Subscribe to Inc. magazine
HOW TO SELL ANYTHING

You Know What Your Company Does. Can You Explain It in 30 Seconds?

If not, you’re in trouble. Here’s how to perfect your pitch: A business lesson in the form of a screenplay.
Jim Johnson: uControl’s CEO is on a quest for the perfect sales pitch.

Brent Humphreys

Refining the Pitch uControl's Jim Johnson in front of the camera


Courtesy Elevator Speech

Jason Domangue: The marketing chief wants to avoid slipping into jargon.

Advertisement

[FADE IN]

EXTERIOR--A bright-blue, cloudless sky on a spring morning in Austin. An office park, populated with identical brown buildings interspersed with grassy areas and trees.

INTERIOR--A small conference room. At one end stands a whiteboard with a screen pulled down in front of it. Seated near the head of the table is DAVE YEWMAN, co-owner of Elevator Speech, a consulting firm based in Austin and Portland, Oregon, that specializes in media and presentation training--specifically in helping clients craft pithy 30-second descriptions of their companies. According to Yewman, executives who can't, in half a minute, clearly explain what they do and why anyone should care miss out--on sales, funding, partnerships, and more opportunities. His firm uses video to dramatically show clients how bad they often are at explaining their businesses.

Across the table, looking at a silver Mac laptop and fiddling with portable speakers, is Yewman's business partner, ANDY CRAIG, head clean-shaven, wearing a pressed lavender shirt. A week earlier, Craig spent a day with a video camera trained on eight executives of uControl, an Austin-based home security start-up, asking each of them a simple question: "What does your company do?" He and Yewman then spent several days watching the tapes and taking notes. They're about to deliver the results to JIM JOHNSON, uControl's CEO, who sits at the other end of the conference table. He looks a little nervous. His company, which is 18 months old and has 18 employees, is competing for contracts with the nation's largest cable and phone companies, and Johnson needs any edge he can get. Seated next to him is JASON DOMANGUE, uControl's director of marketing. His pen is poised and he is ready to take notes.

ANDY [Stands up behind his chair to lead things off] Have any of you ever read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell?

JIM It's in my closet, about to be read.

ANDY [Smiles sympathetically] I have a lot of those, too. That book is about first impressions. That's actually what we are talking about when we talk about an elevator speech: first impressions and the power of first impressions to your business.

DAVE What we are concerned with is that first 20 to 30 seconds. If you are coming out with a whole bunch of gobbledygook, no matter how well you say it, people are going to go, what the hell does that mean?

[JASON nods. JIM looks impassive.]

DAVE I'd like to begin by pumping you guys up a little bit. What we're going to do first is show you the worst elevator speech ever. It was caught on national TV.

[Everyone in the room chuckles. ANDY points his remote control at the computer.]

[CUT TO: Screen in front of the room, where 60 Minutes correspondent BOB SIMON stands, head cocked skeptically, next to a young guy with a dark suit and spiky hair. It is JEFF DACHIS, who then owned an e-business consultancy called Razorfish.]

BOB SIMON So, what do you do?

JEFF DACHIS We've asked our clients to recontextualize their business. We've recontextualized what it is to be in the services business.

SIMON There are many people such as myself who have trouble with the word recontextualize. Tell me what you do. In English.

DACHIS We provide services to companies to help them win.

SIMON But so do trucking firms…

DACHIS Absolutely, absolutely, and our talent is to do a certain thing while trucking firms do…

SIMON [interrupting] But what is it you do?

DACHIS We radically transform business to invent and reinvent them.

SIMON That's still very vague.

[CUT TO:]

ANDY [Standing at the head of the table, shaking his head] So let's just get past the fact that they made up a word. I've looked up recontextualize a million times in a million places and it's just not a real word. So that's the first problem. The second problem is that Simon gave them several kicks at the can. Now, I don't know about you, but none of my potential customers would give me all of those chances, and say, "I still don't understand." Recontextualizing, radically recontextualizing, helping companies win. What does that mean? It is not clear at all what they do.

So…what does uControl do? How are you guys talking about your company?

[JIM and JASON squirm slightly in their seats. They know they're about to watch themselves on video. ANDY smiles reassuringly.]

[CUT TO: Screen in the front of the room, where uControl execs are answering the question posed off-camera: What does uControl do?]

JIM [Onscreen, with a small shrug] We're building a next-generation home security system.

JIM KITCHEN [uControl's director of product management] UControl provides home security and automation services to a number of markets, primarily, you know, to consumers and enabling other service providers to provide that service to their consumers as well.

