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Clarity is so obviously one of the attributes of the truth that very often it passes for truth.

– Joseph Joubert

One of my most vivid memories from my childhood goes back to a trip I took when I was 12 or so. My parents, my two younger brothers, and I went to Kentucky Lake for a family reunion, and one of the activities was a day of water-skiing with my older cousins, who ranged in age from 15 to 22.

We showed up at 11AM or so, after they had been water-skiing for a couple of hours. They brought the boat in to shore, picked us up, and then went back out a couple hundred feet or so. Being the oldest, I said I was going first, so I put on a life jacket, jumped in the water, and slipped my feet into the two water skis.

I don’t remember what I was thinking as the boat moved away from me and they started to take the slack out of the line. However, what happened next is burned in my brain.

I gave the boat a thumbs up to indicate that I was ready and I braced myself the best I could for whatever was going to happen next. At that point, my cousin who was driving the boat hit it. However, he apparently forgot that he had a 75-pound, 12-year-old newbie water-skier at the end of the line and not a 200+ pound, 22 year-old, expert water-skier. What I remember is being instantly jerked out of the water, flying up and over the ends of my skis, landing face-first in the murky green water, and being pulled out of my skis and under the water until I had the good sense to let go of the towrope.

So what does this have to do with an elevator pitch?

The problem is that too many would-be entrepreneurs –- and in particular engineers, scientists, and other technologists –- do the same basic thing to the audience. Instead of easing the audience into a discussion of their Solution, they hit it. They launch into a low-level, lingo-laden explanation of their Solution without taking into account the experience, or interests, of the audience. More often than not, this causes the audience to simply tune out both the pitch and the pitcher.


In the water-skiing story, it wasn’t my fault that I flopped over onto my face. I had never water-skied before, and the driver of the boat should have taken my skills and abilities into account. As a result, at the end of the day the fault for my problems learning how to water ski lies primarily with the driver of the boat.

When it comes to communicating one’s message, the same principle applies. When communicating a message to an audience, it is the job of the communicator, not the audience, to make sure the message is understood.

The logic behind this principle is that because the communicator possesses all of the information, it is their job to figure out how to communicate it in an effective manner. There is only so much the audience can con­tribute, other than making sure that they are paying attention.

Effective communicators understand this critical principle and take responsibility for ensuring that they are understood. Unfortunately, too many would-be communicators engage in “blame the victim” thinking and refuse to take responsibility for problems they create for the audience.

I once worked for a company that was having problems with a certain part of its web site. The issue was that the users of the system were having a hard time figuring out how to use it. I knew these problems were costing us revenue, so I jumped into the middle of the issue to try to see if I could come up with a solution. I quickly came to understand that a root cause of the problem was the attitudes of the people in charge of the system. In conversations with them about the problems that users were having, they told me things like, “We can’t help it if they’re too stupid to understand what they need to do.” and, more generally, “You can’t fix stupid.”

The truth was that things were never going to get better, and revenues were never going to reach their potential, until the people who had the power to fix the problem took responsibility for their actions and started to take seriously their role as communicators.


If you want to become an effective communicator, you first need to understand that the world is made up of two very different types of people: Experts and Ordinary People.[3] Among other things –- some of which I will discuss in the next chapter –- these two types of people have very different levels of knowledge about, and interest in, a given subject.


Experts make up 10 percent or so of the population and tend to be the innovative types of the world. They are the people who know more about a given subject than nearly anyone. They are so much more knowledgeable about that subject because they are more interested in it than nearly anyone else. Most entrepreneurs tend to be Experts, at least when it comes to their Solution.

Ordinary People

Ordinary People make up the other 90 percent of the world and are just that. They are regular folks who know a lot about a lot of things, but not as much as the Experts of the world. In general, Ordinary People know just enough to get by, but really aren’t interested in learning more about a given Solution than they need to.

One thing that distinguishes effective communicators from unsuccessful ones is that they understand this difference. They understand that they are an Expert and that most people aren’t like them; that most people don’t share their level of knowledge about, or interest in, their Solution. As a result, they spend a tremendous amount of time and effort figuring out the best way to get their message across to Ordinary People.


When listening to your pitch, potential investors, backers, and partners aren’t just judging your technical and operational skills.

They are also judging your skills as a communicator.

