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Perfecting Your Elevator Pitch


Last updated 8/5/2010

Your elevator pitch is a critical weapon in your professional revenue-generating arsenal. It's your audition for professional attention, your calculated attempt to be noticed and to matter to others. The skills to develop a strong elevator pitch will serve you well, forever. It's a set of skills most business people don't fully understand, but covet. It's the rare ability to capture the interest and imagination of someone you have just met—in about the time it would take both of you to enter an elevator, travel down to the lobby level, and then cross the office building foyer together before saying good-bye and heading in separate directions.

How to Build Your Pitch Step by Step
There's a cadence and a beat to every good elevator pitch. It's not just smooth and easy to understand, but it's also filled with impact and individuality. A good elevator pitch always impresses the listener with its intensity. Strong elevator pitches all follow the same protocol and steps, yet no two good ones sound alike because they are customized.

I'm going to give you the exact protocol and steps you'll need to follow for crafting your elevator pitch.

Step #1: Describe Your Business Using Nonjargon Words
The first words that come out of your mouth in your elevator pitch should be a brief and memorable description of your business. Here comes the hard part: I'm going to ask that your description exclude all industry jargon. Industry jargon, especially technically accurate jargon, destroys your ability to be compelling and unique. All it does is make you ordinary and easily forgettable. Work hard to speak plainly and without jargon with that first sentence, and you will have them listening to you.

Step #2: Focus on Your Customers
Now that you've told the listener what your business is, immediately move to how you serve your customers. Describe specifically what you do for your clients, in plain and distinct language. Avoid vague, overused, self-congratulatory maxims like the following, which trigger an immediate snort of sarcasm from facetious souls like me:
• “We solve our client's problems.”
• “We form a partnership with our clients.”
• “Our clients have come to rely on our unparalleled level of service.”
• “We're the go-to guys.”

Instead of these familiar, boring clichés, consider trying out one of these phrases:
“Our clients hire us because we . . .”
“Our clients invest in us because we . . .”
“Our clients turn to us because we. . . .”

and then describe the specific service or product you provide for them. Try to describe precisely why they make the investment in you, not vaguely why they hire you (that is, no mention of partnership or being the go-to guys) but specifically why they pay you, using direct and easy to understand language. And remember to do so without using jargon. This is your first break-through step in creating a vibrant and memorable elevator pitch.

Step #3: Focus on Overcoming Challenges Your Clients Are Facing
Here's where you can really shine. After you've described your business and talked about why your clients hire you, launch into a single, highly specific issue or problem with which you helped a single customer. You might think you’re selling yourself short by boiling everything down to one customer issue rather than talking about your many capabilities, but I'm going to let you in on a nasty and deflating secret: nobody riding in the elevator with you wants to know everything your company does! They barely want to listen to you, but they have to because they're trapped. They're hoping you will be somewhat interesting, but they won't count on it because they've been bored to death so many times before. You can change all that and make their day by sharing a single vibrant story about how you helped a single customer, not everything you do to help all clients.

Step #4: Focus on a Happy Customer Ending
Finish with a flourish and make sure your story has a happy ending for the customer. You're communicating in a memorable way without sounding lame or shallow. The successful solving of a customer issue or problem gives you instant credibility, which you can never hope to achieve by simply reciting marketing slogans.

Two Examples: One Lousy and One Good
Pitch #1: Boring and Average Elevator Pitch
“I'm a partner in a large regional CPA firm. What sets our practice apart is our commitment to the highest standards of client service. We go beyond the balance sheets and income statements to help you understand the real drivers in your business and how you can maximize them. We have substantial expertise in both the audit and tax sides of our business.”

And now let's take a closer look at each sentence:
“I'm a partner in a large regional CPA firm.”
On the surface this description appears merely innocuous and bland, but on closer examination it reeks of insecurity and self-doubt. There's no reason for you to lead with your title, unless it's president or founder—both of which can create interest and connection as long as you have more than five or six employees. Mentioning your firm is a large regional company raises far more questions than it answers. Why don't you work for a national firm? Maybe you couldn't hack the competition. Don't bring in geography or size in the first sentence. Those topics do not help you build a connection, even if you are the biggest with the most offices.

