Designing the Perfect Elevator Pitch: Finding the Turning Point

The problem is that most pitches are just some variation of a product meeting a consumer need and selling happily ever after

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You're no doubt familiar with the industrial origins of the elevator pitch metaphor: A budding entrepreneur corners the boss in the elevator, pitches the "big idea" in 60 seconds, and secures the deal with a handshake before the doors fly open.

Today, the term "elevator pitch" has permeated mass culture. According to Wired contributor Scott Brown, it is no longer a "sweaty-palmed business ritual." Now, "everybody talks in elevator pitches, tweets in elevator pitches, and thinks in elevator pitches," Brown wrote in an article last year.

Finding the turning point means looking back through your research findings to pull out the key market insight that informs the idea you're trying to sell.

In an era of overstimulation and sound bites, pitching an idea in less than a minute seems like a worthy goal. But having done hundreds of big idea presentations (and listened to thousands more), I've come to believe that the term "elevator pitch" is dangerously misleading -- and I'm not alone.

Former Hollywood executive Stephanie Palmer writes that the term "elevator pitch" encourages us to make three classic mistakes: "Pitching in the wrong places (e.g., elevators); pitching to the wrong people (e.g., people in elevators); pitching the wrong things (e.g., cookie-cutter concepts)." Stephanie should know; as part of MGM's executive team for six years, she was pitched elevator-style almost everywhere she went: by a receptionist at her dentist's office while she was clutching her jaw in pain, by a cabbie on a five-minute ride to her hotel, by a real estate agent at an open house, and even by a yoga teacher before class. None of these pitches were ever developed.

In my experience, the problem is that most elevator pitches are some variation of a product meeting a consumer need and selling happily ever after. It's not believable. You may have the best idea in the world, but if you don't come up with a persuasive story about why it matters, it won't go anywhere. If you're going to get your audience emotionally involved, you need a major piece of tension that throws the status quo off. In other words, "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back."

In Hollywood terms, the result from this kind of unexpected tension is a turning point or the plot twist that takes the story in a new direction and makes the audience ask themselves, "How is this thing going to turn out?" Master screenwriter Robert McKee says that turning points have to surprise, increase curiosity, and present a new direction. If the turning point is compelling enough, it'll keep the audience in their seats until the closing credits roll. In the movie Jaws, for example, the audience wonders, "Will the sheriff kill the shark, or the shark kill the sheriff?"

Presented by

Luke Williams is a fellow at global innovation firm frog and an adjunct professor of innovation at NYU's Stern School of Business. He is the author of Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business.

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