They want to know that you understand the importance of constructing a message that will appeal to Ordinary People and not just Experts. They know that there is no point in backing someone who will not be able to raise addi­tional money or sell their product to Ordinary People.

As a result, your elevator pitch must convince the audience that you understand how, and how important it is, to be clear. As I discussed in the previous chapter, one good way to do that is to start your elevator pitch off with a summary sentence. However, there are a number of other things that you have to do to ensure that you are clear.

Speak English

One way to ensure that you are being clear is by speaking English.

First, speaking English means not using any big, multi-syllabic words or words that someone may have to look up in a dictionary. Not only might using big words leave people confused, it can leave them feeling a little paranoid. Con men frequently try to put things over on people by using big words and unfamiliar phrases in the hope that the audience will trust them and think that they are smarter than they really are.

Second, speaking English means not using any acronyms. Every field of work develops its own acronyms and abbreviations. While these serve to make life easier for the people in that field, they also serve to exclude people. When selling your Solution, you want to make sure that the audience knows that you understand how to get your message out to the widest possible audience, not just the few people who are members of the club.

Oversimplify Things

One objection I frequently hear when coaching peo­ple with technical backgrounds is that they don’t want to oversimplify things; that they are afraid to “dumb down” their Solution. While I understand the driving force behind this objection –- in some cultures the way to impress peo­ple is to use big words –- to create an effective elevator pitch you absolutely must “dumb down” your message. There simply isn’t time to get into the technical nitty gritty of your Solution in just a minute or two. Instead, all you can hope to do is give people a general sense of what you are doing and why.

Tie Together Features and Benefits

A common characteristic of poor elevator pitches is that they contain long lists of features but do not explain the corresponding benefits. All this does is overwhelm people with disconnected, disjointed pieces of information that do not seem to fit together. As a result, none of this information is remembered and the audience is left more, rather than less, confused.

A better way to explain what’s so special about your Solution is to list just a few (e.g. no more than two or three) key features and to give a one-sentence description of the benefits that each feature provides. In other words, after listing each feature, immediately answer the “So what?” question that the audience will naturally ask.

Use the Problem > Solution > Benefit Structure

A related approach that often significantly improves the clarity of an elevator pitch is to follow the Problem > Solution > Benefit structure. When explaining your Solution, first explain the problem that is being caused by the state of the art. Then explain what the solution looks like (at a very high level). Then explain the benefit that the customer will realize from your Solution.

Leverage the Known

An industry with significant experience pitching ideas to busy executives is Hollywood. Every year, hundreds of movies are released to theatres. Of course, before any movie can be released, it must first be made. That means that the person with the idea –- usually the producer, writer, or director -– has to convince the person with the money –- usually a studio executive -– to give them the money they need to turn their dream into a reality.

Sound familiar?

As it turns out, one technique that is widely used in Hollywood pitch meetings can help you explain your Solution to an audience of Ordinary People. The best way to see this technique in action is to rent Robert Altman’s movie The Player.

Scattered throughout this movie are a number of scenes in which people pitch movies using the X meets Y template.

As Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate, Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman, and The Gods Must be Crazy but with a TV actress instead of a Coke bottle.

I often use this technique to quickly communicate the concept of movies I like to my friends and relatives. For example, in telling my friends about the movie Cloverfield, I described it as a cross between Godzilla and The Blair Witch Project. That got across the idea that it’s a monster movie filmed from a first-person perspective.

Why does this technique work?

First, it works because it explains new ideas in terms of two things the audience already knows. As much as you believe that your idea is new and unique, people will still want to know, “What’s it like?” and “How’s it different?” Rather than getting annoyed, you should use this tendency to want to relate the unknown to the known to your advantage.

Second, this technique works because it explains the new idea in terms of two things that were already successful. Experienced Hollywood pitch masters don’t pitch movies as Gigli meets Battlefield Earth (a truly frightening thought). Instead, it is Titanic meets E.T., Gladiator meets Star Wars, and Shrek meets Tootsie (or whatever).

Use Metaphors and Analogies

Using metaphors or analogies can help make your Solution clear. When selling SalesLogix, we would often describe SalesLogix as being “Act on Steroids” or “Like Act but for large sales forces.” This helped to get our basic point across and gave people a sense of what we were doing and why.

