You have just returned from your summer holiday. You are in the queue for passport control and you have been having a nice conversation about holidays with a silver haired man who is ahead of you in the queue. Suddenly it’s his turn to get his passport checked. He turns to you to say goodbye and then says “Oh by the way, what do you do?”

What do you say? You only know him as a nice guy who has just come back from a family holiday. For all you know he could be the chairman of your ideal client.

You have 10 to 20 seconds before he is gone for ever. Say the right words and he will make a point of catching up with you on the other side.

This is an elevator pitch situation. You have 10 to 20 seconds to get someone interested in talking to you about your business. Your elevator pitch is like your passport to get the attention of your ideal client.

So what makes a good elevator pitch?

I thought I would answer this question by showing you the common mistakes people make and what to say instead:

Too salesy
An elevator pitch is about starting a conversation about your services. It’s not about closing a sale. Sales people often struggle with networking because everything that comes out of their mouth sounds like a sales pitch. The normal reaction to anything that sounds remotely salesy is to back away. The silver haired man would be rushing away before you had even finished speaking!

Too literal
When you ask some people the question “what do you do?” they tell you – literally! For example, you get a ‘laundry’ list like:
“I am an IT consultant for XYZ company, I do voluntary work for a local charity…oh yes and am also a life coach in my spare time”

Whilst this may be literally accurate, my experience is that less is more. My advice is to focus on the one thing you want to get more of. You also need to include an indication of the type of clients you work for and how they benefit from working with you.

This need not take many words. It’s just a case of being able to articulate your message in fewer words as necessary. I will give some examples below when talking about other mistakes.

Too vague
Some people’s elevator pitch end up sounding very vague. The cause is often, like the previous mistake, because they do lots of things. In this case they are trying to generalise and they end up saying something that does not make a lot of sense and just leaves people confused. Most people will be too polite to say anything. Especially our silver haired friend who just wants to get his family home.

Again, if you do many things then focus on what you want more of. In my experience, people who try to include everything end up getting nothing.

Too general
Many people’s elevator pitch are actually OK but unfortunately they sound no different from their competitors. Your silver haired companion might possibly already using a competitor so why should he be interested in talking to anyone else?

If your reply to that question is something like ‘Because we are more reliable’ or ‘we only work with people over 50’ then make sure you get this across in your elevator pitch.

So for example, I worked with an IT project manager. His elevator pitch sounded like any other IT project manager. We did some analysis and recognised that he normally got involved with clients when an important IT project was failing. His job was to rescue the project. He did other kinds of work but this skill set him apart from other project managers.

We changed his elevator pitch to ‘I am an IT project manager and I specialise in helping medium to large size companies turnaround failing IT projects. That pitch worked very well for him, creating new sales leads in a matter of days.

Too clever
Some people are too clever for their own good. They come up with an over engineered elevator pitch which just sounds silly. For example, I recently met someone whose elevator pitch was:
“I help people live the life of their dreams”

This man turned out to be a business advisor who specialises in helping small business owners build and sell their business within 5 years. If he said so then he would have gained a lot of interest from people in the room. Instead, people thought he was a life coach!

Too abstract
Another problem clever people have is they tend to use a lot of abstract language or jargon. To them it makes perfect sense but people who hear it are not quite clear what they are talking about. Making your elevator pitch more tangible can make a big difference.

Look at these two examples:
Abstract: I help IT consultants create compelling sales messages
Tangible: I help IT consultants make their services sound attractive

My advice is to test your elevator pitch out on a 5 year old or someone who is very ‘down-to-earth’. If they do not immediately understand it then it probably needs some work!

Too long
There is a pitch style I call “The long ramble”. There is no structure and listeners quickly get lost and drift off to thinking about something else.

The truth is that the conscious part of our brain can only handle a limited amount of information at one time. If you get them to understand clearly the first 10 to 20 seconds then they are more likely to want to hear more. Otherwise they will be trying to work out what you have just said instead of listening to what you say next.

You should aim to keep the most important part of your elevator pitch to 15 words or less.

For example, I worked with the owner of an IT support company who came to me because he was not getting any business from networking. It turned out he had a long and complex elevator pitch. After working on his core message we ended up with:
“I run an IT support company and we specialise in helping recruitment companies to keep their mission critical systems up and running”

The 15 words rule starts from ‘I/we specialise’. I am pleased to report this person ended up winning business from the very first time he used it.

What you say in the first 10 to 20 seconds could make the difference between buy and goodbye! You need to keep your elevator pitch very short and to the point. Tell them about your specialist area, your target audience, and how they benefit in 15 words or less. It may take some effort but the rewards are worth it.

My book ‘The Accidental Salesman Networking Survival Guide’ includes exercises to help you do this and generate more sales leads from your business networking.You can download the first 3 chapters for free here.