I didn’t have the time to write a short letter, so I
wrote a long one instead.
– Mark Twain
Back in the dot-com days, a friend and I shopped around an idea for a startup. One of the people we talked to was my friend’s brother-in-law, a man named Doug. Doug managed the money of wealthy families, and because wealthy people often do a lot of angel investing, we knew that getting Doug interested in our idea could really help our cause.
As we walked into Doug’s office, he was on the phone, checking his e-mail, and talking to his secretary at the same time. We asked him if he was ready for us and he said “Yes” so we started to give him our pitch. He listened to us for about 5 minutes and then got up to do something at his desk. We asked him if he wanted us to pause, but he told us to keep going. This went on for another 25 minutes or so, with Doug doing three different things during the pitch. While we were a little thrown by this, at the end of the 30 minutes Doug told us that he was interested in our idea and that he wanted us to speak to some guys that he knew. That meeting led to a series of others that help us move our idea forward.
While a bit disconcerting at the time, I have come to learn that our experience with Doug wasn’t that unusual. Powerful people tend to be extremely busy. Each year a venture capitalist will talk to thousands of people and review hundreds of business plans. Similarly, senior executives are constantly being asked to decide what is a priority and what to invest their budgets in.
That means their time is precious.
As a result, the way to get their attention, and to impress them, is to be able to quickly get to the point; to be able to explain what you need, and why, in just a few seconds or at most minutes.
THE ACCORDION MODEL
Before you get the idea that what I’m saying is that your elevator pitch should simply be short, keep in mind that you don’t want to waste any of the time that you have been given. While in some cases you may only have ten or twenty seconds to deliver your pitch, in other cases you may have as much as two minutes.
As a result, a good way to think of your elevator pitch is like an accordion.
If you keep your hands close together, then an accordion is narrow and compact. If you spread your hands apart, then an accordion is wide and expansive.
An effective elevator pitch must be able to do the same thing; it must be able to be short and focused if necessary, but must also be able to expand and fill the time that is available.
If you are asked to introduce yourself to a group of people, then you must be able to get your point across in just 10 or 15 seconds. However, if you meet someone while standing in a bar line at a wedding or other social function, you may have as much as a minute or two.
When you are writing your elevator pitch, the first thing to keep in mind is that most people can comfortably speak at around 125 words per minute. As a result, when it comes to a word budget for your elevator pitch, you’re talking about 25 or so words on the low side and 250 words at the absolute maximum.
If in doubt, you should stay under the 250-word limit because it is much better to speak slowly and in a calm and relaxed manner than it is to be rushed. By rushing through your elevator pitch, you are more likely to damage your credibility by sounding harried and disorganized than you are to help yourself by getting in that one extra sentence.
THE INVERTED PYRAMID
When writing an elevator pitch, I am always deliberately a little paranoid and assume that the speaker will be cut off at any moment. As a result, I try to follow the inverted pyramid model that is used by newspapers.
The inverted pyramid model says that, rather than burying the most important information in the body of a story, you should instead start the story with it. That way, someone can get the gist of the story by reading just the first line or two of the story (which is called the “Lede”). They can then keep on reading if they want more information or details.
In the case of a newspaper, the most important information –- and the key contents of the Lede –- are the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of the story.
THE SUMMARY SENTENCE
In the case of an elevator pitch, the equivalent of the Lede is something that I call the summary sentence. In the same way that your elevator pitch is a summary of your Solution, your summary sentence is a summary of your elevator pitch. As a result, your summary sentence is the most critical element of your elevator pitch; it is what you should say if you only have time to say one thing.
The job of the summary sentence is to provide the audience with a quick, crisp overview of what you are doing. By quick, I mean no longer than 25 words and able to be delivered in just 10 or so seconds. By crisp, I mean something that is well-organized and that flows off the tongue easily. By overview, I mean something that focuses on the WHAT of your idea and that leaves the HOW to a later conversation.
There are three reasons why it is important to start off your elevator pitch with a summary sentence.
First, and most importantly, people start forming an impression of others in just a few seconds and, as the old adage says, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. You want people’s first impression of you to be of someone who is organized and articulate, not someone who is disorganized and long-winded.
Second, when encountering any new piece of information, people quickly decide whether to pay attention to it or not; whether what they are seeing, reading, or hearing is relevant or not. You want the answer to that question to be “Yes.”
Third, in most cases you have no way of knowing in advance just how much time you have to talk to a person; it may be 10 seconds or it may be 10 minutes. It is safest to be paranoid and assume that you only have a short period of time. If it turns out that you have more time, then you can always go into more detail.
WHAT TO INCLUDE
An effective summary sentence focuses on several things.
