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How to Craft the Perfect Elevator Pitch

Use our 4-step process to craft the perfect elevator pitch.


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Richard Fouts

3 years ago | 9 min read

A salesperson we’ll call Stacy, steps onto an elevator with a key prospect (who recognizes her from the conference they are attending) who asks, “Remind me, what do you do?”

Stacy has a tight window ( her prospect is going to the 10th floor). Realizing there’s no time to sell anything, how can she generate enough interest to secure a sales call?

Being quick on her feet, she says: “We cut your travel expenses in half.”

Her prospect perks up, saying: “Tell me more.”

Stacy teaches us an important lesson: the purpose of the elevator pitch is not to sell something, rather to arouse the prospect’s attention enough to get him or her to move to the next level of commitment.

Moreover, when your opening line is seven words or less (and is relevant to the impact your buyer’s situation is having on them) it gives you permission to keep going. Stacy has evoked the perfect response when her prospect recites the magic words, “Tell me more.”

Stacy continues:

“Research shows that business travel costs have more than doubled over the past decade. Our solution cuts costs in half by simulating an in-person experience that lets you collaborate with others anytime, anywhere — from the comfort of your home or office. Many customers report they’ve reduced travel costs by up to 80 percent, combined with an increase in productivity and employee morale.”

As Stacy’s prospect steps off the elevator, he hands her his card. “Call me. Better yet, can you meet later today, say 5pm?”

Step 1: Start With the “End of the Story”

Unlike the novelist or screenwriter model (which uses drama to lead up to a dramatic ending) elevator pitches begin with the story’s end by revealing the ultimate business outcome they deliver for customers.

The best openers are seven words (often less). Here are some responses I gathered at an alumni meeting of Wharton grads when I asked them “What do you do, in seven words or less?”

  1. We help you take market share.
  2. I help you find your dream home.
  3. We help you double your online revenues.
  4. I help you avoid employee lawsuits.
  5. We insure what others won’t.
  6. We help you comfortably retire.
  7. I help you compete with agility and speed.

Why seven words? It turns out we humans are wired to remember seven-word phrases, an observation made by psychologist George Miller, whose 1955 studies (The Magic of Seven) show human memory dramatically falls at the eighth word.

In 25 years of conducting my “Seven Word Blurb” exercise (where I ask marketers to tell me what they do in seven words or less) I have yet to find an organization who couldn’t successfully complete the ask.

Step 2: Adapt the classic dramatic structure.

Next, build story drama. Every film and novel you’ve ever experienced is based on the classic dramatic structure: characters impacted by situations and impacts that lead to some sort of resolution.

Adapt this proven structure by answering three questions, also known as the S.I.R. model (See Figure 1): “What is your buyer’s situation when they come to you? What impact is this situation having on your buyer? How do you remedy or resolve the situation?”

Figure 1: By using the S.I.R. model, you maximize your prospect’s attention just as you arrive at your solution.

Let’s consider some examples:
Let’s consider some examples:

If you’re like most companies you generate enormous amounts of information, much of it redundant. This creates unnecessary cost, dilutes productivity and diminishes morale.

EMC’s solution deduplicates data at the source — including remote offices and dispersed systems — before the data is sent over the network, speeding up backups while conserving storage and network resources.

Or this from Vantage Partners:

You can’t succeed in a connected economy without partners which is why corporate alliances increase by about 25% a year. Yet, the failure rate of these alliances still hovers at 60% to 70%.

Vantage Partners has the proven experience, insight and tools to help you dramatically improve the success rate of your alliances — assuring their intended contribution to revenue, growth and business advantage.

Check this out, from Stripe:

High demand for accepting digital commerce payments puts pressure on merchants to balance fraud management with the need to deliver a friction-free customer experience. S

tripe facilitates billions of dollars every year for digital businesses around the world, providing the technical, fraud prevention, and banking infrastructure required to operate trusted online payment systems.

Step 3: Authenticate your story (once you land the sales call)

Once you’ve landed the sales call, you have the opportunity to tell your story more fully, to defend it, and to describe in more detail just how you enable customers to achieve the outcome you’ve articulated. But — and this is most important — continue to keep customers in the subject of your pitch.

For example:

We all want to trust the medications we’re taking. But according to the World Health Organization, 1 in 10 medical products in developing countries is falsified.

The personal and public health tolls are huge, as is the economic burden (up to $200 billion annually). This is a big problem for drug companies and an even bigger problem for patients whose lives depend on these medications.

n response to the opportunity to make drugs safer, sooner, GSMS designed a sophisticated track-and trace system using 2-D bar codes and RFID tags. Having a unique serial number of every package of medicine helps us prevent counterfeit products from entering the supply chain.

GSMS teaches an important lesson by keeping the focus squarely on customers. Sadly, most pitches are corporate-centric, meaning they are dominated by the provider’s capabilities versus the customer’s situation.

You know you’ve fallen into this trap when all your messages begin with “we” or “our.” We all do it, and it’s okay, but when done to excess, it alienates buyers (See Figure 2).

