The elevator pitch has left the building

10th December 2019

An image of the inside of an elevator in an article about making an elevator pitch.

Gone are the times of using Madmen-style hubris to get ahead – these days, it’s a little more nuanced than wearing a killer suit and delivering a slick presentation to a momentarily captive audience. It’s more like cooking your finest roast chicken and asking your closest friends and family for their money. Here’s an update on the traditional elevator pitch – without constantly having to pitch yourself at people.

What is an elevator pitch anyway?

The original concept is a masterful piece of allegorical commercial folklore: One day, and we’re told it really happens, you could enter an elevator on the ground floor of a skyscraper, at the same time as an angel investor. Nobody else gets on board throughout and you are both going all the way to the top. This eager investor is also chatty enough (right off the bat, giving you the full ride to respond) to ask, “So what do you do?” With no more than 3 minutes to give the dazzling pitch of your life, you could land the deal that changes everything, bringing you untold wealth and success happily ever after, complete with pumpkin carriage and sunset. The end.

Why pitching at people is outdated

A lot of business advisors still promote the idea that one should have several versions of a planned pitch, parrot-style memorized in your back pocket, so you can trot out whichever one fits best, at any moment, to anyone who’ll listen. Unless you’re in a pitching/entrepreneurial competition (in which case you know in advance and can prepare accordingly), or are bouncing around Silicon Valley, taking it one high-rise at a time, where is this mythical elevator?

In reality, we go through life reaching out to family and friends, or meeting people socially (where you have a little more time and context to work with) or through referrals, or even in active networking situations. As a society, we’re constantly being sold to and spoken at – we’re bombarded from screen time to face time. On top of that, unless you literally are Don Draper, anything parrot-learned, even if practiced a million times, will probably still sound a bit forced – it’s pretty hard for most of us to remember to “act natural”. Even if you’re lucky enough to meet that dream benefactor someday, research has shown that for most venture capitalists, it’s how you come across as a person more than the details of your proposal that really counts. There are an infinite great ideas out there, but only one of you. Investors need to like you, and believe that you are actually going to make this happen.

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Gone, but not forgotten

What has most certainly not gone out of fashion is being able to present an idea with clarity and confidence. People have less time than ever, and far more competitive demands on the little time they do have. It’s nothing personal, but in a world of not enough hours in a day, it’s generally considered disrespectful to waste time. Ronald Makomba, VP of New Regional Development at Yoco, says: “If you can’t grab someone’s attention and explain something end-to-end passionately, with knowledge, then don’t do it. It applies to selling any idea to anybody.” However much the elevator pitch may have become outdated, it definitely fought the good fight and we would do well to draw inspiration from its legendary guidelines:

Keep it short, relatable and impactful. Learn to use your words as efficiently as possible when speaking about what you do for a living, even in a social space. Learn to stop the urge to ramble, get overly detailed, use jargon or go off track, to listen before you speak and never talk over others. The quality of the conversation is what makes a lasting impression, not the exact content.

Know some things off by heart that help back up what you say and help you express yourself more succinctly, for those moments when you feel lost for words. Some experts suggest crafting one, powerful sentence that says it all – “We make [solution] for [target market] so that [value]”. But, this can come off like a regurgitated tagline in real conversations – rather, have an intimate knowledge of, and palpable fascination with the heartbeat of your business, giving you a cache of gems to pull from in the natural flow of an engaging conversation:

  1. The Problem your company/idea solves – this could be as simple as, “People crave a wider range of gluten-free products, that actually taste good”
  2. Your Target Market – who is your ideal customer? Research and dig deeper: where do they live, work, play, eat and travel? You must know them like they’re family, and have questioned your every assumption about them, by actually asking real people.
  3. The Solution you’ve created – and again, the simpler the better, “A unique range of gluten-free products, with innovative flavour combinations and superior quality ingredients.”
  4. The Value – what are you bringing to the world with your product/service? How do you want your work to enrich our society? Perhaps, you make living a gluten-free lifestyle easier, more varied and more delicious.

