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Elevator Pitch 101

He that has no silver in his purse should have silver on his tongue.

– Thomas Fuller

Picture this.

You’re an entrepreneur and are attending an emerging technology conference in a swanky hotel. You’re there to learn something about the world of venture capital and make a few contacts. At the end of the day, you decide to change clothes before going out for the night. You head over to the elevator bank, push the “Up” button, and step through the doors of a waiting elevator car. Just as the doors begin to close, you hear a voice shout out, “Hold the door, please.” You swing your notepad between the closing doors and, as the doors bounce back, through the opening bounds a 40-some­thing woman who just happens to be one of the country’s top venture capitalists.

Or maybe you’re a salesperson and have spent the last year penetrating an account. The client is ready to buy, but everything is being held up by your contact’s inability to get the approval of his V.P. After attending yet another status meeting, you step into an elevator to go down to your car. You notice that the other person in the elevator is your contact’s V.P.

Or maybe you’re a project champion in a large company and you have just come up with an idea that will save -– or better yet make -– your company millions of dollars a year. After giving yet another presentation and get­ting yet another set of maybe’s, you get in the elevator to go back up to your office. As you step through the doors, you notice the CEO of your company standing on your left.

In each case, what would you do?


While the scenes I paint above may seem a bit idyllic, encounters like them happen every day to entrepreneurs, inventors, salespeople, project champions, authors, screenwriters, job seekers, and others.

By virtue of design, connections, or luck, they come face to face with the person who can help them achieve their goal; who can help them sell their Solution, regardless of whether that Solution is an idea, product, service, project, book, script, or themselves.

The problem is that too few people are prepared to deal with such a situation.

They haven’t considered what they would do, much less prepared something to say or rehearsed saying it. As a result, instead of capitalizing on the opportunity, they just let it walk out the door.


The goal of this book is to ensure that you know how to handle situations like the ones I describe above; to ensure that you know what to do, and what to say, if you have just a minute or two to catch the attention of the person with whom you most need to speak.

That means developing an elevator pitch.

Before I get into the specifics of what makes an elevator pitch effective, let me first take one of the lessons of this book to heart and give you an overview of what an elevator pitch is and why you need one.

What is an Elevator Pitch?

An elevator pitch is several things. Of course, an elevator pitch is a communication tool; it will help you articulate your message. An elevator pitch is also a sales tool; it will help you raise the money, and close the deals, that you need to be successful.

However, and most importantly, an elevator pitch is a teaching tool.

While it is of course important that you eventually close the deal, there is no point in trying to close the deal if the audience does not understand what you are talking about and why they should care.

As a result, an elevator pitch is designed to play the role of a primer; a high-level and basic introduction to whatever it is that you are selling.

An effective elevator pitch is designed to give the audience just enough information that they have a sense of what you are talking about and want to know more. Just as importantly, an effective elevator pitch is designed to not give the audience so much information that they feel overwhelmed and tune you out.

Think drinking fountain, not fire hose.

If you are going to be successful, you have to ease the audience into your Solution; you have to give them a chance to catch up to you and all the thinking you have done over the past months or years.

Why do you Need an Elevator Pitch?

While you no doubt love, are fascinated by, and are passionate about what you are doing, and could spend hours talking about it, most people aren’t like you.

In all likelihood, when it comes to the people whose help you will need to bring your Solution to life, they aren’t going to be nearly as knowledgeable about, or as interested in, your Solution as you are. As a result, they are unlikely to appreciate –- or even notice -– the intricacies, subtleties, and details of it. Instead, they will only understand and -– initially at least –- be interested in the big picture.

Even if they do share your interest in and knowledge of your field, it never fails that the more potentially helpful a person is, the busier they are likely to be.

Just like you, they have too many things to do and too little time to get them all done. That means they must constantly –- and quickly -– decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

As a result, you must come up with a way of explaining your Solution that will grab the attention of someone who has 17 other things on their mind. You must assume that people are looking for a reason to tune you out, not that they want to hear what you have to say. You must explain your idea in a manner that requires the audience to do the least amount of work.

Above all else, you must get to the point.

Only by doing that will you get the attention of the audience and have a chance of getting into the details of what it is that you are selling.


Now that I’ve given you a high-level overview -– or in other words an elevator pitch -– of what an elevator pitch is and why you need one, let me give you a short definition of an elevator pitch...

An elevator pitch is an overview of an idea, product, service, project, person, or other Solution to a problem and is designed to just get a conversation started.

While that definition is relatively self-explanatory, let me take a moment to discuss what the most important of those words mean.


The point of an elevator pitch isn’t to get into every detail of your Solution. Instead, all you want to do -– and all you have time to do -– is to make sure the audience understands what you are talking about, and what’s in it for them, at a fairly high level.

Getting into the details of your Solution during your elevator pitch will only confuse people.

Idea, Service, Project, Person or Solution

While the term “Elevator Pitch” is typically used in the context of entrepreneurship –- and in particular in selling ideas for new businesses to venture capitalists and angel investors –- the truth is that the idea can be applied to a wide variety of contexts. A good elevator pitch is an essential tool for a salesperson, a person trying to sell a project to their boss, or for someone who is looking for a job.

Just Get a Conversation Started

One reason why so many people deliv­er poor elevator pitches –- and why so many elevator pitches are too long and/or too detailed –- is that they don’t understand the purpose of an elevator pitch. They assume the purpose of an elevator pitch is to close the deal while in truth the purpose of an elevator pitch is to just interest the audi­ence in continuing to talk.

