first few and marvel at your good fortune! Someone you don't know has listened to your show and thought it worthy of their attention.
"Someone wants to be on my baby podcast?!" you might think to yourself.
But little by little, you realize that these emails have a strangely similar flavor. That flavor? Utter irrelevance.
Welcome to Cold Pitch, a new project from(of) and , a husband and wife duo who think an inordinate amount about media, curiosity, and identity. We're also the producers behind YellowHouse.Media, an audio production agency.
Today's Cold Pitch is about, well, cold pitches—as well as the content form, our economic identities, and neurodivergent social dynamics. We've got more conversations teed up about our favorite daily YouTube show, our misgivings about making stuff online, and the power of 1st person narration. Cold Pitch isn't any one thing. It might be a newsletter, a podcast, a performance art project, or some other form we haven't thought of yet.
But that's enough exposition for now. Back to little-c, little-p cold pitching.
A "cold pitch" is any attempt to sway someone you don't know and have no connection to into doing something that benefits you.
And in the world of podcasting, it means email after email after bizarre email from people trying to get on your podcast.
For example, Sean received a cold pitch from a publicist who said they were huge fans of a podcast we produce called Ecosystems for Change. The thing to know about this show is that it's super niche—directed at people in economic ecosystem development in small-town and rural America. So it would be a bit odd for a publicist to be a Big Fan of the show. But, okay—benefit of the doubt, right?
As he read on in the email, he discovered that the person this publicist represented was a former actor who now led a company selling a men's hair growth product. The publicist went on to say that so-and-so would be a perfect fit for the show and that the audience would benefit so much from his story.
I wish I could tell you that this is some kind of outlier in the world of podcast pitching. But it's the norm.
I get multiple emails of this quality every single day. Most start with outright lies. Many are completely antithetical to the premise of my show. And others are just, well, stupid. (I'm sure your cold pitches are lovely!)
You might be thinking, isn't this just spam?
Aren't you talking about a problem as old as email? Yes and no. Even though these emails are unsolicited (and highly solicitous), they take the form of "personal" emails. They're not commercial mail but person-to-person communication. Sort of.
You see, podcasters are kind of exposed when it comes to email. For verification purposes, Apple requires that an email address be listed in the RSS feed that powers a podcast. While some hosts, like our friends at Transistor.fm, can shield that email address through techno-wizardry, most podcast feeds contain the email address associated with the show in easy-to-scrape and easy-to-read code.
Pitch farms and PR agencies can harvest those email addresses en masse and automate their email outreach. That means the publicist representing the actor-turned-men's-hair-growth-entrepreneur no doubt sent the same fawning email to thousands of podcasters.
We're not here to say that cold pitching is bad, ineffective, or unethical.
What we're interested in today is why a frequent, perfectly normal social interaction has morphed into something so mind-numbingly bleak in this particular sphere.
Because frankly, we make cold pitches all the time. A couple of weeks ago, Sean and I turned into the potato chip aisle at our local Whole Foods. It was a bit congested and, as we waited to get through, we heard a woman exclaim, "You're a tall fellow!" in Sean's general direction. If you're guessing she needed a bag of chips on the top shelf, you are 100% correct.
The other shopper's "cold pitch" was genuine, clever, and almost implied. Even I (which is remarkable for reasons I'll get to later) knew exactly what she needed before she even asked.
Most people have interactions like this on a daily basis. We read the room, consider our options, and ask for what we need. That's a pitch. If you're asking a complete stranger, then it's a cold pitch.
These interactions happen at all sorts of levels—verbal, nonverbal, environmental, cultural, etc. In this situation, the "cold pitch" was as much in the other shopper's body language as it was in her verbal request. It also occurred in an environment where just about everyone you share space with has needed help to find or grab something. Without realizing it, we're primed to notice when other people need help in the grocery store.
Your inbox is a completely different set of variables.
Researchers studying the psychology of email put it this way in the journal Heliyon:
Email communication is a type of virtual communication with specific characteristics: - it is a form of written communication; it is asynchronous, ... it generates the so called ‘thread’ automatically generated by the computer program. Email does not include face to face communication and thus the capacity to develop a sense of connection, shared knowledge and trust are distorted due to the lack of interpersonal cues and may become a problem).