“What sets our practice apart is our commitment to the highest standards of client service.”
This sentence is so ubiquitous that it has lost all meaning. But on the off chance that someone actually hears it, he or she will probably wonder about your sincerity. Any successful firm should be dedicated to the highest level of service. Would you ever admit you are dedicated to moderate levels of client service? Would you tell someone you have a lukewarm commitment to client service?

“We go beyond the balance sheets and income statements to help you understand the real drivers in your business and how you can maximize them.”
This sentence starts out with real promise and then disintegrates. I like: “We go beyond the balance sheets and income statements.” The meaningless MBA-speak term “drivers” ruins the good start. If I'm in distribution, the drivers in my business are down at the loading dock, and they never hide from me. I don't have to pay someone in a fancy suit to find them. If I'm not clear about what real drivers are (are there fake drivers?), why would I want anybody to maximize them?

“We have substantial expertise in both the audit and tax sides of our business.”
Telling someone in the third or fourth sentence what type of work your firm chases makes for an accurate but weak elevator pitch. It's vague and not helpful.

The last part of this sentence is a typical trap that many professionals fall into. They think that everyone they meet is knowledgeable and somehow interested in the way their particular industries are set up. I'm betting that most educated humans, even successful ones, don't know or care that accounting firms are sometimes divided into people who work on profit and loss statements, and others who work on tax returns—just the same way they don't know or care that some lawyers are litigators and others work on transactions, or that some general contractors work on residential buildings and others on office buildings.

For most people, an accountant is an accountant, a lawyer is a lawyer, and a contractor is a contractor. Your elevator pitch needs to be focused on delivering specifics about how you help your clients. That's the way to create a great connection without getting into meaningless industry labels.

Let's take another crack at this elevator pitch, this time following the four-step protocol that ensures elevator brilliance:

Pitch #2: Interesting and Distinctive Elevator Pitch
“We are accountants. We make sure you understand your financial statements. We want the process of billing your customers and paying the bills from your vendors every month to wind up making you money, instead of giving you continual unprofitable headaches. We do lots of things, but here is a good example. Just last week we showed a client that he was mistakenly using two different vendors to buy the same thing for different offices, instead of getting the vendors to compete for one big order at a lower price. That change will save our client $100,000 during the next quarter alone.”

Let's take a look at each sentence to discover how this speaker will make a great first impression every time with this introduction:

“We are accountants.”
This is a crisp and effective business label that is friendly and direct. It alone is not gripping, but it puts the listener at ease and creates the foundation for what is to follow. It should be delivered with a positive and strong tone.

“We make sure you understand your financial statements. We want the process of billing your customers and paying the bills from your vendors every month to wind up making you money, instead of giving you continual unprofitable headaches.”
This is a winning elevator-pitch second sentence. It focuses on the client and gives a powerful reason as to why the client hires the speaker. The speaker has made a jargon-filled technical profession easy and simple to understand.

“We do lots of things, but here is a good example. Just last week we showed a client that she was mistakenly using two different vendors to buy the same thing for different offices, instead of getting the vendors to compete for one big order at a lower price.”
This is a highly focused story of solving a problem for a client. It's quick and easy to understand, which is a blessing for everyone in the elevator. This is an area where most elevator pitches break down. They either never include a story, or the one they include is too detailed and boring. When you prepare your own story, editing and honing it over and over again will help you transform it from ordinary to great.

“That change will save our client $100,000 during the next quarter alone.”
This is a nice little close for a dynamic elevator pitch. The story works great with the punch line being any dollar amount—$100,000 or $1 million, it doesn't matter. It's a story about saving the client money through creativity and innovation, which is always a good story.

One Size Does Not Fit All
One last word of advice: remember that not every pitch is right for every elevator. That's why you need more than one. Bummer, I know, but you can do it. Work hard to create five distinct elevator pitches. It's a reasonable goal. You can do it. Keep that opening sentence the same, but use five different stories of success to illustrate five different reasons customers pay you money. That way you'll be ready for any elevator, or any meeting, with confidence and cool.