Just as you should tell someone your name when introducing yourself, your summary sentence should give the name of your company, team, or project. That name will give them a piece of information off of which they can hang all of the other information you are going to provide.
Type of Company
Investors do not invest in any and every type of venture. Instead, they tend to specialize in just a few sectors and types of products. As a result, one way to make it clear that you know what you are doing is to help professional investors decide whether to pay attention to you or not by indicating the type of company you are (e.g. a hardware or software company) in your summary sentence. If they don’t cover your type of Solution, they aren’t going to back you anyway, so its best to not waste their time. In addition, when talking about what type of company you are in your summary sentence, it isn’t necessary to mention the stage of the company. This is a level of detail that is best left to later on in your elevator pitch (e.g. the objective).
In a similar vein, your summary sentence should establish what category (e.g. life sciences or customer relationship management) your Solution is targeting.
Product or Service Name
One way to make your venture feel more tangible is to tell the audience the name of your product or service. That communicates that you are selling more than just an idea.
If you want to give the audience a high-level sense that you understand selling, your summary sentence must answer the “So what?” question. It must identify the one or two things that differentiate your idea from existing solutions and that will drive people to change.
One place to look for benefits is to look to your answer to the question, “What’s wrong with the state of the art?” Your key benefits should be the opposite of what’s wrong with the state of the art.
In some cases, naming you chief competitor(s) can help people understand what you are doing.
Since the summary sentence is the most important part of an elevator pitch, and in many cases will determine the success of your entire elevator pitch, let me give you some examples of what a good summary sentence looks like.
The SalesLogix summary sentence touched on each of the elements I mention above...
SalesLogix is a software company and has developed a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system that is both easier to use and more powerful than existing solutions like Act and Siebel.
Since we knew that hardware venture capitalists wouldn’t be interested in our deal and we didn’t want to waste their time or ours, the SalesLogix summary sentence made it clear that we were a software company and not a hardware or services company. The SalesLogix elevator pitch named the market segment we were targeting –- the Customer Relationship Management market –- and used the full name of the category before giving the acronym in case some people had heard the acronym before but didn’t know what it meant. The SalesLogix elevator pitch also listed our two key benefits, rather than just our two key features. Finally, the SalesLogix elevator pitch named our two reference competitors because this helped people understand how we fit into the market and our point of difference.
Elevator Pitch Essentials
The Elevator Pitch Essentials summary sentence followed a slightly different format because, while SalesLogix was trying to carve out a piece of an existing market, Elevator Pitch Essentials was targeting relatively virgin terrain. There were no direct competitors, and few indirect competitors, for Elevator Pitch Essentials, which is why the opportunity existed in the first place...
Elevator Pitch Essentials is a business book that explains to entrepreneurs, innovators, project champions, and others the secrets of writing and delivering an effective elevator pitch.
The Elevator Pitch Essentials summary sentence explained that the book was a business book because I knew that, like venture capitalists, literary agents and publishers tend to be specialists. Not every literary agent and publisher would be interested in my book because they might work with fiction or other titles. As a result, I put that phrase up front in my summary sentence so that the audience could quickly and easily decide whether to pay attention to my pitch or not. I also used the phrase “entrepreneurs, innovators, project champions, and others” in order to explain to the audience that the book would appeal to more than just entrepreneurs, who are the traditional users of elevator pitches.
SUMMARY SENTENCES VERSUS TAGLINES
Keep in mind that a summary sentence is different than a tagline. A tagline is even shorter than a summary sentence because it is generally limited to the benefits of the Solution. However, a tagline does not contain enough detail to serve as a summary sentence.
Before I close this chapter, let me explain that if, during the course of putting together your elevator pitch, you find yourself arguing over individual words you should understand that this is perfectly normal. I remember that back in the days when I was working for SalesLogix, I would get very frustrated with my boss due to just two words that we used in our elevator pitch. He thought we should describe the customer and the problem as follows...
SalesLogix is targeting mid-sized companies that have outgrown contact managers like Act but don’t need the cost and complexity of high-end CRM products like Siebel.
I thought that sentence was almost perfect, but the phrase “don’t need” was a little weak. I preferred the version below because of the strong, double meaning of the phrase “can’t afford”...
SalesLogix is targeting mid-sized companies that have outgrown contact managers like Act but can’t afford the cost and complexity of high-end CRM products like Siebel.
While it may seem like I was just splitting hairs, and that there was little real difference between the two versions, this disagreement reflects how hard it can be to create an effective elevator pitch. Given the word limits that are necessary for an elevator pitch or summary sentence, you have to choose each word very carefully. That’s one reason why it can often be harder to write something short than to write something long.
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copyright © 2009 Chris O'Leary and the LIMB Press LLC. It
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