The 21st Century Elevator Pitch: New Rules for New Times

By Robert McGarvey | Friday, 27 August 2021 | Feature, Business

Three words about that elevator pitch you have spent many hours polishing, owning, practicing: tear it up.

Colorful blocks spelling "elevator pitch."

The rules for creating a winning elevator pitch suddenly are different today. Very different. You need a concise presentation, that is true, but the elevator pitch from yesteryear is about as current as a beehive hairdo, according to many presentation experts and seasoned entrepreneurs who have been laboring in today’s pitch marketplace. That’s because three huge things are different today: video, attention spans, and COVID-19.

What’s more, elevators today are much faster. Experts used to advise crafting an elevator speech that took two, maybe even three minutes because that is how long it took to go from the lobby to, say, the 40th floor. Since the power brokers were always housed on the high floors, a hustling entrepreneur could count on that chunk of time to deliver his spiel.

Contemporary elevators in new buildings can make that trip in a minute. But even in a building with an antique elevator, you just can’t count on a couple of minutes to deliver an exciting summary of what your company is about.

Ask Taj Adhav, a co-founder and CEO of Leasecake, an innovative property management system, and he says that his goal was to put the elevator pitch in the company name: Leasecake. (Imagine that: a company that makes business lease management into, well, a piece of cake.) 

It’s worth mentioning that Adhav is a certified gold medalist in pitching his business. In 2017 he won the Orlando Techstars Global Startup event with a 60-second pitch; then, he won the North America event. In December 2017, he won the Global Showcase award. This is a guy who knows pitches, and when he did a venture capital funding round, it was oversubscribed.

In other words, he can pitch even when the chips are on the table. His basic advice is to stay short, sweet, have a hook, and be memorable.

A line he has used and, note, it is just one sentence: “We are an award-winning patent-pending solution that is lease management made easy.” Then he’ll drop a few customer names like Massage Envy, Starbucks, and Jiffy Lube. 

If your business had complex leases at multiple locations, believe this: you will keep listening because he has hooked you.

How long did it take? Adhav says he has a 15-second version, a one-minute version, and when he really has you, there is the three-minute version. Words of advice: do likewise. Have an elevator pitch in multiple lengths and get good at judging your audience’s attention span. 

Meanwhile, Adhav also cautions, “It has gotten harder to get an in-person meeting.” It also has gotten harder to grab the attention of a fellow passenger in an elevator.

The COVID-19 Complexities

Blame a lot of this difficulty on the COVID-19 epidemic, which has wiped out a lot of in-person meetings; as for elevators, many of us now prefer solo rides. We also want fellow passengers to be masked (which makes talking harder), and few want an eager entrepreneur in our face giving their excited pitch.

Ditto for reluctance to invite an eager entrepreneur into the office — everybody knows that a planned 15-minute meeting is hard to end in under 30 minutes, and do we have that much time to hear an opening pitch? Do we want that much face-to-face with a stranger? And know that masked entrepreneurs who have made pitches to a masked audience insist the experience is, well, weird, maybe even creepy, and rarely does it culminate in a deal made.

TikTok Is the New Elevator

In that vein, William Ward, founder of Translation Equipment HQ, says that today’s elevator is social media, which means short — really short.

Create a video version of your pitch that is posted on TikTok and probably also on LinkedIn. Advice from many experts notes that venture capitalists increasingly scout prospects with quick views of short videos — and maybe they give a call to those who catch their interest. Make it easy for prospects to find your short video, and don’t be shy about posting it on many platforms. 

Kosta Du, CEO and co-founder of Paymob Smart Payments, elaborated, “Nowadays, many VCs and angels like to follow a start-up over the course of a few months before considering the company as a potential investment. That’s why today we engage with investors through our social media platforms, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube, to distribute content that really speaks directly to our investor audience.”

‘Brevity Is Everything’

Now think short. Charlotte Sheridan, the founder of The Small Biz Expert marketing agency in London, explained, “Brevity is everything. Thanks to a wealth of distractive technology and content being thrown at us from every direction, attention spans have decreased considerably over the past year. The explosion of TikTok and Instagram reels shows just how short attention spans are with video clips set at an initial 15 to 30 seconds. Take your lead from them — keep your pitch brief but impactful.”

Media coach Dr. Gilda Carle corroborated that message: “These days, our promotional pitches have to be as short as the time it takes for our car’s windshield wiper to go back and forth. Because that’s all you get of someone’s attention.”

How long is that? 15 seconds maybe. But the good news is that if you hook a prospect’s interest, you can have more time.

The Hero in the Pitch Is the Client

That all being said, you probably won’t snare that interest by talking about yourself and your company.Patricia Caballero, a principal at PSC Consulting, said: “Elevator pitches today must focus on the problem we solve — put in the context of our ideal client. We used to structure pitches to make our product the hero of the story. But the hero of our pitch is not the product offering. It's the client and what the client can accomplish with the product. It is about helping the ideal client understand how your product can help them be better.”

If it’s about “me me me,” the prospect will tune out pronto, probably inside 10 seconds.

Tell the prospect the problem they have that you solve, and you just may grab his interest.

Go back to Adhav. What Leasecake does is help a client manage many leases over many locations — sometimes thousands of locations. And it makes this process simple. Think about this as an elevator pitch. It identifies the pain point, then briefly outlines a software-based solution.

With all of this in mind, has everything about elevator pitches truly changed? Not exactly.

Grab the Follow Up Meeting

Krish Gopalan, founder and CEO of Flaist, a fintech company, noted that “Despite the changing trends in delivering the elevator pitch, the one thing that has not changed is the fact that the objective of the pitch is to get a follow-up meeting.”

That is a fact. You won’t convince a VC to put millions into your company on the basis of a 30-second pitch, and you won’t persuade a customer to sign a sizable deal with you with that speech alone, either.

The elevator pitch is the teaser. To close the deal, you need more. Have it ready because when you are on fire in your elevator pitch, you will begin to get invites to give a longer presentation.

How long? The legendary one-time Apple pitchman turned venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki advises that a pitch should contain no more than 10 slides and last no more than 20 minutes. Your mileage may vary. 

But know that once you have an elevator pitch that sizzles, you definitely will need a smart, short, snappy capabilities presentation that builds on the theme articulated in the elevator pitch, adds in specifics, and definitely offers capsule customer case histories if available. Are you a startup with no case histories? Offer hypotheticals that outline benefits for the kinds of customers you are targeting. 

Keep polishing, buffing, making your presentation dazzle. It is true that usually you will get only one shot with a particular VC or investor. Make sure you are ready to make the most of the moments you grab. That’s the path to startup success.

About the Author

Headshot of Robert McGarvey

Robert McGarvey, a veteran journalist who has long covered startups and small businesses, created and hosts the CU2.0 Podcast for credit union and fintech executives which is at 120 episodes and counting.

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