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The Elevator Pitch

(This post has nothing to do with investing. Skip this if you are not developing your communication skills.)

In 1994, Barnett Helzberg, Jr. was walking by The Plaza Hotel in New York City when he heard a woman hail Warren Buffett. Helzberg approached the legendary investor and said, "Hi, Mr. Buffett. I'm a shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway and a great admirer of yours. I believe that my company matches your criteria for investment."

"Send me more details," Buffett replied. A year later, Helzberg sold his chain of 143 diamond stores to Buffett.

Helzberg's story is a classic example ofa powerful elevator pitch. An elevator pitch gets its name from the 30second opportunity to tell-and sell-your story during a three-or four-story elevator ride. The 3D-second parameter is based on the typical attention span, according to the book How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less by Milo O. Frank. It's one reason why the standard commercial or television "sound bite" lasts 30 seconds.

While elevator pitches are often associated with funding requests, they can be valuable every day. Job interviews, networking events, public relations opportunities, presentations to executives, and sales all demand the ability to successfully deliver a quick and concise explanation of your case.

—Nick Wreden
How to make your case in 30 seconds or less

The elevator pitch! I thought only salespeople used it but have now changed my mind. The example isn't as good as the author suggests—knowing Warren Buffett, I think he would look at all business deals—but it still presents the type of opportunities that may arise.

I have been searching for a job lately, partly to advance my career and partly because my company isn't doing too well, and have been spending a lot of time on career-related activities. So far no luck, but the future is mysterious as always. I am not very career-oriented and, unfortunately, never put much effort into my career. For the first time in my life, I am actually thinking more about my future, where I belong, what my skills are, and so forth. Perhaps as Peter Drucker has remarked, most people discover their career in their late 20's or early 30's, which describes my state. This has meant that I ignored in the past—such as how to write a good cover letter, sell yourself, and the like.

My intention is not to bore you to death with my state of affairs but to quote an interesting article I read recently. This topic belongs on my personal blog—with readership approaching 5, rounded up ;)—but I thought others may benefit from what I am about to say.

I was searching for tips on writing better cover letters and performing better during job interviews and I came across the following article: "How to make your case in 30 seconds or less" by Nick Wreden. You can purchase this very-short article for $4.50 from Harvard Business Publishing. I signed out the thin booklet, Face to Face Communications for Clarity and Impact, from my library, which also contains this article.

Given how short this article is, I hope I'm not going to break fair-use laws but quoting it and summarizing it below. As with most of my posts, there are two reasons for it. Firstly, as always, some readers may learn something (they may not get around to reading the full article, particularly if you live in a foreign country and don't have access and can't pay.) Secondly, it's for my own reference. I would like to revisit this in the future and a blog post is more accessible and permanent than anything on my computer (I did scan this article though.)

The Elevator Pitch

As with most aspects of communications, it is a liberal art. There is nothing to say that Nick Wredon's thoughts are absolutely correct. Some may also find what I'm about to quote, very commonsensical, boring, and lame. In any case, I found it insightful.

The elevator pitch is not just for salespeople. It is something that may help you in other activities, such as presentations, interviews, trying to influence others, and so on. Nick Wredon gives the following tips:

  • Know the Goal: "The goal of an elevator pitch is not to get funding, a job, or project sign-off It's to get approval to proceed to the next step, whether it's accepting a phone call, a referral to the right person, or a chance to send additional information."

  • Know the Subject: "Do you know your topic well enough to describe it in a single sentence? It's harder than it sounds. As Mark Twain pointed out, 'I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.'" This is a serious problem for me. As you can tell by my writings on this blog, I am, at times, too verbose. I definitely need to learn to be more conscise. I don't know how my speaking skills are and I may need to improve my verbal skills as well. Nick Wredon continues, "The issue, as always, is less what you do, and more what you can do for somebody. "I'm a real estate agent" is not as powerful as saying "I am a real estate agent who specializes in helping first-time buyers like you buy great homes in this town."

  • Know the Audience: "...he tailors his elevator pitch to match his audience's requirements. "If people don't hear a benefit for them, they won't listen to you," says Yancey." This is something I have been trying much harder with my resumes and cover letters. There was a time, perhaps due to arrogance or lack of understanding of the world, when I didn't tailor my words towards my audience.

  • Organize the Pitch: "Typically, elevator pitches start with an introduction, move into a description of the problem, outline potential benefits for the listener, and conclude with a request for permission to proceed to the next step in the relationship." If you have very good pusuasive skills—have charisma, can talk well, look good, and are convincing—then you can be more free-flowing.

  • Hook Them from the Opening: Quoting from the article, "You have to make an immediate connection with the audience. This connection signals that it's worth investing valuable time to hear what you have to say. Weiss suggests starting with a provocative, contrarian, or counterintuitive statement that will rev pulses. One example: "Quality doesn't matter.""

  • Plug into the Connection: "Clarity is more powerful than jargon. Use analogies the audience can relate to. Power once had to explain a new technology called "strong authentication." He held up an ATM card. "Every time you use this card With a PIN code, you are using strong authentication," he said. The audience instantly understood that strong authentication involved multiple levels of security. Personalize your message by relating your solution to audience needs. Emotional appeals are also powerful."

  • Presentation Matters: The article suggests that you watch your tempo. Don't talk too fast. The author also suggests timely pauses.

  • Incorporate Feedback: The author suggests videotaping yourself. I think this is more applicable to situations where the speech matters a great deal—say a public presentation, or a sales presentation. Another alternative that is suggested is to ask for the opinion of someone who is not familiar with your work. Most people can probably use their friends, spouses or loved ones to accomplish this task.

Although intuitive, I find the suggestions useful to me. I certainly have learned something and plan to incorporate more of these ideas. For instance, I never knew that the goal is not to close a transaction, but to get permission for the next step.

I hope some people, perhaps even those Googling this 10 years from now, will benefit from my summary of Nick Wredon's article.


1 Response to The Elevator Pitch

Web Browser
May 21, 2010 at 7:39 PM

Thanks for posting this.

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