While Shark Tank is undeniably popular, like all reality television, it's not, well, reality. As such, it's creating at least one bad habit that's making entrepreneurs less successful.

Specifically, the " elevator pitch" segment, where entrepreneurs present their ideas to an expert panel, creates a situation that never happens in the real world.  And when entrepreneurs try to make it happen, it makes them boring, not effective.

The concept behind an elevator pitch is that it's what you'd say to a potential investor or customer whom you meet by chance in an elevator.

By extension, an elevator pitch is what you'd say in any chance social meeting with such a person in the hopes of getting him or her interested in your product or idea.

The concept originated in Hollywood, where a "pitch" is something very different from the traditional "sales pitch."  I'll get back to that origin in a minute.

In the business world, the "elevator pitch" morphed into an abbreviated version of the old-time "sales pitch," the carnival-barker patter that was once considered an effective way to sell.

The sales pitch went out of favor in the 1970s and has been completely supplanted by "solution selling," which emphasizes questions and conversations. However, the elevator pitch remained as a vestigial remnant.

For the past few decades, the only places you saw "elevator pitches" were in clueless MBA programs where nobody on the faculty had ever actually sold anything. Often it was a contest, like a debate team.

Then came Shark Tank.  All of a sudden entrepreneurs are creating and polishing 90-second elevator pitches in the mistaken belief they're useful tools.  They're not.  In fact, they're worse than a waste of time.

To understand why, go back to the original concept of the elevator pitch.  

Pretend you get in an elevator with some schlub you've never met. You hit the button to the 49th floor, and on the ride, said schlub proceeds to motor-mouth a sales pitch.

If you're like me, you're going to get off at the nearest floor and let Chatty Charlie ride the rest of the way solo, right?

I'm pointing this out because today I got a request from a reader to comment on his elevator pitch. (I critique sales messages as a service to subscribers of  my free weekly newsletter.)

Here's the pitch, broken into three parts (I'll explain why in a sec):

"We work with clients to manage and convert their data into real-time actionable insight. Our method reduces generation time for reports from an average of four-to-five days down to minutes. This quick insight helps leadership to make informed strategic decisions and make better use of resources and budgets."

"As an example, a client was using antiquated software that wasn't allowing them to get an idea of what their auditors did, how often they did it, or what the results of those audits were. We worked with the client to not only develop an intuitive, scalable application that met their requirements, but also provided them with real-time metrics and dashboards that gave them a deeper understanding of what was really happening in critical areas."

"So after helping clients organize and analyze data, it really boils down to one thing: repeatable results. Giving clients the confidence to know that their data truly is that consistent single version of the truth."

Can you imagine listening to that in an elevator? The mind boggles.

Anyway, in the email, the reader explained how he uses the elevator pitch: 

"I normally stick with just the first and last paragraphs, but in the rare instance I get the chance, I'll use the second paragraph." (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, his victims are edging away before he can finish his pitch. With this in mind, I asked him, "So you actually launch into this during social situations?"

His response was priceless:

"Not the whole thing but I try to get in the first paragraph."


I have no idea whether this reader watches Shark Tank, but there's got to be some reason he's still trying to make this elevator pitch work.

Now, since the Shark Tank model of the elevator pitch doesn't work, it's fair to ask: what does? 

To answer this question, let's go back to the beginning. The elevator pitch originated in Hollywood, where a "pitch" consists of three sentences: 1) the idea, 2) who's committed, and 3) should we meet?  Here's how a conversation might sound:

  • Exec 1: "So, Ed, what's new?"
  • Exec 2: "We've optioned a script that's Star Wars meets The Devil Wears Prada."
  • Exec 1: "Fabulous concept!"
  • Exec 2: "Sigourney Weaver's on board as a supporting actress and executive producer."
  • Exec 1: "Great casting!"
  • Exec 2: "Thanks. Hey, let's do lunch and talk about getting Danny DeVito involved."
  • Exec 1: "Absolutely!"

That's a bit simplified, of course, but it's not all that far afield. 

In Hollywood, an elevator pitch is a conversation. What's more, it's a conversation that compresses everything the other person needs to know into two or three short, crisp sentences.

That's what works in the business world, too. As I've explained previously, a great elevator pitch consists of three sentences:

  1. The benefit. This answers the customer's first, unspoken question, which is "What's in it for me?"
  2. The differentiator. This answers the customer's second unspoken question: "Why buy it from you?"
  3. The call-to-action. This answers the customer's third unspoken question: "What's the next step?"


Note that the structure provided above is nearly identical to the original structure of the Hollywood elevator pitch.

Using the above model, here's how my reader might have an elevator pitch conversation that doesn't cause the listener to start looking for the exit sign.

  • Customer: "So why are you at this conference?"
  • Entrepreneur: "We've got a unique service that makes executives smarter."
  • Customer: "Smarter? Really?"
  • Entrepreneur: "Yup. It uses a patented algorithm that trolls through data and uncovers insights that increase profit."
  • Customer: "That's an interesting idea."
  • Entrepreneur: "Thanks! Hey, would you like to see it in action?"

Needless to say, that's not a conversation that's going to take place on Shark Tank!  So while you may find Shark Tank entertaining, don't take it so seriously that you start imitating its contestants.

Published on: Jul 18, 2016
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