Just the other day, in my storytelling class, a student asked: how long should an elevator pitch be?
Every startup founder and entrepreneur has an elevator pitch. But they are often found scrambling for just the length and right set of ‘power words’ to deliver a winning pitch.
What can be particularly stressful about an elevator pitch is that there is no standard. The pitch length varies. You have 30 minutes' worth of stuff to say, but an unknown amount of time to say it. And then the other person’s knowledge is also unknown. That makes it necessary to adjust each time, which can be tricky.
Back to basics: How long is an elevator pitch?
Imagine you hop onto an elevator — a ride that could typically last you a good 2 minutes in the US and close to 10 minutes in a highrise in Asia. That means, how much detail you get to the dish is wholly and solely dependent on the situation you are in.
Also, you don’t get to call the shots here — it’s not up to you to decide how long you can go on with your pitch. That’s right — you gotta hand over the reins of this conversation to your audience.
Let me lay this out for you with a few examples.
Scene 1 — Elevator: Keep it to one minute and you’re good!
Scene 2 — In a hallway, shaking hands at a networking event: You got yourself 5 to 10 seconds, give it your best shot!
Scene 3 — Standing in line to get coffee: Great, you’ve got yourself 2 minutes, maybe even 10. Get right to it and play it up as the line moves forward.
So you see, it all boils down to the circumstances. Take up as much time as you can get and try not to stuff in everything you want to say in just a few words. What’s important is that you get to grab their attention and spark an interest to move to the next step.
So you see, it all boils down to the circumstances. The important thing here is to gauge the situation to determine how much time you actually have. That dictates how much you actually say. That’s why, rather than creating one Elevator pitch, I work with clients to create an Elevator Plan instead. What’s central to the plan is the concept of “Target Next action.”
Target Next Action
The elevator pitch is just the first of a series of possible conversations towards an actual investment. When you realize that, then you can relax a bit about jamming in all the information at once. That’s going to be the tendency, but it won’t be effective.
The human brain can only take on so much at once. The goal of the elevator pitch, no matter the length, is to spark interest.
Spark Interest. That’s the first goal.
Once you spark interest, then propose the target next action and gain acceptance. This moves you along the path towards that ultimate investment.
Depending on the length of time you have, your target next action changes. By laying out all your different pitch-time scenarios, you have an Elevator Plan. Here’s a sample of an Elevator Plan.
All hail the ‘elevator plan’
Because you don’t know the length of time you have for each elevator pitch, you can prepare by laying out all the timing scenarios in an elevator plan.
In this plan, you start with what your target next action should be, which guides how much information you should be sharing.
In this elevator plan, you’re a founder speaking with a potential investor. But the elevator plan can be built for pitching projects to executives or any other pitching opportunities as well.
Now that you have a plan, let’s talk about how to strike the right tone in your pitch.
To strike the right tone, know your audience.
Your pitch is only as good as your ability to gauge your audience.
This is because, no matter how much you try to come up with a well-rounded pitch, it all comes down to how your pitch is received.
If you can, do some pre-work on the person you’ll be pitching to. Check their Linkedin. What kind of tone do they use on their own profile? Do they write in bullet points or in paragraphs? What’s their background- engineering, sales, or HR? All of this gives you a hint about what they care about.
Then for each row of your plan, create at least 3 different options.
For example, for your 5–10s version, you’ll be sharing your shiniest traction metric. If the person you’re pitching comes from sales, you might want to lead with the number of customers you have. If the person you’re pitching to comes from marketing or product, you might want to lead with MAU. Both translate to customer traction but may resonate differently.
For your 30s version, the story about yourself, the founder, can be positioned as “I saw this problem and wanted to fix it.” or “I lived this experience and had a revelation.” Both can be true and deliver the same ending, which is that you started the company. But they land differently on your listener.
In fact, there are 6 different types of storytellers, and 6 different ways to tell your story. I work with founders to discover their 6 stories and trim them down to 3 that they can use to pitch. If you’re curious, which of the 6 storyteller types you are.
Ready, Set, Pitch
Alright now, take a deep breath.
You’re ready to go out into the world, hop onto an elevator, and get that pitch rolling.
Don’t lose focus on what your target next action is. Keep in mind that you need to give out just the right information — not too little and certainly not too much.
A few dramatic pauses can build your case and leaving a few questions unanswered will only bring about a sense of mystery that will act to your advantage.
Lastly, your confidence and enthusiasm about your product are what will win you a receptive audience. You’ve got this!
At Product Maestro, we help leaders find their stories. Our 6-week online class builds a toolbox of stories that leaders use to tell pitch and influence. Becoming a great storyteller starts with knowing your Storyteller type, find your Storyteller type here.