Elevator Pitch 101
He that has no silver in his purse should have silver on his tongue.
– Thomas Fuller
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
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
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
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
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.
THE NINE C’S
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...
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.
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.
An effective elevator pitch explains the problem your
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.