Clarity is so obviously one of the attributes of the truth
that very often it passes for truth.
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 MINDSET OF EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATORS
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
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
EXPERTS AND ORDINARY PEOPLE
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.
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 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
HOW TO BE CLEAR
When listening to your pitch, potential investors, backers, and
partners aren’t just judging your technical and
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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).
THE EXAMPLE OF SALESLOGIX
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.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU ARE BEING CLEAR
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.
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.