The perfect elevator pitch: Could you sell your great idea in 60-90 seconds?

The shortest statements are the hardest to prepare, just one of the reasons why the elevator pitch cannot be “winged”.

A great elevator pitch can create interest in a project but less is definitely more. Here's how to do it.

At a glance

  • A great elevator pitch can create interest in a project, product, idea or a person in 60 to 90 seconds.
  • Experts agree that a good pitch can’t be winged, but must be properly thought out, written, run by a third party and practised many times.
  • Less is more – avoid rambling, jargon and technical language, and don’t go in for the hard close.

Prefer to listen to this story? Here it is in audio format.

Entrepreneurs are always told to have their elevator pitch ready – the quick, succinct summary of their unique business proposition that they can give in a limited time to trigger the interest of someone they’ve just met.

It’s called an elevator pitch because in the early days of Hollywood, screenwriters would hang around the studios, notice an executive producer going into an elevator and leap in to attempt to sell their captive audience their movie idea before reaching the top floor.

That means 60 to 90 seconds, maximum.

While we usually associate the elevator pitch with the founders of a startup and entrepreneurs speaking to potential investors or partners, it can also be used in a workplace to create interest in a project, idea or product – or even in yourself.

Above all, the elevator pitch cannot be “winged”, says Tim Heasley, partner at venture capital firm Artesian Investments, who is currently working at Chinaccelerator in Shanghai. It must be honed relentlessly.

“The shortest statements are the hardest to prepare,” Heasley says. “Basically, the founders need to go into a room and not come out until it’s done. Then, run it by a smart third party who can tear it to shreds. Repeat the process, again and again.”

"Why?" is the key

Heasley is a big believer in author Simon Sinek’s “Why?” concept – that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it – the why is the core of the belief. (In Sinek’s Golden Circle presentation, “Why?” is the core circle, with the “How?” – how the business fulfils that core belief – in between the core and the outer circle, which is where “What?” is – what the company does to fulfil that core belief.)

“In terms of what I want to get from an elevator pitch, it needs to be a clearly articulated statement of the problem the start-up is solving, and the solution provided,” says Heasley. “If this is done, it quite naturally goes to the ‘Why?’ of the business, which is what must come through.

“Once the ‘Why?’ is clear, the ‘How?’ and ‘What?’ – which are much simpler concepts – can be articulated,” Heasley says.

Paul Devereux, co-founder and chief lead officer of venture capital firm Cataliize, says the elevator pitch is critically important for entrepreneurs and start-up founders because “you only ever get one window of opportunity” to impress and convince a potential investor or client.

"The investor will do their due diligence, and it won't matter how impressive your pitch is if there is no cash flow." Paul Devereux, Cataliize

“We’re human beings, we form judgements very quickly, and these initial judgements are very hard to change afterwards.

“When we look to work with a business that is looking to scale, we ask three questions: what problem are you looking to solve? Is it a problem worth solving? And third, why are you the right person to lead the movement?

“These are the crucial elements for us, and ascertaining whether the person is simply after money or whether they genuinely know they need help to commercialise and scale-up their idea,” Devereux says.

“You need to be genuine because the likely audience will generally have seen many a pitch, so don’t give them an easy reason to say no.”

The elevator pitch is just the start

Devereux feels there is “too much focus” on the elevator pitch – which is just a start, an opportunity to make a good impression.

“You can certainly sell an interesting story, but the reality is that [the initial pitch] is one of many conversations that you will need to have with a potential investor,” he says.

“Think of it as a ticket to the dance. But doing a great pitch and getting a ticket to the dance don’t guarantee a result.”

Shark Tank (an Australian television program where hopeful entrepreneurs present their ideas to a panel) has a lot to answer for in this regard, he adds.

He says it is “cringeworthy watching Shark Tank sometimes”, and viewers are wrong to assume someone is going to pledge funds on the strength of an elevator pitch. “The investor will do their due diligence, and it won’t matter how impressive your pitch is if there is no cash flow.”

"Practise writing your pitch and saying it until you can release it quickly, clearly and effectively." Matt Catling, Your Future Now

While the literal opportunity to deliver an elevator pitch to gain financial backing may be unlikely, having a practised, concise and engaging 30-second to two minute pitch of your business remains a good idea, says entrepreneur and personal development coach Matt Catling, founder of Your Future Now.

“Even if you never use it, having the ability to demonstrate what you are and why you do it is essential for business focus and clarity, as well as times where you might be put on the spot and need high engagement in a short timeframe,” Catling says.

“Ideally, you should summarise what you do in one neat sentence that is clear and clean and has people saying ‘Wow, that’s interesting’, and inviting you to say more,” he says. “Then more, then more…

“An elevator pitch gives you the ability to condense what you do and why you do it into a neat package. It’s important that you know what you stand for, who your audience is and how to meet their needs. You need to focus on three important questions: why you? Why this? And why now?”

The elevator pitch: It's all about them

Catling says a big pitfall is to make your elevator pitch all about you: who I am, what I can do, how my plan works.

“The most interesting person to someone else is them, and it’s so important that your pitch is all about them – your listener. If that’s a potential business partner, your pitch is about how they can benefit either financially, through exposure or through a mutually desired community project. If your listener is a potential customer, it needs to be about giving them something they will benefit from and be able to use.”

The very last thing you want to be doing is spending 30 seconds to two minutes talking about yourself, he says. “Avoid this at all costs. Even opening with your name and title is boring. Start with them and weave yourself through subtly,” he says.

Catling is a big advocate for practice. “Practise writing your pitch and saying it until you can release it quickly, clearly and effectively. That way, if you ever find yourself in an elevator situation, you avoid getting tongue-tied and rambling,” he says.

“When you practise, make a video of it so you can see your stance and hear your delivery on playback, and when you feel ready, get feedback from people who will tell you what they think with honesty and consideration.”

As for the don’ts in an elevator pitch, Catling has four main ones: don’t get technical, don’t ramble, don’t use jargon, and don’t go for the big sale/hard close. “Less is so much more powerful, and your elevator pitch should be something your grandmother or kids would understand,” he says.

CPA Library member resource: How to talk to absolutely anyone: confident communication in every situation by Mark Rhodes (eBook). Read now.

Going up: 3 tips for a great elevator pitch

Matt Catling has three key tips to a great elevator pitch:

  1. Highlight a need.
  2. Explain how you have the unique skill, ability or idea to get that need met.
  3. Show the benefits that others will receive when the need is met.

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