For the Entrepreneur
As Thomas Jefferson said, the most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. Perhaps that sentiment has never been more apt than in the age of Twitter. Brevity is an asset online, but in person it can be far more difficult to maintain. After all, no one is going to cut off your impassioned monologue after 140 characters.
How do you snag – and hold – the attention of someone important who has at least 15 other things on her mind? How can you turn a quick hello into a promising business lead without being abrasive? We spoke with authors who specialize in the topic as well as business-communications professors about how to break down your idea into a digestible bite of information and deliver it like a pro.
Mastering Your Elevator Pitch: Script It and Test It
If you have an idea you believe strongly in, talking to people about it probably comes naturally. If you’re like most entrepreneurs, it comes almost too naturally, says Chris O’Leary, the author of Elevator Pitch Essentials. That’s because you know the logistics, the minutia, and every single component of your business.
Guess what? Most people don’t care – at least about what you’re working on hour-by-hour. Potential investors, collaborators, or mentors, might need a mile-wide view before wanting to zoom in. “One of the reasons some people have a hard time with elevator pitches are that some personality types aren’t compatible with it,” O’Leary says. “Entrepreneurs are so into their idea sometimes that because they care so much they assume that everybody else does too.”
Whereas the “elevator pitch” as we know it originated as a quick hit – a synopsis that can be rambled off in the 30 or 60 seconds an elevator ride used to take – these days, it’s more like a well-crafted ad than a condensed thesis. Consider your elevator pitch a personal 30-second TV spot: It should be a simple-to-grasp promotion that’s catchy enough to not let your viewer think about changing the channel – or about walking away.
Moreover, your pitch should impress your listener enough to induce the possibility of a future meeting. Think of it as a hook that makes the person you’re talking to need to ask “How does that work?” or simply request, “Tell me more.” At the very minimum, an elevator pitch should be used as an opportunity to broaden your network of professional contacts.
What an elevator pitch is not, says James S. O’Rourke, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, is this: “An opportunity to exploit, use, bore, or terrorize someone trapped in an elevator with you.”
So, remember to be conscientious, O’Rourke says. “Your first objective during an elevator pitch is to get them to like you,” he says. “Because if they don’t like you, they might just take the stairs next time.”
To get there, relying on trial-and-error isn’t wise. O’Leary suggests sitting down with a pen and paper to hash out your elevator-pitch ideas. “You actually have to put a pitch together – literally script it out,” he says. “One of the reasons most people don’t put one together is that they try and the first version is terrible. You have to put it down on paper and start revision.”
Test it out aloud, and enlist a colleague, friend, or mentor, to let you know if it’s both comprehensible and engaging. O’Leary suggests that if someone two decades older than you is engaged by it, test it on someone two decades younger. A truly effective pitch can work across attention spans and engagement levels, and will appeal to members of both groups. Master this, and you’ll have plenty of time to specialize it in the future.
Of course, a close friend or spouse might not provide an unbiased opinion. So Catherine Smith MacDermott, a business professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, suggests you further test your elevator pitch with someone in your field or with an expert Recently, she says a pair of local entrepreneurs asked to meet with her, in order to test a pitch before meeting with potential angel investors.
“It was really smart that they thought to come to me first,” Smith MacDermott says. “I think they have a wonderful new product, but was able to offer them a lot of straight critique of how they needed to work on their pitch.”
The Work Place Pitch
The following scene gets enacted in numerous workplaces every day.
Joe enters the cafeteria, and Sally, a senior executive, is standing right in front of him. Sally makes eye contact, smiles and asks Joe how he is doing. At this point, Joe might respond in one of three ways:
- Joe says, “I am fine, how are you doing?” and not knowing what to say next, he starts fiddling with his phone.
- Joe mumbles, ”Fine,” and at a loss for words, starts fidgeting awkwardly. He then leaves in a couple of minutes under the pretext of just having remembered something important that needs his immediate attention.
- Joe says, “I am doing great, Sally, how are you? In fact, you’ll probably appreciate hearing that our team is on its way to crush its targets again and with your help we can do even better… ”
It’s pretty obvious that #3 is a great response, however most people tend to pick one of the first two responses when faced with this situation.
Why does this happen? It’s mostly due to a lack of preparation for this interaction. Unless you are a master of improv, it’s highly unlikely that you can whip up a great conversation with a senior executive at a moment’s notice. However, that one conversation can make you stand out from the masses. So how can you prepare for this interaction?
Entrepreneurs are told that they need an elevator pitch – a 30- to 60-second elucidation of their idea so that a potential investor is hooked and interested in hearing more.
Similarly you need an elevator pitch for your chance executive interaction.
A successful elevator pitch has three components:
- A quick overview of the most important project you are working on from the company’s standpoint. Sally might be interested in the details of your training for an upcoming marathon, but she’ll be much more interested in how you are developing a whole new customer segment for an upcoming product launch.
- What is the progress on that project? Be objective and realistic when you describe the progress. Don’t leave Sally with the impression that everything is great when it’s not. Also, don’t take this opportunity to rant against other team members or departments. Remember, Sally is just there to get lunch, not solve your problems between her soup and dessert.
- Has anybody been particularly helpful in enabling the projects success? Be generous with your praise. It helps spread good karma and your acknowledgements will eventually reach your colleagues who will want to make you even more successful. Alternatively, are there simple things that Sally can do to increase the probability of the project’s success? For instance, can she suggest somebody in her department who has the skills to consult with you on a particular aspect of the project?
Take 15 minutes to work on your elevator pitch today.
Be authentic. Be brief. And above all: Be Ready.
Illustration ©2013 Patrick Boland