What's an elevator pitch? "It's the rare ability to capture the interest and imagination of someone you have just met--in about the time it would take both of you to enter an elevator, travel down to the lobby level, and then cross the office building foyer together."

That definition is by Mark Wiskup, author of The It Factor: Be the One People Like, Listen to, and Remember. Here's why elevator pitches are so important, according to Wiskup: "Great communicators, those who connect quickly and strongly with others all the time, know how to communicate the essence of their message--succinctly and in a memorable way--whether or not there's an elevator in sight." 

Effective elevator pitches, writes Wiskup, are "memorable, vivid, and unique to your voice and the way you talk."

Once you know how to deliver your elevator pitch, you can use it all the time, Wiskup says: "at industry conferences, at community networking meetings, on soccer or Little League fields, or at the board meetings at church."

There are many methods you can use to build a pitch--for example, here's how to overcome many common obstacles--but today, I'll share Wiskup's four-step approach:

1. Describe your business without using any (not even a little) jargon

"The first words that come out of your mouth in your elevator pitch should be a brief and memorable description of your business," writes Wiskup.

Easy, right? Not so fast! "Here comes the hard part: I'm going to ask that your description exclude all industry jargon," because jargon "destroys your ability to be compelling and unique."

That means avoiding acronyms, corporate-speak, or tech talk. Chris O'Leary, another elevator pitch expert, advises that your pitch should be easily understood by "your grandparents, your spouse, or your children."

And you should stay away from abstract concepts; choose concrete images instead. For example, "quality" doesn't mean much on its own; my sense of what it's like may be cool and blue, while yours may be square, stark, and white. But replace the word with a more tangible description--"This solution will reduce repairs by 45 percent"--and suddenly the concept comes to life.

2. Focus on your clients/customers/audience

Describe what you do for your clients (whether those clients are paying customers or people you serve in your organization) in plain and distinct language. 

An effective pitch always addresses the needs and concerns of the audience, answering the classic questions, "What does this mean to me?" and "How will this help me?"  

For example, an internal communication manager I know describes what she does this way: "I help leaders [her clients] communicate in a way that helps employees understand how to do their jobs to support our company's success."

3. Tell a story of how you've helped overcome a challenge

Wiskup's third step is this: "Launch into a single, highly specific issue or problem with which you helped a single customer." Of course, one single example is not all you do, but being specific helps bring your work to life.

Part of your story should emphasize what's most remarkable. Merriam-Webster defines remarkable as "worthy of being or likely to be noticed especially as being uncommon or extraordinary." And marketing guru Michael Katz advises that you identify the thing that's so interesting, or unusual, or creative about what you're doing that your audience members will remember you.

4. Conclude by sharing the successful result of your efforts

"When you describe a single problem or issue that your product or service resolves for a client, you are telling listeners that you are worth the investment others make in you," writes Wiskup. "The successful solving of a customer issue or problem gives you instant credibility, which you can never hope to achieve by simply reciting marketing slogans."

Wiskup shares this example of an elevator pitch that follows his four-step formula:

Step 1: We are accountants. 

Step 2: We make sure you understand your financial statements. We want the process of billing your customers and paying vendors' bills every month to wind up making you money, instead of giving you continual unprofitable headaches.

Step 3: We do lots of things, but here is a good example. Just last week, we showed a client that his company was mistakenly using two different vendors to buy the same thing for different offices, instead of getting the vendors to compete for one big order at a lower price.

Step 4: That change will save our client's company $100,000 during the next quarter alone.

You might notice that Wiskup's formula creates an elevator pitch that's longer than usual. Wiskup believes that great elevator pitches "run to five sentences or even longer. As long as your elevator pitch is sound, well thought out, and compelling, your listeners will give you the length of time and attention you deserve."