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How to Pitch a Business Idea

by Chris O'Leary  |  
April 6, 2001

"Tell me your elevator story."

If you are an entrepreneur, then that’s something that you probably hear a lot. You hear it from friends, venture capitalists, and consultants like me. The problem is that it’s hard to get someone to define or describe an elevator story. My goal with this column is to give you some ideas about how to create a great elevator story.

A good elevator story has six basic characteristics:

  • It's as short as necessary.

  • It positions your idea and company.

  • It talks about pain.

  • It’s memorable.

  • It uses one of the three power phrases.

  • It’s used over and over again.

Let’s drill into each of these.

First of all, a good elevator story is short. That means that you need to be able to deliver it in 10 or 15 seconds. However, you need to have several different, but similar, versions of your elevator story to use on different occasions. I generally try to have 3 different versions for any idea that I am trying to sell. You use the 5-second version when you are introducing yourself to a group of people at a meeting or a round-table. The 15-second version is used in the proverbial elevator or when you meet Steve Jurvetson at a Bootcamp and he asks you what you do. Finally, the 30-second version is used when it’s just you and the other person, they have just asked “So what do you do”, and you have their undivided attention.


Second, a good elevator story starts off with your key positioning statement. This is a one-line statement that can stand on its own and sums up your idea and the pain that you are trying to solve. There are a couple of reasons to start off with a summary. First of all, you never know when you are going to get cut off or interrupted or when the other person is going to get distracted. The second reason is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The first words that you say about your idea will be 80% of what someone remembers. You want the other person to understand your idea and see that it is well thought out and clear. A stumbled first line can indicate a whole host of problems. Third, you need to sink the hook quickly. You have to first get the other person’s attention and interest. You can judge this by watching their eyes and seeing if they are interesting. Only after you have hooked them should you get into the details.

The third characteristic of a good elevator story is that it revolves around pain. As I said in “What a Pain In The Ass”, building your idea around pain will make your life much easier. Your idea should revolve around a pain that is being felt by a large number of people with some money or a small number of people with a ton of money. Talking about pain in your elevator story is especially important when you are talking to an angel and/or are trying to secure your first round of funding. The reason for this is that your typical angel is investing his or her own money and is less likely to make highly speculative investments. It’s their money, so they are likely to be much more choosy. They also may not be professional investors or that knowledgeable about the market that you are targeting, so the idea has to make sense to them. An idea that talks about solving a pain that is affecting a well-defined group of people is one that is more likely to make sense.

The fourth characteristic of a good elevator story is that it’s memorable. One way to think of what you are trying to do with your elevator story is to create what Richard Dawkins calls a “meme”. This is a thought or idea that is transmitted from person to person. That’s basically what you are trying to do – to infect one person with your idea and have them pass it on to people that they know. To do this, your meme must be short and easy to transmit from person to person – think about a virus like the common cold. That’s your goal. One great way to do this is to come up with a diagram that represents and positions your idea and that you can draw with both a pen and your hands.


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Chris O'Leary (cyberdigm@aol.com) is an eBusiness strategist for Cambridge Technology Partners (www.ctp.com).

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