An email inbox is a communication environment in which many disparate messages arrive in unpredictable ways: software notifications, sales messages, family dispatches, work or school announcements, project communication, etc. In the "you've got mail" days, you received emails from a select group of people—coworkers, friends, family.
But over the last 30 years, our inboxes have become the focal point of all of our written communication. What used to show up as physical junk mail shows up virtually by an order of magnitude more. Plus, all the receipts, notifications, subscriptions, and other "paper trail" items we sift through to figure out what we have to respond to.
Media scholar danah boyd popularized the term context collapse to describe the environment of social media sites.
On a social media site, you make a post, and it's delivered to people you're connected with in a multitude of different ways. Your message will be received differently by your parent, your high school buddies, your current coworkers, and your exes. You craft the message in a way that makes sense to the most people because you know the people seeing the message will all bring a different context to the post. The audience is ambiguous, and therefore, we alter the message, even if what we say is still "true" or "honest." The contexts collapse, and you're not able to say what you might say if you were interacting with each of your social media friends one by one.
An inbox suffers from a related, if nearly opposite, problem. Let's call it a context explosion. Instead of the sender translating their message through the many contexts it might be received in, many diverse contexts bombard the receiver—even as many of the messages were written specifically to them. To maintain any sense of focus in the onslaught of contexts, the receiver floats above their inbox. "Processing" rather than communicating. "Triaging" rather than connecting.
As a result, we experience our inboxes at a psychosocial remove, on top of the distance we already experience due to email's asynchronicity and lack of nonverbal cues.
All that to say: the inbox is a weird social environment, despite the fact that it's one we spend so much time in.
Is this how you'd talk to another person?
Sean often expresses frustration that people don't apply what they know from "meat world" social interactions to the emails they write. But I disagree a bit with my dear husband on this. I think people absolutely take what they've learned from the meat world and apply to email—just in a grossly distorted way.
As I mentioned, I get probably a dozen or more cold pitches for What Works every single day. I'm sure lots of podcasters get many more. The vast majority of pitches I receive read like a bad first date. It's all complimentary bullshit—I mean, small talk—up front before you start to uncover what the person on the other end actually wants.
Quit often, the first line or two is an outright lie. Not a lie in a social nicety way—a Straight Up Lie:
"I'm such a fan of your show, and everyone in the office is, too!"
"I listened to episode 359 with Jane Doe, and it really got me thinking."
"As I was listening to your latest episode, I realized that my boss would make the perfect guest for your show!"
Could those statements be true? Sure. I guess. But they're not. Not when I get emails with the exact same format that hit the same notes every day.
But these emails are leveraging a communication pattern that we use in actual interactions with other humans.
We compliment someone's shoes or ask about a person's kids before we dive into our request. There's a warm-up period before things get real. Even when these interactions are genuine and mutually beneficial, we can still identify the moment the conversation switches to "the business at hand."
Outside of an email inbox, there is added context to the interaction. The environment and other cues help (some of) us parse the subtext of these conversations.
Inside the inbox, the first line or two of the message is often perfunctory: "Hope you're well," or "How's it going?" It's not that you don't mean what you wrote. It's just that you didn't not mean it either.
The beginning of a bad cold pitch takes that perfunctory line and uses it to manipulate.
It turns a social norm into a weapon.
The result is that the "cold pitch" becomes a form that evokes skepticism, cynicism, and extreme wariness.
Herein lies the problem. If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan stated, and the medium of the cold pitch is one that provokes skepticism, cynicism, and eye-rolling frustration, then what does that say about the cold pitch being a form through which we represent ourselves and our work?
What can we learn about how we perceive ourselves that this is a form some of us choose to use? What does it say about how we view our economic identities? Our place in the broader economy? The media and creative work we produce?
Sean and I aren't interested in binary distinctions between good pitches and bad pitches, ethical cold pitches and unethical cold pitches... Instead, we think the most important question is:
How do I want to represent myself to someone I don't know?
