Professor Roger Beahm comments on the Art of the Elevator Pitch

2.19.2013 Article, Faculty News

When pitching your company, keep it brief and be yourself

Reposted from Baltimore Business Journal | by Adam Stone, Contributor

Walt Himelstein is learning to keep it brief. As founder and co-owner of PURE Glass Bottle in Owings Mills, Md., that isn’t an easy thing.

Himelstein makes a glass bottle coated in plastic — oh, and it’s environmentally friendly, and you can drop it … and it won’t shatter … or spill. That’s a mouthful when you’re pitching your product to buyers at big retail companies.

“When I make initial contact with a retailer, they don’t have a lot of time. When you are talking to a buying agent you are lucky just to get them on the phone,” he said.

So Himelstein has been honing his elevator pitch, a minute-long spiel business owners use to pique the interest of investors, customers and potential partners in time-limited situations. More than just a commercial, an elevator pitch is an eloquently condensed synopsis of a business’s reason for being.

“It takes practice and preparation and self-editing to craft this clear, concise and compelling message,” said Terri L. Sjodin, principal and founder of Newport Beach, Calif.-based consulting firm Sjodin Communications.

On the art of self-editing, Sjodin likes to quote Winston Churchill: “If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now.”

It takes a serious effort to hone one’s passion into a one- or two-minute snippet.

“When you’re a startup like myself, you are in love with your product, you think it’s the greatest thing and you just want to gush about it,” Himelstein said. “You really want to go on and on, but you have to pull yourself back.”

But pithy is only part of the plan. This pitch works toward a specific end: To pique the listener’s interest, to leave them wanting to know more.

One way to make that happen is to aim for idiosyncrasy. “Communicate what makes your product, service or idea different, in some way that’s going to be important to the end user. If the idea you’re pitching isn’t unique, it won’t sell,” said Roger Beahm, executive director for the Center for Retail Innovation at the Wake Forest University Schools of Business in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Assuming the business is unique in some way, it still needs to be credible. Even if it means losing a few seconds in this precious window of communication, the speaker still has to give some evidence that this idea can fly.

“What is it about the idea that will ensure it will perform to expectation?” Beahm said. “Is there a special technology involved that’s never been used before? Has it been tested in the market and proven successful?” Beahm said.

Of course, to get started, you need a listener. Too often, the elevator pitch becomes insular, a commercial that is all about the speaker and his or her offering. But a conversation goes two ways, and even the time-constrained elevator pitch is, at heart, a conversation.

“It’s not about you,” Sjodin said. “The purpose is merely to intrigue and inspire the listener to want to hear more.”

One way to engage the listener — to draw them into the dialog — is to tell stories. Balance data with narrative, a real-live example of how the business does its thing.

“If you do that, they can see themselves in the storyline, and now they are engaged,” Sjodin said.

Ideally, that story will solve a problem that the listener has. If you can give an example of the ways in which the business can solve a real-world need, the listener will be more likely to want to hear more.

Now relax. An elevator pitch isn’t a performance. It’s an honest presentation of one’s business, and it needs to come off honest and authentic.

“Don’t make your pitch too ‘sales-y,’ ” said Gary Reisman, co-founder and principle of NewMediaMetrics, a brand-strategy firm based in New York City. “Even though you are limited in time, you don’t want to sound like a huckster.”

Authenticity is vital: Few people will want to do business with a partner who seems artificial. The very brief pitch is a chance to let the real you shine. “People want to hear your style, your colloquialisms, you essence when you speak. When they hear that, then they hear a truthfulness in your messaging. It doesn’t feel like they are hearing some kind of shtick,” Sjodin said.

If you’ve hooked them, they will want to know more, so leave time for questions in case they want to extend the conversation.

Finally, offer a call to action. By the time the elevator reaches the penthouse suite, you may have made a vital new connection.

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