Hopefully, by now you have established some back-and-forth and are being asked a few questions that show interest. Either way, there are a few credibility enhancers you’ll want to have at your fingertips:

  1. Your Traction or success as a business so far – the numbers, and then the numbers behind the numbers, because people will ask. Don’t bother stating massive returns, if you don’t have the figures to back it up. If you’re hoping this person will buy in, you’ll need to prove every claim you’ve ever made, anyway.
  2. Your Main Competition and why you are different and equipped to take them on – don’t shy away from the challenge. Disclosing and addressing possible hurdles instead, will demonstrate that you have done your homework, are adequately prepared, and do business in a transparent way.
  3. Your Experience and “Why” – you should be able to articulate why you are the right person at the helm, and why you have chosen to spend your life pursuing this goal. You must show a deep personal connection with your project, because when things get rough (and they will), investors want to know you’ll be committed to the bitter end.
  4. Your Team and anything special they contribute – don’t be afraid to name drop and highlight any of your successful associates. It all forms part of demonstrating that you are a capable, multi-faceted organisation, which will spend money wisely and work exceptionally hard.

It seems like an awful lot of information to cram into three minutes – and it is! The point is that not everybody needs to (or should) hear all of the above at any one point. Let the circumstances be your guide and whatever you do, don’t rattle off a list of facts, goals and values! Be human. – Check out these real world examples for some practical applications.

Live in Hope. Possibly the most charming aspect of the romantic fairytale elevator, is the idea that one should live in a constant state of openness and readiness for anything that comes your way – open to meeting new and fascinating people in unlikely places, excited and optimistic about all the possibilities out there. So, don’t stop believing in miracles either, because they happen all the time too.

An updated approach

Get with the times and realise it’s about developing the ability to express yourself clearly and be a likeable person to all kinds of people – this skill is crucial in so many different settings and for different reasons. Instead of spending anxious hours trying to learn mini presentations off by heart (triggering every public speaking phobia ever), focus on getting used to talking to people you meet and like, about what you love and do. Luckily, that is something most entrepreneurs have in spades – passion and excitement for their ideas. If charisma is not your forte, learn how to be yourself anyway – the only way is through excruciating trial and error. It’s tough, but remember that the people who say ‘No thanks’ can teach you just as much as those who listen and show interest.

The Power of Writing and Imagination. This one sounds like a drag, and it will be at first, but try to think of it as something you can do instead of hanging out in elevators all day. Keep your list of key facts handy while you do this creative exercise in imagination: close your eyes and envision your personal unicorn investor – you can even imagine yourself in an elevator with her if you like. Now, write what you would say on the spot. Let the words flow and don’t censor yourself. Have a cup of coffee and answer some emails. Then, read it again and edit the fluff ruthlessly, until you get it down to only 150 to 250 words every time. If you can manage to do this everyday, or close to, sounding ‘natural’ won’t be of any concern and you’ll be spontaneous and engaging no matter who asks you that magic question.

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.

Albert Einstein

Include the types of follow-up questions they might ask – and imagine them fired at you from nice people and mean people and irritating people and arrogant people. Once you feel like you’re prepared for any type of investor scenario, start doing this exercise for new fantastical characters: a bratty child, judgemental teen, famous people from the past or present, the Pope or the Queen of England. Keep journaling until you feel totally comfortable to start practicing on real people, without needing to ever actively memorise a thing.

Smart Networking. Instead of being ever poised to launch into a speech, spend your energy and time actively seeking out new connections on your own terms and in organic ways. Not only has social media changed the way we interact, but it has revolutionised the ease with which we can become visible to one another. Actively signal yourself to key contributors by participating in forums, discussions and exchanges online, and be on the lookout for interesting people – more here on our minimalistic approach to effective networking.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Now get out there and talk to real people – talk about your idea to anyone who shows genuine interest, and forget about whether they are ever likely to give you anything. Simply speak for the sake of connecting and maybe getting some useful feedback. Speak for the sake of learning to adapt your delivery style to different people. The goal is to walk away from each conversation having made yourself understood, and best case, having made a lasting impression.

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