If the cold pitches that land in my inbox are indicative of the way people see themselves and decide to represent themselves to a stranger they want something from, well, I don't think that says anything good about the state of our society. Dramatic? Maybe, but I stand by it.
These cold pitches are representative of how people think about themselves in the economic sphere. We're brands. We're products. We're assets. We see ourselves as either someone who has something of value to say or not, someone who is worthy of being on a podcast or not, someone who has something of economic value to offer to an audience or not.
The cold pitch doesn't say something bleak about modern society because it doesn't represent how we're out there thinking about ourselves and our work. It's bleak because it's a perfect representation of how we are encouraged to think of ourselves and our work.
Cold Pitch is an experimental media project—subscribe free to see how it unfolds!
Welcome to my world.
In the paper on the psychology of email that I mentioned earlier, the researchers instructed participants on how to become more aware of the sensory, bodily, and mental experiences associated with processing email. They were also instructed to notice the experience of interconnectedness with those they were emailing with.
While the study itself was quite limited, the results were promising. The intention to cultivate multi-layered social attention when processing email helped people shift their behavior and emotion.
By noticing their own feelings and motivations, the participants were better able to practice perspective-taking in a way that established a social space between sender and receiver that was more akin to an in-person interaction. They were able to focus on the appropriate context of an individual email.
Or, I might say that the researchers taught these participants to operate like an autistic person when they open their inboxes. Instead of relying on pseudo-instinctual social interpretation, the researchers made participants conscious of the ways they were interpreting the social space. And that is exactly how I move through the world every day.
Autistic writer Clara Törnvall put it this way:
Mentalisation — the ability to perceive one’s own and others’ thoughts and feelings — functions differently in autists. For an autist, reading and interpreting body language and facial expressions require active thought processes.
To be clear, it's not that we (autistic people) can't do it. It's that we do it differently. Some autistic people are frighteningly good at perceiving others' thoughts and feelings precisely because of the conscious skill-building it requires.
To bring it back around, the cold pitch—specifically the kind of cold pitch that starts with a blatant lie or half-assed compliment—crosses your social interpretation wires. You're presented with a message that aims to create a shared social space but instead, does the opposite. You read a message that sounds personal and complimentary, only to realize it's neither personal nor complimentary in any real way. You feel seen and heard for a split second before realizing your podcast is just another line in a publicist's spreadsheet.
It's emotional whiplash.
Why the hell would you want to do that to someone?
Lest you think all cold pitching is the work of nefarious psychological manipulation, we want to talk about a counterintuitive approach that can work.
In search of the honest pitch...
While many of the pitches we receive are dishonest, disingenuous, and gross, others are little more than a traditional press release. The press release, in a way, is a very honest medium. It doesn't pretend to be something that it's not.
The content of the press release might be embellished, but the medium is a straightforward announcement. Often, it's something to the effect of, "So-and-so, who wrote the book Blah Blah Blah, is available for interviews." I don't go through that emotional whiplash when I see one of these. There's no pretext. Or subtext. I might have zero interest in the subject, but I'm not forced to go through the weird small talk.
The press release's directness means I don't go through the dizzying experience of trying to parse its social meaning. I do enough of that every day, thankyouverymuch.
On the extroverted, neurotypical side of things, Sean volunteered that he's been working on being more direct in his own communication. Instead of trying to game the way he communicates something to elicit a particular response, he's presenting information or requests more transparently. While he's capable of social engineering (he used to be a bartender, after all), he recognizes that he can't truly control someone else's (often my) response. And trying to is often counterproductive.
Now look, sending out press releases isn't the most effective strategy. But it's an honest one.
The best way to approach cold pitching is by never sending a cold pitch. If you want to connect with a podcaster (or anyone) you don't know, connect with them. After all, people are shockingly easy to reach. A few good comments, an absolutely for-real compliment, or even quoting someone in an article or post goes a long way to making your pitch a warm one.
Thanks for reading Cold Pitch! Subscribe to hear more from us and see this media experiment unfold.