Pitching your book to agents at conferences is a great opportunity, and anyone who's done it knows how exciting/nerve wracking it can be. Talk about high stakes! Will the agent request pages? Will she at least request a query letter? Or maybe, the full manuscript?
It helps tremendously if you have two things going for you:
First, an awareness that agents are just people, too, and that they really do want to hear what you have to say. Most will tell you that they know writers are usually nervous when they pitch, and that's all right; they can hear what they need to through your nerves. So go for it.
Second, a clear, concise understanding of what should be in the pitch.
Start by introducing yourself, stating the title, genre and word length of your book, and whether it's complete (it should be complete before you pitch to an agent, and it's important that you tell them it is).
Then there are two more pieces, one short and one a little longer.
The short one is one sentence that describes the heart of your story. This is also known as the log line. To figure out your log line, ask yourself what it is that truly drives the story. What is it the characters are compelled to do and why? If this doesn't come to you succinctly, think in terms of what the private stakes are for the character (life, liberty, etc.), and what the public stakes are—what thing bigger than, or outside, the character created the possibility of this situation.
Here's the log line that James Scott Bell gives in his book, The Art of War for Writers, for THE FUGITIVE: A respected surgeon, wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, must evade capture by a team of U.S. Marshals until he finds the real killer.
For the longer piece of your pitch, think of what you would write after the log line for your back cover copy. You want to include:
a) what the question is that has to be answered (that comes from the plot)/what causes the protagonist's quest. Use your protagonist's name in this part of the pitch.
b) what it is the protagonist faces in order to defend/support/challenge how the question is being answered
c) what defining action takes place that allows a resolution and a major revelation
Try to do this second part in five-to-seven sentences, and keep the pitch under two minutes. You will want to have time after you finish for the agent to ask questions and to talk a little. Be ready to ask the agent a couple of questions, too, about her agency and how she likes to work with clients. If you're able to show an agent that you know something about her by asking your questions, and that you have an idea of how you like to work, beyond the writing itself, that can be impressive.
There's a blog post up today from the terrific agent, Jessica Faust at BookEnds, that covers her guidelines for the pitch. It's an excellent read.
Any pitching stories or wisdoms you have to share? We can all learn from each other.