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A brief, well-crafted elevator pitch can leave prospective clients anxious to learn more

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

WHILE THE TERM “elevator pitch” might draw a blank with some, these quick presentations are widely used to tell the nutshell story of a company and leave the target audience intrigued. The trick is getting the elevator pitch to rank as close to No. 1 on the charts and not come across as annoying, ticky-tacky elevator “Muzak” to be forgotten.

For entrepreneurs and other business executives who dislike lengthy presentations and have trouble memorizing them, or don’t have time to be on the receiving end of such an oratory sermon, an elevator pitch can be a godsend. That isn’t to say an elevator pitch isn’t without its own challenges. A company’s story and its relevance to the target audience have to be packed into a meaningful presentation not much longer than a TV commercial.

What it is

ELEVATOR PITCHING GETS ITS NAME from the short time allotted for this marketing technique, similar to the duration of an elevator ride. It serves as a complement to other marketing practices.

“Presenting an elevator pitch is similar to storytelling,” said Amy Pietsch, director of Fox Valley Technical College’s Venture Center, where instructors help business owners and would-be entrepreneurs with pitching. “When you look at it from that perspective, you realize the art of the pitch has been around for a very long time. An elevator pitch is not a sales presentation or a presentation about how great your company or organization is; instead, the goal of an elevator pitch is to leave your audience wanting to know more.”

An elevator pitch should be able to be delivered at any moment – not simply a designated opportunity.

“By definition, a pitch is a precursor to most other marketing vehicles and designed for a chance meeting or a pitch competition,” noted Tom Still, executive director of the Wisconsin Technology Council. “Be ready to make a pitch at any point, however, because you never know when opportunity might knock.”

Pitch times can range from 30 to 60 seconds or one to two minutes for young companies. In the setting of a potential investor presentation, more established businesses may opt for up to seven minutes. Still noted that in the elevator pitch competition held during the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium put together through his agency, there is a strict 90-second time limit.

“Some people argue even that’s too long, given that the average elevator ride is somewhat less,” Still said. “Be prepared to deliver your pitch in a minute or less and you’ll rarely lose your audience.”

During that brief time period, Pietsch said one needs to clearly introduce them self, articulate the context, and provide a business model overview, all with the goal of inspiring interest for another meeting.

Why you need one

IF AN ELEVATOR PITCH IS DONE WELL, Still said, it’s good for opening doors.

If the goal is to get new customers or clients, an elevator pitch can kick off the sales process.

If the goal is to bring in investors, an elevator pitch can help them narrow down a large number of entrepreneurs and business plans, and to choose the strongest investment opportunities to pursue.

Depending on a company’s size and structure, it can be a good idea for the elevator pitch to be memorized by sales, marketing and business development staff, as well as the C-level employees who interact with potential customers or investors, Still suggested.

Elevator pitches can be adjusted, said Jeff Ebel, an instructor for the Venture Center’s E-Seed program and a Toastmasters member, “so employees in your company feel comfortable sharing the story of your company that you want them to share as well as understand the role they play in that story.”

The key message is to be comfortable and clear in communicating the pitch.

“It’s critical for anyone in business to be able to clearly and appropriately communicate and tell the story of their business and to understand when and how to change your presentation style based on the audience,” Pietsch said.

Best practices

THE FIRST THING TO DO when crafting an elevator pitch, Still said, is to know your audience.

“If that audience is primarily potential investors, they want to know why your product or service is unique and how it can make money over time,” he explained. “Spare them all the details about the technology itself, unless asked. That can wait until later, once you’re in the door. If your audience is a potential customer or client, let them know immediately how your service or product can make their business or life better.”

Ebel recommended stating the potential client’s pain, or the problem that needs solving, and the value proposition, or how your company can solve the problem.

Focus on your desired outcome. “The goal at the end of a pitch should be for an investor to say, ‘Send me your business plan’ or ‘Call me about a meeting,’” said Still. “The goal in a customer pitch is similar in the sense that you want to move closer to making a sale, such as, ‘Send me a proposal.’”

Components of an elevator pitch include succinct descriptions of the product or service, the target market and its size, the revenue model, the existing competition and what your competitive advantage and qualifications are, and how the product or service could be marketed. Address the potential customer’s WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). Avoid technical jargon that may not be familiar to potential clients and investors.

Ebel emphasized the “ask” part of a pitch, which should be in the closing.

