As Thomas Jefferson said, the most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. Perhaps that sentiment has never been more apt than in the age of Twitter. Brevity is an asset online, but in person it can be far more difficult to maintain. After all, no one is going to cut off your impassioned monologue after 140 characters.
How do you snag – and hold – the attention of someone important who has at least 15 other things on her mind? How can you turn a quick hello into a promising business lead without being abrasive? We spoke with authors who specialize in the topic as well as business-communications professors about how to break down your idea into a digestible bite of information and deliver it like a pro.
Mastering Your Elevator Pitch: Script It and Test It
If you have an idea you believe strongly in, talking to people about it probably comes naturally. If you're like most entrepreneurs, it comes almost too naturally, says Chris O'Leary, the author of Elevator Pitch Essentials. That's because you know the logistics, the minutia, and every single component of your business.
Guess what? Most people don't care – at least about what you're working on hour-by-hour. Potential investors, collaborators, or mentors, might need a mile-wide view before wanting to zoom in. "One of the reasons some people have a hard time with elevator pitches are that some personality types aren't compatible with it," O'Leary says. "Entrepreneurs are so into their idea sometimes that because they care so much they assume that everybody else does too."
Whereas the "elevator pitch" as we know it originated as a quick hit – a synopsis that can be rambled off in the 30 or 60 seconds an elevator ride used to take – these days, it's more like a well-crafted ad than a condensed thesis. Consider your elevator pitch a personal 30-second TV spot: It should be a simple-to-grasp promotion that's catchy enough to not let your viewer think about changing the channel – or about walking away.
Moreover, your pitch should impress your listener enough to induce the possibility of a future meeting. Think of it as a hook that makes the person you're talking to need to ask "How does that work?" or simply request, "Tell me more." At the very minimum, an elevator pitch should be used as an opportunity to broaden your network of professional contacts.
What an elevator pitch is not, says James S. O'Rourke, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, is this: "An opportunity to exploit, use, bore, or terrorize someone trapped in an elevator with you."
So, remember to be conscientious, O'Rourke says. "Your first objective during an elevator pitch is to get them to like you," he says. "Because if they don't like you, they might just take the stairs next time."
To get there, relying on trial-and-error isn't wise. O'Leary suggests sitting down with a pen and paper to hash out your elevator-pitch ideas. "You actually have to put a pitch together - literally script it out," he says. "One of the reasons most people don't put one together is that they try and the first version is terrible. You have to put it down on paper and start revision."
Test it out aloud, and enlist a colleague, friend, or mentor, to let you know if it's both comprehensible and engaging. O'Leary suggests that if someone two decades older than you is engaged by it, test it on someone two decades younger. A truly effective pitch can work across attention spans and engagement levels, and will appeal to members of both groups. Master this, and you'll have plenty of time to specialize it in the future.
Of course, a close friend or spouse might not provide an unbiased opinion. So Catherine Smith MacDermott, a business professor at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, suggests you further test your elevator pitch with someone in your field or with an expert Recently, she says a pair of local entrepreneurs asked to meet with her, in order to test a pitch before meeting with potential angel investors.
"It was really smart that they thought to come to me first," Smith MacDermott says. "I think they have a wonderful new product, but was able to offer them a lot of straight critique of how they needed to work on their pitch."
Dig Deeper: How to Make Your Best Pitch
Mastering Your Elevator Pitch: Use Your Time Well
At first, shoot for a 30-second pitch. You can time yourself, or go for about three sentences of content. If you are pitching potential investors, some experts recommend trying to explain how the world will be different in five years if you succeed in what you're doing. If you are instead looking to use the pitch to land customers, MacDermott suggests you focus on describing your technical skills, your transferrable skills, and your personal qualities.
Let's say your idea is complex because it involves a new business model or innovative technology. If you can't get your concept down to a sentence, instead squeeze in a basic explanation of your end product or service – and if that's tough, go for a metaphor.
O'Leary suggests a tactic Hollywood producers have made popular. He calls it X meets Y model—the movie Cloverfield is Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project, for example. The formulation is designed to give a quick impression of a show or idea based on existing, widely-known, complex works. Say you were starting a social-networking site for pet adoption; it may be pitched as Facebook (or Match.com) for cats, dogs, and the humans who'd like to adopt them. The X-meets-Y formulation seems to narrow the definition at hand, but also remains vague enough to excite the imagination.
A modification of that tactic is relating your product or idea to a familiar concept, but negating what it doesn't incorporate. Josh Schwartz, creator of TV show The O.C., has written that it originally was pitched as "The Karate Kid without the karate," which makes no sense on the surface, but if you in fact eliminate the main aspect of the film, you have a Los Angeles-area high school with a new kid in town who's under major culture shock. As a bonus: Once your concept is understood, you've not only built associations that work, but can open up a well of curiosity.
If your idea doesn't fit any mash-up, just go with a simple simile. "It's as easy as making toast/sending an Evite/posting a listing on Craigslist."
