It’s not easy to explain James Lawrence’s business quickly. He makes an advance software system that ensures drone operators stay in compliance with the ever-changing rules and regulations for their airborne devices. So, when he was going to present at Get Started Tucson, a fast-paced pitch contest created by Cox Business, he made notes -- lots and lots of notes.

“The question was how to winnow that down to a big idea I could present in two minutes that would resonate with people who know nothing about my product,” Lawrence says. He won the contest, in part, by maintaining a laser focus on the problem he was addressing and not letting his engineer brain be pulled off into the many technical aspects of his product.

A great elevator pitch is essential for any entrepreneur. It’s a delicate balancing act of pizzazz and substance, conciseness, and detail. Winners, finalists, and judges from Get Started give their tips on how to make an elevator pitch fly:

Start and End with a Bang

Josh Linkner has a well-honed elevator pitch -- and you can get the gist when he simply states the first and last sentences: “Josh is passionate about helping people and organizations seize their full potential . . . He not only inspires, but moves audiences to action by offering practical and effective approaches to driving better business outcomes.”

Linkner notes that musicians spend extra efforts on the beginning and end of a piece, but most elevator pitches and other presentations put their best stuff in the middle, where they get lost, while the most important parts (the beginning and end) are squandered.

Pitch lesson: The beginning and end of any pitch is where to use your best material -- a bold vision, a provocative stance, a killer stat, or a gripping story.

Josh Linkner was a judge at Get Started Oklahoma City 2013.

Understand Your Audience

Chad Zani wants to make a difference. His on-demand car detailing service, Envi, uses water-saving techniques, and employs people with hearing disabilities. The challenge was how to communicate all those elements in a concise pitch.

After he developed and tried out his pitch, he was surprised to find the environmental and community aspects didn’t resonate as much as the fact that Envi saved time and was easy. People could schedule a cleaning while they were at the office, shopping, or at the movies and come back to a clean car, rather than waste an hour in an uncomfortable waiting area of a standard car wash. While he still mentions the other elements, they now fall behind the convenience in his pitch.

Pitch lesson: Focus on what your audience cares about most. Your pitch to potential customers may be significantly different than your pitch to investors.

Chad Zani won first place at Get Started Orange County 2016.

Know What Your Customers Don’t Know

Stacey Haussler makes “mind-blowing personalized children’s books that create shared moments of magic, spark, and connection.” If you stumbled on what a “personalized” children’s book is, you’re not alone.

“The first elevator pitch we gave was at a local startup pitch contest,” Haussler explains. “We assumed the judges knew what a personalized book was and didn’t do enough to drive home the point that our books are keepsakes and heirloom gifts. The judges assumed our books would compete with other children’s books and, therefore, assumed our products would struggle like traditional print media. ” The judges were also confused because Haussler’s business sells both to businesses and consumers, and she tried to talk about both markets at once.

She revised her pitch to focus on her main message : the emotional connection her books provide. “These aren’t just children’s books . They’re heirloom gifts, keepsakes, magical moments of wide-eyed kids on laps saying ‘How did you do this?!?’ They are moms crying tears of joy while they read.”

Pitch lesson: You can be so close to your business that you forget that others are hearing the idea for the first time. They may not realize things you take for granted.

Stacey Haussler was a finalist for Get Started Omaha 2017.

Don’t Get Stuck on One Floor

Colin Nabity provides a host of financial products for physicians through his website, LeverageRX. Like many entrepreneurs with fast-growing companies, LeverageRX is constantly changing and iterating, making its elevator pitch a moving target.

“We thought we had a succinct pitch, but then I constantly ran into customers who didn’t realize we offered student loans or disability insurance,” he says. “I wanted to say, ‘Those things are mentioned right on our home page!’ But I realized if the customer isn’t understanding what we’re doing, we have to try again.”

Pitch lesson: Just as your business is constantly changing, so should your elevator pitch. Tweak the pitch, add new lines, and continually test what works and doesn’t work.

Colin Nabity was a finalist for Get Started Omaha 2017.

You Know How to Get to Carnegie Hall

Steve Waddell put a lot of effort into developing the Nasoni Dual-Purpose Faucet, a gadget that combines the attributes of both a fountain and faucet. But he feels like he spent even more time learning to explain it.

Before the Get Started competition, he honed his pitch and then practiced it relentlessly in front of a mirror. He recorded himself giving the pitch at least 30 times on his phone, making sure he kept it under two minutes. He had two sessions with a speech consultant, who helped him refine the pitch even more. “It’s important to practice your pitch in front of strangers, not just friends and family you know,” he says.

Even after winning the contest, Waddell downloads podcasts on pitching, which he listens to in his car, and constantly quizzes those he pitches to on how he could improve. For example, some angel investors told him to “de-clutter” his slides. So, he asked people to look at his presentation slides and asked what they remembered - and took out everything but those points.

Pitch lesson: No matter how well you pitch, you can learn to do it better.

Steve Waddell won first place at Get Started Hampton Roads 2015.

Click here to return to the Startup Hub