Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a Founder and a VC walk into an elevator…
In all seriousness, if you’ve spent any time swimming in the startup waters, you’re probably familiar with the idea of the elevator pitch. But in case you missed that day in Founder School, the scenario is this:
Say you got in an elevator, and standing in that elevator was the one person that could make or break your business. You have the length of that elevator ride to convince this person to get on board. And no, the electricity can’t suddenly cut out and leave you with a couple of hours to fill instead of a handful of seconds.
Well — What the @#*! do you say?
There’s a reason the elevator pitch has become such an icon of entrepreneurship. And it’s not because so many founders keep finding themselves in elevators with Mark Cuban.
Crafting the perfect elevator pitch is equal parts art and science. It’s an exercise in economy, and a master-class in making every word count. Most of all, an elevator pitch is about distilling the value of your company down to its absolute essence. And the ability to do that is crucial no matter who you’re talking to.
But let’s be real: You’re spending every waking hour of your life for months at a time trying to build this thing. Boiling all that blood, sweat, and tears down to a couple of words can feel like an impossible task. Right?
Wrong. In fact, writing a killer elevator pitch for your startup is more than possible – it’s essential. Your elevator pitch the most important piece of storytelling about your company you will ever do.
Invisu.me Co-Founder and CEO Donna Griffit has turned helping entrepreneurs tighten their pitch into something of a life’s calling. As a corporate storyteller and consultant, she has an almost magical ability to spin raw data into compelling stories that captivate audiences and drive results.
Here, she joins us to share some of her thoughts on the makings of a great elevator pitch, and why you don’t just need one elevator pitch – you need many.
The first question in the elevator world is always this: What exactly do you put in an elevator pitch anyway?
There’s advice on this subject all over the Internet, with slight variations from here to there. For the most part, though, people can agree on a basic three-part structure: Problem, Solution, and… something else. That “something else” where the varying opinions start to creep in.
Pro Tip: If you have any follow-up questions after reading this article — book a call via Clarity to speak directly with Donna Griffit.
Content is key when it comes to crafting the perfect elevator pitch. But when it comes down to it, the actual words of your pitch aren’t nearly as important as what’s between those words. Because oozing out of every pore of your elevator pitch should be one, all-consuming principle: empathy.
A good elevator pitch, at the most fundamental level, is about a deep, radical understanding of your audience’s need – and how you can fill it.
As Donna outlines it, there are three essential questions that every elevator pitch has to answer: “Do you understand my need? How does your solution benefit my need, and how does it work? Can you prove it?”
You might notice that these three questions correspond to the Problem – Solution – Kicker structure outlined above pretty much exactly. That’s not an accident. These audience-focused questions are the force that’s fueling that structure in the first place.
Best of all: When you frame your elevator pitch in terms of these three questions, you keep the emphasis where it should be: on the person who’s hearing it, and what matters to them.
While we’re on the subject of what matters to people, here’s something to keep in mind: different things matter to different people.
What a customer needs is different from an investor needs, which is different from what a potential partner or press contact needs. The best elevator pitch artisans feel that difference deep in their bones – and they get really good at calibrating their pitches to the needs of specific audiences.
No matter who is on the receiving end of your pitch, you want it to connect with them. So do your homework, know who you’re talking to and what’s important to them, and give them a pitch that they can knock out of the park.
Another important ingredient in crafting elevator pitches with empathy? Making it easy for your audience to understand what you’re talking about. That means steering clear of a lot of ten-dollar words and high-falutin’ industry jargon.
We know what some of you are probably thinking. “But my product is a highly technical, special snowflake! I need my fancy words to accurately describe what my company does!”
Do you, though?
To go back to the baseball analogy for a second, loading your elevator pitch up with complicated jargon is like throwing your trickiest curveball or your hardest fastball. It’s basically saying that you don’t want your audience to get it. That you want them to strike out.
What’s more, when people load up their elevator pitch with too much jargon, a lot of the time what they’re actually signaling is that they’re not that confident in the value of their product. They use technical jargon as a crutch with the hopes that the “innovativeness” of the language will somehow rub off on their product.