No more, and no less.


Now that you have a high-level sense of what an elevator pitch is, and what an elevator pitch is designed to do, let me drop down a level and discuss the characteristics of an effective elevator pitch.

After working with many would-be entrepreneurs, and studying hun­dreds of effective and ineffective elevator pitches, I have found that effective elevator pitches tend to be nine things...

1. Concise

An effective elevator pitch contains as few words as possible, but no fewer (and no more than 250 words).

While many people say that an elevator pitch must be short to be effec­tive, the truth is that it depends. Sometimes you only have a few seconds to get your point across. In situations like those, your elevator pitch must be extremely short. However, in other cases –- such as the elevator pitch competitions that are hosted by many schools and organizations –- you have considerably more time to convey your message. Often, that may be as much as one or two minutes.

While you do not want to go long, you also do not want to waste any of the precious time you have been given.

2. Clear

Rather than being filled with acronyms, MBA-speak, and ten-dollar words, an effective elevator pitch can be understood by your grandparents, your spouse, and your children.

This runs counter to what many people have learned in their academic and/or professional lives; that the way to impress people is to show them how smart you are by speaking in the elaborate, coded language of your field.

While that approach certainly works in some settings, it doesn’t work when it comes to delivering an elevator pitch. Venture capitalists, angel investors, and executives are too experienced, and too busy, to want to deal with those kinds of games.

Instead, they just want you to speak English.

3. Compelling

An effective elevator pitch explains the problem your Solution solves.

In the world today there is this idea going around that people should never talk about problems and the pain they cause; that they should instead be “positive” and only talk about opportunities. The promise is that by focusing on the positive, only good things will happen. Conversely, we are warned that by focusing on pain, problems, and other “negative” things, only bad things will come to pass.

While that idea is of questionable merit in general, it is completely wrong when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation.

If you study the lives and stories of successful entrepreneurs, intrapra­neurs, and innovators, you will find that most are unabashed –- and often serial -– problem solvers.

They make their fortunes by finding, and then solving, good problems.

The same thing is true of the venture capitalists, angel investors, and executives who back them. They are constantly on the lookout for people who understand the importance of finding, and then solving, good problems. As a result, an effective elevator pitch makes it clear that what you are selling is not a Solution In Search Of A Problem (SISOAP).

Instead, an effective elevator pitch very explicitly explains the problem you are trying to solve, for whom it is a problem, and exactly why it is a problem.

4. Credible

An effective elevator pitch explains why you are qualified to see the prob­lem and to build the solution.

While you may be supremely confident that the world needs the Solution you are selling, when it comes to persuading others to back you, faith alone isn’t enough.

Instead, you must give people a reason to believe what you are saying.

As a result, an effective elevator pitch addresses the question of the credentials and qualifications of the team. The goal is to convince the audience that you know what you are talking about and that you have the knowledge, experience, and resources that are required to get the job done.

5. Conceptual

An effective elevator pitch stays at a fairly high level and does not go into too much unnecessary detail.

Too often, when writing, developing, and delivering their elevator pitches, people spend much too much time talking about HOW their Solution works and HOW they are going to bring it to life and not nearly enough time explaining WHAT their Solution is, WHO will buy it, and WHY they will buy it.

Why this happens is perfectly understandable. When it comes to bringing an idea to life, you have to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about questions of HOW you will bring your Solution to life. However, when you are explaining your Solution to someone you have never spoken to before, you must first ensure that they know WHAT it is that you are talking about before you start to answer all of the HOW questions that you are preoccupied with.

6. Concrete

As much as is possible, an effective elevator pitch is also specific and tangible.

While it’s important that an elevator pitch doesn’t get into too many operational and other unnecessary details, it is still important to make clear to the audience that your Solution isn’t just an idea. Instead, you want to make sure that the audience comes away with the sense that what you are talking about is real (or soon will be).

That means talking about specific products and not just technologies. That also means talking about demonstrable accomplishments, assuming –- and hoping -– you have some.

7. Consistent

Every version of an effective elevator pitch conveys the same basic message.

Research reveals that people have to be exposed to a message three times before it will start to sink in. As a result, while you must have different versions of your elevator pitch, each of which is tailored to the interests of the audience with which you will speak, those different versions must be similar. That way, regardless of which version of your elevator pitch a person hears, they will still come to the same basic understanding of who you are and what it is that you are selling.

8. Customized

An effective elevator pitch addresses the specific interests and concerns of the audience.

The way to get someone’s attention is to speak their language; to answer the questions they want to ask without their having to ask them. The way to do that is to customize your elevator pitch so that you can deliver (slightly) different versions to each of the different audiences with which you wish to speak.

In the case of a start-up company, this means having customized versions of your elevator pitch that target prospective team members, business partners, investors, and customers.

9. Conversational

An effective elevator pitch is designed to start a conversation with the audience.

As I said before, one reason why so many elevator pitches go into so much unnecessary detail, and end up being so ineffective, is that too few people understand the goal of an elevator pitch. Rather than being to close the deal, the goal of an elevator pitch is to just get the ball rolling. Generally, that means starting a conversation, or a dialogue, with the audience. Only during later conversations will the audience be interested in the details –- the HOW -– of your Solution.

Copyright Notice
This document is copyright © 2009 Chris O'Leary and the LIMB Press LLC. It is licensed for personal use only. Any organizational or institutional use must be approved by Chris O'Leary.

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