Forget 30 seconds. You’ll be lucky to get two.
If you listen to marketing authorities like the mighty Tom Peters or Harvard Business School, you’ve heard the terrifying news: you need an “elevator pitch“. At Beg to Differ, we totally agree. If you can’t boil your business down to a story that you can tell in less than 30 seconds, you either need to get out of business or get some help fast. But the news gets worse: you’re kidding yourself if you think you’ll ever get even 30 seconds on an elevator or anywhere else. Try 1.3…
The idea of the elevator
Here’s what Tom Peters wrote in 1999 in his classic “Wow Project” article in Fast Company magazine:
The art of the pitch boils down to what we call “the two-minute elevator spiel.” You’re on your way to your office, and you’re riding the elevator. The doors open, and the CEO gets on. As the doors slowly slide shut, she turns to you and asks, “What are you working on that makes a difference to this company?” Her eyes bore into you. You’re alone in the elevator… and you’ve got two minutes to tell her exactly why your project matters.
Now Tom may not have invented the term, as he tweeted to me (at right) – but he can be credited with popularizing it. And that’s because he paints a compelling and scary picture of that high pressure scenario: two minutes in a glaring spotlight, being forced to dance for “the biggest of the big cheeses”…
But from there it got even scarier. Others gleefully expanded the elevator from internal projects to fit every entrepreneur, inventor, idea-slinger, and sales person. All of them are supposed to have a compelling verbal spiel in their back pocket that can be delivered in the time it takes to ride an elevator. – i.e. less than 2 minutes / 90 seconds / one minute / 30 seconds (the gurus don’t agree on this).
But if you thought all that was a lot of pressure, I’ve got bad news and good news for you…
The bad news: 2 minutes or 30 seconds are both an eternity
As useful as this idea is – and as valuable as the exercise of creating one can be – you have to remember that it’s more a thought experiment than a practical communication tool. You’ll be riding elevators for a long time before you get a chance like the one above. And even if the big cheese gets on that elevator you’ve been hogging, chances are she’ll be looking up at the floor numbers, not skewering you with leading questions.
But that’s not to say you’ll never get a chance.
Let’s say after a long day of riding the elevator, a security guard for the building finally comes along and challenges you: “who are you and what the hell are you doing here?!?!”
The good news: that’s your chance. Now you get 1.3 seconds
I call that a “spotlight question“, and more good news: it’s usually not shouted by a burly guard at gunpoint. Most often it’s phrased as “so, what do you do?” or “what are you up to these days” or “you work for ACME? What do they do?”
Basically, the person you’re speaking to has shone the spotlight on you, and for a very short time, is receptive to what you have to say.
According to a client of mine named Fran Byrne – who has a graduate degree in psychology and also trains police interrogators on positive interview skills – in every human encounter, you have only 1.3 seconds to make a first impression. In that short time, the person you are speaking to will either decide to trust and like you, or put up barriers that will prevent anything from getting through.
The same goes for objects, concepts, brands, whatever. There is a very narrow window of interest and attention and it is just 1.3 seconds.
More good news: if you get their attention, you’ll get your elevator
We’ll talk about this more in follow-up posts and if you’re in Ottawa I’ll be speaking about Spotlight Pitches next Wednesday at the #GenYOTT event (sign up here).