“It could be something as simple as ‘Look us up on Facebook,’ or you may ask for more time to discuss your venture, service or product. Sometimes you may ask for a referral, or to be introduced to another network. You could consider the ask as the ‘next step,’ or where do we go from here?”

If you’re overwhelmed by what to include, try jotting down the individual elements as they come to mind, then weave the most pertinent ones together in a succinct description and polish that paragraph until you’re satisfied it represents your company and goal the way you want while also addressing the target audience’s WIIFM.

If there’s time, it can be helpful to briefly paint a mental picture of how the potential customer could use your company’s product or service. Graphics and numbers are made portable through smartphones and tablets which can be a good way to refresh the presenter’s memory, but set these devices aside unless the potential investor or customer requests additional details. Since elevator pitches integrate well with social media, digital versions of the pitch such as short videos can also be created, according to Still.

Practice delivering the pitch in a conversational manner.

“Be confident and professional, and never arrogant or presumptive,” Still recommended. “Great sales people connect in ways that express competence and sincerity.”

Update the pitch when new developments enhance it.

“Investors may hear a pitch and suggest that an entrepreneur stay in touch, but not take an immediate meeting,” explained Still. “Updating that investor or potential customer with new information provides fresh opportunities to open the door. The same is true with sales meetings. Today’s ‘no’ might be tomorrow’s ‘maybe’ with fresh information that allows a potential customer to see your product or service in a new light.”

May the best pitch win

ELEVATOR-PITCH COMPETITIONS offer entrepreneurs a stage to test their rapid-fire pitching. For a decade, the Wisconsin Technology Council has held the Elevator Pitch Olympics during the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium.

Northeast Wisconsin Regional Economic Partnership conducts the annual Northeast Wisconsin Business Plan Competition, in which the last stage involves finalists presenting an elevator pitch to a panel of judges. The 2011 event was won by Dana VanDen Heuvel and Peter Nugent of The Docking Station, a coworking space in Green Bay. VanDen Heuvel, who also owns the social media firm MarketingSavant, first came across the quick-pitch concept as a teenager in the 1980s when reading the works of Tom Hopkins, Dale Carnegie and others.

His own elevator pitch was a two-year development.

“Our original value proposition was derived from looking at how other businesses like ours positioned themselves and adapted their thinking to our situation,” explained VanDen Heuvel. “We really only used this as an internal document until we worked through a more thorough strategy and branding process to ensure that we have crafted an elevator pitch that was comprised of our own language and that really differentiated The Docking Station.

Since the concept of The Docking Station was relatively new to northeast Wisconsin, VanDen Heuvel said they included references and metaphors to other shared office concepts to help their listening audience make sense of what they offered.

“When we used the same industry jargon that’s often used to explain coworking, we found that the individuals we spoke to didn’t really get the concept at first blush,” he said, adding that the pitch is used whenever someone is given a tour of The Docking Station, or a presentation is given elsewhere.

“The rigor that a person goes through to build their elevator pitch is the same rigor that they go through when building their brand, slogan, tagline and other components that manifest in the messaging from their organization in the form of advertising, collateral, social media and everything else,” noted VanDen Heuvel. “That succinct elevator pitch is one of the keys to clearly defining your differentiated space in the market.”

More than one version of The Docking Station’s pitch was created, tailored for different audiences. “The elevator pitch changes whether we’re talking to a developer, a potential member, a local official or another audience that might have a different ‘what’s in it for them,’” explained VanDen Heuvel.

VanDen Heuvel knows The Docking Station’s elevator pitch has gotten results when the target audience has a clear picture of “what we’re doing, who we are and what we’re saying. At the end of the day, I believe that making our pitch reference the metaphors of what The Docking Station combines – coffee shop plus office space plus collaboration – has made the elevator pitch effective.”

The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh held its first student elevator pitch competition this past December. Freshman entrepreneurship major Marcus Bales took first place with a 90-second elevator pitch for his full-service haunted-house consulting business, Desolate Design Studios.

Bales adjusts his pitch to fit different audiences, and continually tweaks it to make it better. Pitching his business has given him “the opportunity to speak with some very intelligent and talented people in the business world.”

In the end, a prepared, succinct elevator pitch can help any business define its brand and its unique value.

“Being able to clearly communicate in a variety of formats is key for any business owner and their employees,” said Pietsch. “Sometimes the elevator pitch is the format, other times you have more time to fill in the blanks. Either way, use your time wisely and be prepared.”

Robin Bruecker has 17 years experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at robinbrueck@yahoo.com.