If you can’t describe what your value is in a sentence of two-syllable words or less, it may be a sign that you’re stuck on the how of your product, instead of the what. Dig deeper, and get to the core of what your product does for people. And don’t be surprised if the pitch that comes out is several reading levels lower than your earlier versions.
Oh, and another thing: erase the word “disrupt/disruptive/disruption” from your vocabulary. Trust us. Just do it.
The elevator ride has long been the default symbol of quick startup pitching. But of course, the reality today is that most of the time you don’t even have the length of an elevator ride to get your point across.
That’s why Donna recommends you have not one, not two, but three different versions of your pitch ready to go. First, the full elevator pitch, and then two even shorter, even more condensed versions: the handshake and the eyeblink. That way, no matter what the situation and how much time you have, you have something ready to get the point across.
We’ve all been there: at a happy hour or networking event, people milling around, introducing themselves. Inevitably, the eternal question comes up: “So what do you do?”
This is your window, but let’s get real: if you talk for a whole minute, you’re going to look like a giant asshole. So what do you do? You reach for your handshake pitch: a Cliffs Notes edition of your elevator pitch, handily condensed down to 20 seconds.
Now, as Donna points out, this doesn’t mean delivering your Elevator Pitch at warp speed. What It means is distilling the same ideas from your elevator pitch into an even tighter, more powerful version.
If the handshake pitch is the Cliffs Notes of the elevator world, the eyblink pitch is the freaking Haiku. With the eyeblink, you don’t have 60 seconds. You don’t even have 20. Heck, you barely have five.
“Imagine that you were at a conference and you see Mark Zuckerberg walking past you and you have the perfect company for a Facebook acquisition,” says Donna. “Zuck’s not going to stand around waiting as you hem and haw – you have to give him the bottom line up front – the hook. What does he stand to gain by associating with you?”
Okay, so maybe we’re not all likely to have the chance to insta-pitch Mark Zuckerberg anytime soon. But trying to get a customer’s attention in the space of a tweet? Or a press contact’s in the space of a subject line? Those are situations that founders face every single day – and it’s situations like those where it’s the eyeblink pitch’s time to shine.
And again, don’t forget the golden rule of pitching: every pitch should be hand-crafted for the needs of the person it’s thrown at. “I would create about 6-7 different “Eyeblinks” and have them ready to go at a moment’s notice to the right person,” recommends Donna.
All this theorizing about elevator pitches is great. But what’s even better is being able to see actual examples of what these theories look like in practice.
Donna laid out three examples of hypothetical elevator pitches, all imagined for the same hypothetical company: WhatsApp.
Texting has become our number one way of communicating. Phone call? That’s so 2005. But try putting a picture on a text. And what about group texting? Or what if you have a limited data plan on your cell plan like most teenagers do? WhatsApp is a messaging app that lets you communicate with one or many people with text and rich media, including links, pics and emoticons. Only people you include in the message can see it, and everyone in the group can talk to each other. We have 450M active users (the figures at time of purchase), growing by 1M a day, and are almost as high as the volume of all text messages sent in the world!
Texting is great, but try texting pictures? Or texting a group? WhatsApp is a messaging app that lets you communicate with one or multiple people sharing pics, videos or links in a snap, for free! And with 1M new users a day – we have almost as many messages as all SMSes sent globally!
Zuck, your numbers are down, we’re growing by a mil users a day – and the kids love us!
One final thought on elevator pitches: remember, If you’ve done your job right, the elevator pitch won’t be the end of the conversation. It will just be the beginning.
The ultimate goal of the elevator pitch is to make your audience want to stay in that elevator with you. You want them to want to keep learning more about your product and what it could mean for them. But that longer conversation can’t happen if the person turns around and gets off the elevator to avoid listening to you. Or just nods politely while quietly counting the floors in their head until they can get off.
So get to work crafting the fascinating, magnetic, irresistible, empathetic, short elevator pitch of your audience’s dreams.
Got an elevator pitch handy that could use some feedback? Drop it in the comments, and let’s workshop it!
Interested in hearing more from Donna about her three types of quick pitches? Here’s a post she wrote on the 3 elevator pitches that always come in handy.
Want more advice on communicating your startup to others? Check out Nancy Duarte’s thoughts on why presentation is everything.
Looking for more specific guidance on pitching for funding? Take a look at our article on pitching venture capital firms.