The Elevator Pitch in One Sentence

Sometimes More is More—when a longer speech has a valid purpose. Florida Pastor Zach Zehnder delivered a three-day sermon to raise money for an addiction treatment center. U.S. Senators occasionally resort to filibustering and speak for hours on end, as a political maneuver. 

But that’s about it. Unfortunately, too many speakers test their audiences’ patience and tolerance by delivering speeches or presentations that go on too long. Beleaguered audiences have little recourse other than tuning, or walking out. 

The Seattle City Council took a more active step by enacting a “new rule [that] bars council members from speaking for or against a motion for longer than 10 minutes.” The measure, based on Robert’s Rules of Order, promptly became known as the “The Blowhard Rule.” 

The Oscars took it a step further: After actress Greer Garson delivered a seven minute acceptance speech in 1943, the Motion Picture Academy established the practice of having the orchestra start playing a tune called  “Too Long” (How appropriate!) when award winners exceed their allotted time. 

Sadly, businesses do not employ orchestras nor do they observe Robert’s Rules of Order.

Nowhere is prolixity more counterproductive than in “The Elevator Pitch”—the single sentence that defines a company’s business— named to refer to the way you’d describe your business if you stepped into an elevator and suddenly saw a potential client that you’ve been trying to land. The allusion is intended to limit the pitch to the length of an elevator ride. Unfortunately, most such business pitches are often as long as elevator rides in the 163 stories of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world.

Peggy Noonan proposes how to chart a shorter ride: limit your elevator pitch to one sentence.  As a Wall Street Journal opinion columnist, Noonan knows a thing or two about communication. Having written news stories for CBS, speeches for President Ronald Reagan, taught at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, she understands the vital importance of succinctness.  In one of her Wall Street Journal articles, Noonan referenced Clare Boothe Luce, a noted twentieth-century journalist, ambassador, congresswoman, and playwright, who told her “about a conversation she had in 1962 in the White House with her old friend John F. Kennedy. She told him, she said, that ‘a great man is one sentence.’”

Noonan defined that one sentence as “leadership [that] can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. ‘He preserved the union and freed the slaves,’ or, ‘He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.’ You didn’t have to be told ‘Lincoln’ or ‘FDR.’” 

The one-sentence recommendation is also applicable to business, with particular regard to the elevator pitch. A guide to help you create a succinct elevator pitch can be found in the words of Rosser Reeves, a prominent advertising executive with the Ted Bates agency during the middle of the twentieth century.

Mr. Reeves coined the term “Unique Selling Proposition (USP),” which is “the main selling line [that relies on] simplicity to help shoppers recall the product and its most obvious benefit.” Reeves, USPs often took the form of slogans, some that exist to this day, such as M&M’s® “It melts in your mouth, not in your hands.” He argued that advertising campaigns should be unchanging, with a single slogan for each product.

To pitch or describe your own business, develop your own USP along Rosser Reeves’s guidelines. One of the most common complaints about presentations is, “I listened to their pitch for 30 minutes, and I still don’t know what they do!”

The USP is what they do.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Presentations In Action published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fire—available on Amazon and other retailers.