If you're like most entrepreneurs, you think an "elevator pitch" is a one- to three-minute sales pitch that you could presumably give during a very long elevator ride. If that's what you think, I'm sorry: You've been completely misled.

Let's start with the basic fact: Nobody listens to sales pitches. (Do you listen to them? I don't. Especially if they are coming from some bozo I just met.)

To make matters worse, when most entrepreneurs give their "elevator pitch," they talk really, really fast so as to cram as much as information as possible into a short a time as possible.

In professional sales, this is known as the "spray and pray" method. It's not only ineffective, but it's irritating–especially if your listener didn't sign up for an information dump.

That being said, you're crazy if you don't have an elevator pitch, providing you realize that it's not a sales pitch, but a way to turn a casual conversation into a sales opportunity.

What It Should Really Be

The original idea behind the elevator pitch was to have something that you'd say to a potential customer whom you happen to meet by chance. While the "elevator" scenario is a bit absurd, there's no question that chance conversations can result in business opportunities.

Bob Carr, the CEO of Heartland Payment Systems–one of the largest credit card processors in the United States–once told me how he sold the idea for his new business to an investor whom he met at a wedding.

A real "elevator pitch" presents you and your offering in a casual, socially acceptable manner. That means no sales pitch. Period.

Instead, you introduce yourself and your firm in the natural context of a social conversation. Here's how to do it.

1. Position Your Firm

This is a carefully crafted sentence (that's just one sentence, folks) that describes who you are and what you do for your customers. It's what you say to somebody who asks: "So, what do you do for a living?" Here are some examples:

  • "Retail firms use our software and services to train their employees, resulting in an average 10 percent increase in sales."
  • "Within a year, our customers typically save 10 times more than they spent to install our employee tracking software."
  • "We help companies lower IT procurement costs—typically by 20 percent or more—by negotiating directly with major IT vendors."

Note that all of these responses to "What do you do for a living?" state a quantifiable benefit to your customers that would be relevant to a prospective customer. Also note that all the responses are pithy enough to be socially acceptable.

When you position your company in this way, the person you're talking with will express either disinterest or interest in what you just said. If it's disinterest, the person is not a potential customer–so let the matter drop.

If the other person shows interest–maybe by saying something like, "how do you do that?"–then you proceed to Step 2.

2. Differentiate Your Firm

The person you've just met has shown some interest in your firm, based upon your one-sentence position statement. Your job is now to show why you and your firm are unique and different from your competition. Do this by revealing one or two facts that prove your uniqueness. Examples:

  • "We have a unique methodology and supporting software based on some proprietary scientific research that we funded through MIT."
  • "We've been able to prove that some customers have gotten that ROI in less than six months."
  • "We've got extensive contacts that let us know the biggest discounts that the IT vendors have offered in the past, so we use those as the basis for negotiating your price."

Note that the examples match the positioning statements in Step 1.

3. Open a Conversation

Assuming there are still signs of interest, ask an open-ended question to find out whether or not the person you've just met actually is a potential customer or just being polite. Examples:

  • "Just out of curiosity, what priorities might you have in these areas?"
  • "You seem intrigued. Of what I just said, what might be of interest?"
  • "Hey, enough about me. How does your firm handle that kind of problem?"

No need to get fancy. Be sure the question is open-ended rather than something that can be answered with a simple yes-or-no answer.

4. Ask for a Meeting

If you're following the steps, you've now spent about somewhere around 40 seconds on the conversation–about half of which consisted of the other person speaking, and you listening. If it makes sense to have the conversation continue, it's now time to ask for a meeting to discuss the matter in more detail–so you can drop the business talk and go back to discussing, say, how lovely the bride looked.

There are two basic approaches.

If the prospect seems skeptical or hesitant, ask:

  • "If we really could do [insert something of value to the customer here], what would your thoughts be on having an initial conversation with us to hear more?"

If the prospect seems interested or enthusiastic, ask:

  • "I would love to have a conversation with you about [insert something of value to the customer here]. What's the best way to get on your calendar?"

It's that simple. No sales pitch, just regular conversation.

By the way, the real expert on the subject of elevator pitches is sales uber-guru Barry Rhein. He's the one who explained all of this to me while I was working on my recently published book (see the bio below for a link).

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