When you rotate messaging to make your customer the subject, buyers imagine themselves in your story. And remember, when someone asks “What do you do?” they are really asking, “What do you do for me?”

For example, when Kodak executives ask Don Draper to promote all the technical wizardry of their new projector, Don interrupts and says, “No one cares about your story, they care about their own.”

And with that he narrates his own slide show with photos of him and his daughter. “Before you know it,” he concludes, “you’re walking her down the aisle and you wonder, where did the time go? But aren’t you glad you’ve captured it all in photographs that the two of you can share anytime you want.”

Lights come up, there’s not a dry eye in the house and the guys from Kodak agree that customers make the story. Hence, the tag line goes from “We sell the world’s most advanced projectors” to “We preserve memories.”

Figure 2. Customer-centric messaging helps customers sell themselves in your story.

Step 4: Finish with a call-to-action

Your story’s intended next step, appropriately known as a “call to action,” is fundamental to any marketing or sales communication. Examples include product demos, free trials, discounted pilots, an offer of customer references or money-back guarantees.

Other pointers:

Equip everyone with your elevator pitch, not just sales.

While salespeople are the primary audience for this piece, the organization’s elevator pitch has much-broader application.

The CEO uses the firm’s elevator pitch when speaking to investors, largely through the media — which are brutal in their demands for brevity. CEOs also team up with other senior executives, usually the CFO, to conduct conversations such as earnings calls. These calls frequently begin with the firm’s elevator pitch to get everyone on the same page. The elevator pitch also sets the framework for explaining strategic decisions and new investments in the business.

Public and investor relations personnel face a similar situation, because they engage media that demand simple, brief communications — especially corporate descriptors that follow news releases or the “About Us” landing page on the company’s Web site.

Brand managers and marketing communications people use the elevator pitch as a foundation to communicate finer messages across the entire communications mix. Having an effective elevator pitch is especially important in the age of social media, when communication must be short and to the point.

HR, through its recruiting efforts, is an important brand ambassador and communicator of the elevator pitch. And every employee, even if not customer facing, needs to understand how his or her efforts affect the organization when they talk about the company.

Analyst relations professionals brief industry, financial and market analysts many times throughout the year. Their briefings are more effective in reinforcing the company’s brand if they are framed in the organization’s elevator pitch prior to doing deep dives on product announcements, recent wins or other events that initiate an analyst briefing.

Partner and alliances managers are on the hook to recruit third parties that either fill in the organization’s solution gaps, or use its platform to offer other value-add products. These managers should know the pitch relative to partners and alliances as well as end-users.

Use other storytelling magic.

Anticipate objections. In our opening story, Stacy lands a sales call, knowing which objection will likely come up, hence she takes control: “It doesn’t mean you stop traveling. Face-to-face meetings are irreplaceable and important in many situations. But, out solution means you make these decisions more selectively, giving in-person meetings even more impact.” Hence, she turns a negative into a positive.

Quantify impact. For example, a provider will get more attention with: “You get 50% more storage for 50% of the cost” than the more mundane, “We provide cost effective storage solutions.” Moreover, research shows people are twice as likely to remember your value proposition if it is quantified.

Have those (dramatic) customer success stories ready to go. When buyers rank the marketing activities that influence them most, they lead with customer references. Leading marketers also weave the independent observations of creditable third parties into their copy to validate their stories.

Make your stories authentic and trusted. Why do some stories still sound hollow or self-serving, even though they hit all the right notes? The answer lies in one word: Trust. Quoting real customers, often and with candor, makes stories believable and authentic.

For example, in his article, Storytelling That Moves People (Harvard Business Review, June 2003), a screenwriting consultant shares the story of how a CEO was inspired to invent a heart attack prevention technique following the premature death of his father, with whom he was very close.

The CEO explains:

In my own grief, I kept seeing ways my father’s death could have been prevented.

That kind of personal storytelling, on the part of a CEO, can be very engaging. Yet most of us avoid conflict, struggle and vulnerability, the very techniques that make stories memorable.

On the subject of trust, Steve Greene (who has held several senior leadership positions in the tech industry) told me recently:

Messaging about trust can’t be emphasized enough. Many leaders may not even realize the negative impact their non-trusting communication and behavior is having on employees, customers, and the business. Leaders that put greed over trust and empathy are most always despised.”

In conclusion …

You won’t be successful generating trust if you make your pitch about you versus what you do for customers, employees and partners.

By spending as much time on the buyer’s situation-impact as you do on your resolution, your pitch puts more than lip-service to the idea of customer-centricity. Show you’ve grounded your resolution in customer obsession.

Integrate what your customers say about you into your pitch and larger story whenever you can. As Guy Kawasaki says, “What others say about you is more important than what you say about you.”

And finally, the purpose of the elevator pitch is not to sell something, but rather to arouse the prospect’s attention enough to get him or her to move to the next level of commitment. By using the S.I.R. model, you can remedy the impact of your buyer’s situation quickly, clearly and with conviction.

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Richard Fouts

I help organizations get their stories above the market noise.


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