Elevator pitches are for wimps.

Forget 30 seconds. You’ll be lucky to get two.

If you listen to marketing authorities like the mightyhere 3″ target=”_blank”> Tom Peters or Harvard Business School, approved you’ve heard the terrifying news: you need an “elevator pitch“. At Beg to Differ, erectile 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).

But in the meantime, please let me know what you think. How valuable is the elevator pitch to you? Ever wish you could get it even tighter? Comment away!

6 thoughts on “Elevator pitches are for wimps.”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this from the perspective of pitching a novel. Blake Snyder, author of screenwriting book, “Save the Cat”, talks about having a logline: basically one sentence that describes your story, capturing both character and conflict.

    Sounds like your Spotlight Pitch is like a logline for your business — it needs to be simple and hooky, and it needs to describe the people you work with and the transformation that your business provides.

    Here’s the current incarnation of my business logline: I help writers and artists fall in love with their creative process.

  2. Logline, strapline, tagline. Maybe mine can be “spotline”… hmmm.

    Character and conflict are suspiciously similar to the Terry O’Reilly branding formula of Promise plus Differentiator, don’t you think? That which creates empathy / trust coupled with that which creates interest, excites, or challenges.

    For yours, try just “fall in love with your creative process” but I might add “again” just to remind them that this has always been their passion, no matter how much of a slog it seems to be right now. Make sense?

  3. Nicely stated! I think the key though – for ourselves personally, sure we can use a pitch – but in business, it is key that all staff know the companies pitch as well

    as a Canadian VC once said;

    I ask everybody in the company “What do you do” and am always surprised how the company’s success trajectory can usually be linked to to the granularity of the answer(s).

    (link here http://strategitech.ca/2009/08/what-do-you-do/)

  4. Personally, it’s always a struggle for me. More interestingly, is the application of this same pitch theory to job seekers. There’s that same window of opportunity, to make a good impression, create trust and engage. I don’t think it’s fully recognized. If you watch a room, at the next networking or business event, you’ll definitely see it in practice, painfully so sometimes.


    1. It’s true in so many realms: Web optimization, social media usage, consumer product choice, speed dating, job hunting, you name it. Anywhere a human is faced with something or someone new that they have to make a choice about, you’ll see the 1.3 second rule at play. In networking events, I’ve always thought it’s like the Darwinism of ideas. And it’s all tooth and claws out there.

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