JASON [Speaking rapidly] We attach to existing alarm systems and provide three value props. One is we offer better physical connectivity and that's via three redundant channels that we offer out of the whole backdoor monitoring solution. Two, we offer virtual connectivity, which gives you the ability to control and monitor your alarm system over the Web or your cell phone. And we offer you better value for the same price you're paying your current monitoring company. We offer the previous two feature buckets I described for the same price.

J. BRENT USSERY [manager of operations, technical services] UControl is a home security company that provides monitoring services and enhances existing security systems with high-technology features such as communication path redundancy, a Web portal to monitor events, you can check alarms and events on your cell phone, it allows you to control access codes…and lots of cool features like that.

[CUT TO:]

ANDY What's your response? Let's hear your reaction to that.

JIM [Getting up to get himself a cup of coffee] It sounds pretty boring. That's my reaction to that.

JASON It's very technical.

JIM Yeah, very technical…but, I mean, we are changing the home security industry, which has been very stagnant for 30 years. It's exciting, but it doesn't come across.

DAVE [Glances at his notes] There were some good chunks of language in there: It's nice that I can monitor when I'm away from the house and that kind of thing. But it was all about uControl. What does uControl do? It's almost like a trick question. Because I don't care. I care about what it can do for me.

ANDY You lose them when you're only talking about yourself. People want to know what's in it for them.

DAVE You've got to cut right to it, hit them over the head with it. The magic comes when you can talk like a human being about your business, and when you can really deliver a punch on why this is important to your prospect.

ANDY Do you guys watch The Daily Show?

[CUT TO: Screen in front of the room]

ROB CORDDRY [Daily Show correspondent] In a nutshell, how would you describe the state of elections in California?

JILL LAVINE [registrar of voters] We've got several big issues that are happening to us. The secretary of state just decertified all our electronic voting equipment. We have several lawsuits against us for not having accessible units for the disabled, and we don't have enough manpower to actually man the polls for our elections.

CORDDRY Great. Now could you take that long-ass answer and put it into a nutshell for me?

LAVINE [Stares at him]

CORDDRY [Stares back at her]

LAVINE The elections right now in California are a mess.

[CUT TO:]

DAVE Obviously, that's a little dramatic. But you are trying to grab them by the grapes with something concise. It's got to be something that makes them nod their head or light up or smile or say, "Oh, yeah, I get it."

Now here is a clip from Bono. We love Bono. He's talking about something abstract and technical, debt relief for Africa, and it comes across so well.

[CUT TO: Screen in front of the room]

BONO [In green sunglasses, stubbly face, talking to TIM RUSSERT] In 50 years, when they look back at this moment, they will talk about the war against terror, they will talk about the Internet, and they will talk about what we did or didn't do in Africa, about this continent bursting into flames. It is the most extraordinary thing to watch people dying three in a bed, two on top and one underneath, as I have seen in Malawi. It's an astonishing thing and it is an avoidable catastrophe.

[CUT TO:]

DAVE What do you remember about that? A continent bursting into flames. People dying--three in a bed, two on top one under. It's a really memorable scene.

Now you actually have some pretty good language that you've come up with about uControl. Let's take a look and we'll talk about it.

[CUT TO: Screen in front of the room]

J. BRENT USSERY We are bringing home security out of the closet. For example, with most home alarm systems, the control panel is in the master bedroom closet and installation is the only time they see it besides the keypad. We're bringing home security out of the closet.

[CUT TO:]

[JIM and JASON laugh uproariously.]

ANDY I'll stop the tape.

JASON [laughing] He's been hammering that over our heads for like a year now. And he's got a chance to put it on tape.

JIM [Laughing harder, explains the joke to a mystified ANDY and DAVE] So there are two guys that came to our company from the alarm industry, and one of them came out of the closet, literally, when he joined our company.

ANDY Oh, so there's a backstory. We didn't know that. But it really did jump out at us.

DAVE We thought it was great.

ANDY And we didn't know the back back backstory.

[CUT TO: Screen in front of the room]

JIM Anything you can do from your alarm's keypad, you can now do from the Web: arm, disarm the system, assign new codes, assign a code for your daughter, so when your daughter comes in and types in her code, you'll know she got home safely.

[CUT TO:]

DAVE This is very conversational, very storylike. That's what we're searching for. Now, this was probably one minute, 15 seconds into it. And that is the challenge. Because that is so good, it should not come in at one minute and 15 seconds. It should come in at, like, 15 seconds.

[CUT TO: Screen in front of the room]

CHUCK GRANBERRY [uControl's manager of internal operations] Traditional alarm companies say if you have a problem, call us. They've never empowered their customers to go on the Web and make choices and do things.

[CUT TO:]

DAVE Again, a really nice differentiator, in conversational language, that demonstrates a broader business point.

ANDY And here's a clip you can just send out to your whole company.

