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


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.

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?"

An elevator pitch without a turning point is usually a story built solely on common sense and information the audience already intuitively knows. What's wrong with appealing to what the audience already knows? Plenty. When people hear something they already know, they tend to tune out. And if there's one thing you don't want during your presentation, it's an audience that has mentally left the room. Your pitch has to be something your audience will remember long after you finish. The way to make that happen is to create some tension between what they already know and what you want them to know.

Interestingly, the definition of "common sense" can change, depending on the audience. I've often found, for example, that what's common sense for the consumer is often uncommon sense for the producer. While working on a project for office printers, we noticed a disconnect between the ways manufacturers and consumers load paper into their machines. Manufacturers generally design their printer trays to hold a full ream of paper -- 500 sheets. Seems a lot easier to just rip the sheath off, place the whole thing into the tray, and shut the door. Good, old-fashioned common sense, right?

But, our observations of consumers in their office environments revealed a different story. It turns out that people never put a full ream into the tray. For them, it was just plain common sense that the printer would jam if they put in the full ream (the fact that this wasn't true didn't seem to matter). So, they'd rip open the package and put only about 350 pages into the printer. I'm sure if you've ever been anywhere near an office printer, you've seen numerous partially-used packages of paper. What's obvious to one group of people may not be at all obvious to another. To the right audience, even the most mundane details can come as a revelation.

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. After that, your job is to communicate it to your audience -- in a counterintuitive way that wreaks havoc with their expectations. It's all about creating a disturbance, a disruption, between what your audience assumes they'll get and what you actually give them.

In other words, "Boy meets girl" is all about empathy. "Boy loses girl" is tension. "Boy wins girl back" is where the audience truly believes in the narrative. A common sense, tension-free elevator pitch does the opposite: It gives the audience exactly what they were expecting and that's the kiss of death.

Image: REUTERS/Jason Reed.