Use a Prop

I once heard a pitch for a gas spectrometer start-up that had significantly shrunk the size of the device. The pitch wasn’t that compelling when I first heard it, but after their pitch I started talking to them and it came out that they had reduced a mass spectrometer from the size of a washing machine to the size of a quarter. I thought that was a very significant difference, and I told the presenter that he should always have quarter with him so that he could show it to the audience at the appropriate time. Props can also be useful tools for companies that have already developed a prototype of their product. Not only does it help people understand exactly what you are talking about, it can also help you look more concrete.

Repeat Yourself

One of the basic principles of effective communication is that repetition enhances clarity. Advertisers have found that most Ordinary People have to hear something 3 times in order to be able recall it reliably. That is why they run the same commercial over and over again. That is also why the first rule of effective presentations is to tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. An effective elevator pitch follows the same basic format. The Summary Sentence tells them what you are going to tell them, the body of your eleva­tor pitch tells them, and your close tells them what you told them.

Use Progressive Revelation

A final way of improving the clarity of an elevator pitch is to use an approach that I call “progressive revelation.” This is a fancy way of saying that you should repeat yourself, but each time you do so you should give the audience just a little more information and detail. This is basically what is achieved by starting a pitch off with a summary sentence and then following it up with additional body text. The body text says the same basic thing as the summary sentence, but at a slightly lower level of detail. The point is to absolutely hammer home the one key message of the pitch, rather than trying to make multiple points in the pitch (which is generally less effective).


Let me go through the SalesLogix elevator pitch and explain some elements that helped make it more clear...

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.

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.

The problem with existing CRM solutions is that they fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, you have contact managers like Act that salespeople love but that do not allow people to share information across a large organization. On the other hand you have high-end CRM systems like Siebel that scale to support the needs of hundreds or thousands of users but that salespeople refuse to use.

First, while the SalesLogix elevator pitch contained an acronym, it was defined immediately after it was used. Second, the SalesLogix elevator pitch was fairly, and deliberately, redundant. Notice that the first two sentences say pretty much the same thing. However, the difference is that the second sentence focused more on the problem and the pain, rather than the benefits, and used the phrase “mid-sized companies” to emphasize that, while SalesLogix could be used by any company, we were initially tar­geting mid-sized companies. Finally, you can see some progressive revela­tion at work in the SalesLogix elevator pitch. Notice how the second sen­tence basically restates the first, but is a little more detailed and focused. Similarly, the third paragraph says the same basic things as the first two paragraphs, but gets into more detail.


It is impossible for an expert in a subject to tell if their pitch is clear just by reading it. As a result, here are a few things you can do that will give you an objective sense of the clarity of your message.

Monitor Your Readibility Scores

One way to judge whether you are suc­ceeding in speaking English is to take advantage of the readability score that Microsoft Word calculates when you check the spelling and grammar of a document. Microsoft Word calculates this readability score by looking at the syllables per word and words per sentence in your document.

Try Your Message Out on Ordinary People

Your goal should be to create a pitch that is understandable by Ordinary People. The way to see if you’ve done that is to deliver your elevator pitch to your spouse, your grandparents, and even your children. If they are able to understand what you are talking about, then you are probably doing your job. If not, then you need to go back and reevaluate what you say and how you say it.

Have the Audience Deliver Your Elevator Pitch Right Back to You

One way of telling if you’re being clear is to give your pitch to someone and to have them deliver your pitch right back to you. That serves two purposes. First, by having someone deliver your pitch right back to you, you can see what they keyed in on and change what you emphasize if necessary. Second, your goal should be to turn your audience into your salesforce; to spread your message via low-cost, high-credibility word of mouth advertising. By having the audience deliver your pitch back to you, you can see how they will spread your message for you. You can then make adjustments to your pitch if necessary so that the right message is spread.

Listen to the Audience’s First Question

At one start-up I worked for, when pitching the company to investors the CEO would deliver a half-hour to hour-long presentation that he had honed over the course of a couple of years. What struck me was that invariably the first question the audience would ask after that time was up was, “So what exactly is it that you are doing?” After that happened a few times, and taking the question at face value, I came to realize that one reason we were having trouble getting trac­tion was that Ordinary People had no idea what we were talking about. That version of our pitch was going right over their heads and needed to be completely restructured. Since then, when delivering a pitch I have learned to pay close attention to the first question the audience asks and use it to judge whether my pitch is effective or not.

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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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