When writing your pitch, use simple language and avoid buzzwords such as "synergy," "monetization," and "uniquely positioned." Everyone has heard just how "customer-focused" everyone else is before. Remember, this is not just a pitch, it's a first impression – and being authentic and human is as helpful to your cause as getting across your professional message.
Once you have a solid 30-second pitch, develop both a long version (at around 2 minutes, for instances where you have time for a more in-depth discussion – something that can be expanded upon should you, say, meet a potential investor on a long airplane ride), and a short version (15 seconds or so, for times you have to introduce yourself to more than one individual at once).
Next: Memorize your pitches. "The advantage of committing them to memory is that you're able to read your audience while you're talking to them," O'Leary says. "You've got to rehearse it, but then make it not look canned."
O'Rourke stresses the importance of a well-rehearsed pitch. "Even the Major League long-ball hitters step into the batting cage before the game," he says.
Dig Deeper: Harnessing the Power of Referrals
Mastering Your Elevator Pitch: Get to "Tell Me More."
The first goal of your meeting (however informal) should be to get another one. So you'll want to have a pitch of an appropriate length prepared for meetings with potential investors, partners, or clients, as well as the ability to tailor it in a few ways for different circumstances and timing. A few basic pointers:
Know your target. Who are you talking to? How much do they know about your industry? What do you have in common? What problems might they be facing in their business right now? Can you help them?
Stay current. Your pitch will need to change as your business – and the technologybehind it – evolves. Any formal presentation materials should change with the times, too. You don't want to rely on a PowerPoint presentation that is out of date.
Frame your message. An elevator pitch isn't much good if first you don't come across as a credible, likeable individual. To achieve that, remember your business etiquette, O'Rourke says. "The first thing you have to do is introduce or re-introduce yourself. Stick out your hand, and put your face and name back in context for them," he says. "Only then should you explain how they can help you." And after you deliver a pitch, try to give a really brief review of your talents, education, or skill set, "just so the contact knows, yeah this guy is qualified, and I wouldn't be reluctant to introduce this person to someone else," he says.
Dig Deeper: How to Talk to the Press About Your Company
Mastering Your Elevator Pitch: Embracing Alternatives
No matter how concise, clever, and useful your pitch is, there will be some people who just won't want to hear it.
When you do meet a potential partner, client, or investor in person, remember that if things start to tank, there are other hooks that can renew their interest in you. If the subject of your elevator pitch is about to blow you off, there are two options, which translate roughly to "fight or flight." If you feel like you made a real impression before being cut off, just make sure you get your business card into the hand of your subject before ducking out. If you barely got a chance to open your mouth, just be confident and straight with who you're talking to.
"If you're good at pushing on through, if you're not obnoxious about it, just be very specific and ask for two minutes of their time," Smith MacDermott says. If they say no: "Ask is there a better time to talk with you?"
If a pitch has been cut short, try to get the person to go to your website to learn more. Another tactic: Simply ask a question. Remember, it's not all about you. You're trying to give a pitch at the moment, but the ultimate goal is to build a solid business relationship. You'll never get there if you don't engage the other person and get them talking about themselves.
You should also open yourself up to future networking or re-connecting online, if you can. Plenty of elevator pitching has gone digital, so you should expect to take your pitch to an Internet audience, too. Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, for example, handles almost every ounce of his daily business over e-mail. If you can say it in person or over the phone, you can put it in writing – be it in an e-mail, or on your website.
With the proliferation of social media, you'll have to also know how to make an online pitch – one that can be individualized or blasted to 1,000 Twitter followers.
"The newer forms of communications and technologies are just reminding us what the rules of thumb are," O'Leary says. "Twenty-five words or less is a very old kind of concept. I think people are getting better at it today they are getting more aware of it online."
Dig Deeper: When to Ditch Your Elevator Pitch
Mastering Your Elevator Pitch: Additional Resources
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. (Random House, 2007.) One of our favorite books on coming up with a winning message by the Heath brothers, who write a column for our sister magazine, Fast Company.
Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself (and Your Ideas) and Win Over Any Audience by Stephanie Palmer (Broadway Business, March 2008.) Good in a Room is a brand new book that understands successful communication and teaches actual tactics. Stephanie Palmer, a former movie executive, shares her experience listening to thousands of pitches. Much of her direction on how to pitch well is counterintuitive, but it's dead-on accurate.
Elevator Pitch Essentials: How to Get Your Point Across in Two Minutes or Less by Chris O'Leary (The Limb Press, September 2008.)
How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less by Milo O. Frank. (Pocket Books, April 1990.)
Be Sharp: Tell Me About Yourself in Great Introductions and Professional Bios by Paula Asinof and Mina Brown. (BookSurge Publishing, December 2008.)
How to Wow: Proven Strategies for Selling Your [Brilliant] Self in Any Situation by Frances Cole Jones. (Ballantine Books, March 2009.)