[CUT TO: Screen in front of the room]

JASON [Talking about how uControl monitors homes via phone lines, cell phone connections, and over the Internet] We use the word redundant too much. I think we got a little comfortable using technical terms because we had so many early adopters we were selling to, and it was fine to say redundant. But when we get past those early adopters and into the mass market, we could get burned. So I'm trying to stay out of that as much as I can. But I have not gotten to that euphoria of, this is the perfect way to describe what we do.

[CUT TO:]

ANDY Every single company could say something like that. Our comfort area, particularly in the technology world, is to fall back to the jargon. You don't need to look for another word for redundant, you need to find another way to talk about it. That's where storytelling comes in. There was a great story you had, about this guy that switched his phone service to Vonage and had an alarm system, and three months later discovered that it hadn't been monitoring his home the whole time since his system didn't work over VoIP.

You can talk about redundancy in the form of a story about it. That's what people are going to remember. You don't have to say the word redundant.

Last week, I asked all your guys this question. I said, "Okay, you want to make a clean sweep. What is the one thing you guys do?" Here's what they said.

[CUT TO: Screen in front of the room]

WADE COHN [director of software engineering] I think the biggest would be peace of mind. If someone cut my phone line, I'm still safe because I've got other modes of communication.

JIM KITCHEN It boils down to peace of mind. I get all the data I need about what's going on in my house. I know what to expect.

[CUT TO:]

ANDY UControl gives me peace of mind because I always know. This is something we really think should go in front, in the first 10 seconds.

DAVE [Pops a slide up on the screen with phrases] We have been talking about these snippets of language.

ANDY What do you guys do? [Reads from the screen] We bring home security out of the closet and put it on the Web and on your wireless phone, so you can monitor and manage everything about your alarm system from anywhere in the world. We give you the peace of mind to know that your family, your kids, your home are safe and secure all the time.

DAVE What does uControl do? [Reads from screen] This is an industry that hasn't changed in 30 years. Seventy percent of the homes that have alarm systems don't even use them; they are too hard to use. So what do we do? We make the alarm system smarter. We make them better.

[DAVE and ANDY look at JIM expectantly. ANDY grabs his notebook and prepares to take notes.]

JIM [Speaks slowly] I like that concept for many of our audiences. This explains how we are trying to change an industry. As we talk to consumers, that works. But right now, we're focused on winning deals with big cable providers. We've got to hook them in the first 30 seconds with what we do differently from the three or four competitors that we always run up against.

And we've got a couple of real differentiators. We can work with any alarm system, even one that's already installed in the house. We can use anybody's keypads, anybody's sensors. And we're their infrastructure, which allows all of that to work. That's typically how I explain it. But if there is a better, more concise way…

JASON To the cable company, when they use us, it looks like every other deployment of a service that they do. It hooks in with their infrastructure, their cable modem. We give them a familiar feeling for an unfamiliar service that they are about to deploy.

DAVE I like that: "familiar feeling; unfamiliar service."

JIM So I think the first sentence can be, "Hey, we are going to help you bring home security out of the closet. Right now, it's locked in the closet, but you can bring it out and put it on the Web. And the way we do it is very important. We are going to bring a familiar feeling to a very unfamiliar security service."

DAVE What did you say your other key differentiators were?

JIM There are a few of them and I'm not sure if any of them are as important as us being open and agnostic. It's the theme of openness that, I think, is most important.

ANDY I guarantee you'll get a smile or a chuckle when you say: Bring home security out of the closet and onto the Web.

DAVE It's memorable.

ANDY It's not only memorable; it delivers your message. Not just fun for fun's sake. It's strong. We like it.

DAVE Well, we've talked a lot. The next step is to think about it, digest it, chew it. Then, we'll come back and film you again, and say let's change this and tweak this. After that it's really up to you guys to internalize it. You guys have done some work and it shows. You're already far along for a pretty young company. You've got a pretty tight message now. Let's just get it focused.

JASON [chuckling] "Out of the closet."

JIM [laughing] It's not going to be hard to remember it, that's for sure.

JASON It couldn't be more perfect, I promise you. It's the company culture in a bubble.

JIM It encapsulates the openness and free thought at our company. I mean, here is a guy who spent 21 years in the home security industry and couldn't even tell the people he worked with that he was gay. The industry is so close-minded, he was afraid he'd lose his job.

DAVE It's a metaphor for your company.

JIM It's fun.

[JIM shuts his laptop and looks at the messages that have piled up on his flashing BlackBerry. JASON chats with ANDY and DAVE about rolling the new pitch out to the company. ANDY says that he'll be back soon to film the team practicing their new elevator speech.]

[FADE OUT]

Alison Stein Wellner is an Inc. contributing editor.

IMAGE: Courtesy Elevator Speech
Last updated: Jul 1, 2007




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: