The elevator pitch: It's something every entrepreneur is expected to be good at but almost none will ever have to attempt. Sure, trying to close a funding round or sale while the clock is ticking is part of the work of starting a company, but literally pitching someone in an elevator? Doesn't happen.

For the eight semifinalists in Salesforce Ventures' Dreampitch contest, though, it did. On Sept. 4, founders of all eight startups took turns riding the elevator in the new Salesforce Tower with Bret Taylor, the enterprise giant's president and chief product officer. During their rides, they had 40 seconds (approximately the time it takes to rise from street level to the 61st floor) to pitch him, with the three best pitches earning a chance to win a $250,000 investment, to be awarded as part of the upcoming Dreamforce conference.

Immediately following their rides, I talked to the founders of the three finalists--CarServ, Draiver, and Radius8--as well as the five runners-up, to hear what they learned from the process and their best advice for other entrepreneurs seeking to nail the elevator pitch, real or figurative. I also got some tips from Taylor. Read and learn.

1. Say one thing. 

The biggest difference between an elevator pitch and any other kind of pitch, I heard from almost everyone, lies in what you don't say. A conventional pitch is expected to include information about the founders' backgrounds, the addressable market size, the competition, and so on. In an elevator pitch, you have time only to explain one thing: the nature of the problem you're solving and how you're solving it. "When you have the luxury of a longer pitch, you can tell a fuller story," said Katie Vahle of Carevoyance, which connects patients and medical providers with the products and services they need. "I found us taking out stuff about how we do stuff and focusing on why we do stuff, really homing in on the value and the so-what."  

 inline image

2. Practice on strangers.

A polished elevator pitch requires a lot of rehearsal, and friends and mentors make for the most convenient audiences. But to find your blind spots, it's crucial to also practice it on people who don't know anything about your company, said Josh Lowy of Hugo, which develops collaboration software to make meeting notes more shareable. "There's a ton of assumptions we have when we're in the weeds all day, thinking people care about these things or understand those things," Lowy said. "We just got as many people to sense-check our pitch as possible and strip out the assumptions."

3. Memorize, but don't panic.

When you have only 40 seconds, you can't waste them showing slides in a deck. You have to memorize your patter more or less word for word. "You can't wing it," said Jenna Flateman Posner of Radius8, which helps retailers bridge the gap between online and offline. Loop & Tie founder Sara Rodell, whose company won last year's Dreampitch, said she rehearsed her pitch while cleaning the house to make sure she could do it even while distracted. 

But that doesn't mean screw-ups are fatal. Your audience understands it's a high-pressure scenario and is likely to be more forgiving than in a different setting. Zarif Haque of Draiver completely blanked on his closing line. "It was kind of funny," he said afterward. That didn't stop Draiver, which helps companies manage their vehicle fleets, from nabbing one of the three finalist spots.

4. Take it down a notch.

Another thing that makes elevator pitches different is the intimacy factor. If you're trying to blow your audience's hair back with your dynamism and charisma, as you would onstage, it will come across as shouting. "You have to realize you're having a simple conversation," said Anthony Diaz of Health Hero, which makes software that improves patients' abilities to follow doctors' orders and reduces hospital re-admissions. "You can't just go in there and expect to be a motivation and enthusiasm extravaganza." To practice playing to the small space, Diaz performed his pitch while facing into a corner of the room.

 inline image

5. Communicate, don't sell.

Along similar lines, don't ask too much of your audience. If you've only just met them, the best you can ask for is a sympathetic hearing, not a commitment. Deepak Boggavarapu of Seva, which makes eco-friendly coffee pods, turned for help to a friend who's a theater coach. Her advice: "Have fun and realize the purpose of this is to communicate your message. Think about that. Don't think about it as a competition."

6. Embrace the constraint.

Trying to communicate your life's work in 40 seconds can be frustrating, but it's also a powerful forcing function: If you really can't do it, there's a chance it's because you have more thinking to do--about your messaging, if not about the business itself. "Going through the experience was really valuable," said Posner of Radius8. "Now we have an output we're going to use with our entire team across the board." Not to mention a new skill that applies to so many other facets of your work. "So much of the job of an entrepreneur is about selling the vision of your company," said Taylor. "When you're a startup, every employee you talk to is skeptical your company will exist in a year. Investors haven't heard of your concept. With every stakeholder, whether it's a customer, investor, or employer, you end up having to make a pitch. As much as it's challenging, it's an important skill to learn. How do you distill down the vision of your company in a really precise way?"

The three Dreampitch finalists will present their pitches onstage during Dreamforce on Sept. 26.