You’re at a cocktail party, networking event, trade show, professional mixer, or commuter station and the person you’re talking to asks, “So, what do you do?”

What do you do?

The Question

The first thing you should do is quickly assess the person’s motivation for asking the question. Is this person simply making small talk, or is she a potential client, partner, collaborator, investor, or resource?

Once you have a sense of the role this person may play in relation to your business, you can determine how to best answer the question.

The Answer

The elevator pitch – a succinct, clear, compelling description of a business model, product, or project – has been used since time immemorial by start-up companies trying to land investors. The term originated from the idea that a pitch man has to make an impression in the time it takes to get from the lobby to the investor’s office on the top floor. By most definitions, it’s a one- to two-minute (100 – 250 word) pitch designed to hook the listener into continuing the conversation.

Start-up or established player, any business can benefit from a well-written elevator pitch. This juicy little marketing morsel can serve many purposes:

  • Provides internal clarity of purpose and identity
  • Quickly and clearly presents your business’s mission and strengths to potential clients, partners, and investors
  • Becomes a valuable benchmark for all other marketing messages and materials

In addition, whether you are talking to a potential client or partner, you can create targeted versions of your pitch to speak to any audience.

The Ingredients

There are nearly as many schools of thought on how to craft a winning elevator pitch as there are elevators in your standard, big city skyscraper. However, most of them will advise that you cover these basics:

  • Pain Point or Problem – An immediate definition of the problem within a real-world context sets the stage and captures your listener’s attention.
  • Your Solution – A clear description of your service, product, or business model helps your listener immediately grasp the concept of what you do.
  • The Competitive Field – A quick overview of your industry provides a perfect segue into the final piece of your pitch.
  • Your Advantage – A compelling and credible argument positioning your solution as the best option wraps up your pitch and invites the listener to request more information.

The Presentation

As with a fine meal, your success depends not just on the ingredients, but on the presentation. Keep these elements in mind when creating your perfect pitch:

  • Brevity – Get in, make an impression, and get out. We live in a world of 140-character tweets and 30-second sound bytes, don’t drown your point in rambling prose.
  • Clarity – Drop the acronyms, industry terms, and buzz words. Your pitch should be easily understood by anyone – from the head of the Board to the guy who drives your kids’ school bus.
  • Portability – Create a pitch that can be easily remembered and repeated. Using storytelling techniques can help your listener retain key points and encourage her to share them with others.
  • Credibility – Make sure that your proof points are irrefutable. Don’t leave loopholes for your listener to punch holes in your logic. Keep claims reasonable.

The Goal

It’s important to understand the distinction between a sales pitch and an elevator pitch. In the former, you are trying to sell the listener on your solution. In the latter, you simply want to hook them into continuing the conversation. A good elevator pitch merely whets the appetite for more of what you have to offer – opening the door for you to serve up a meatier main course at your next meeting.

Do you have an elevator pitch? If so, how has it worked for you? Have you been lured in by someone else’s elevator pitch?