Perfecting Your Elevator Pitch

“Well, um…see it’s about hand fishing, but it’s kind of also about these two guys…” It was clear the man was getting nervous as he stammered his explanation to me. I listened politely for the following two minutes as the older gentleman finished his epic narrative, before excusing myself and moving on to the next booth, silently cursing myself for starting up the conversation to begin with. I was at a film festival, and had asked a seemingly innocent and (I thought) straightforward question: “What is your film about?” Based on the earful I had just received, it seemed as if the director to whom I had been speaking with didn’t really know.

Huh? The person who wrote and directed this movie couldn’t explain what it was about?

Believe it or not, this is not really all that uncommon. It turns out that even though most people spend hours and hours working on a project, they are seemingly unable so sum it up with a few simple phrases. Since that encounter I’ve taken to asking that question to filmmakers for fun, just because I like to see people squirm with the nervous energy of being forced to boil their lifelong dream of a movie into three or four lines. Yes, I know–I’m evil. 🙂

But there is a reason for my nefarious plan, and that is to teach an important lesson. It’s called perfecting your “elevator pitch” and it’s not limited to just filmmakers. The theory is that you should be able to explain what you do or what it is that you’re working on in the short time that it would take as you travel between floors on an elevator (about 30 seconds). If you’re making polite conversation with a stranger it’s much more effective and interesting to listen to a great elevator pitch than it is for the painful hand fishing story. In all actuality, the stranger could be a potential client or investor, or at the very least a great word-of-mouth contact. It’s no surprise any more that much business comes from networking and who you know. The ability to meet people and impress them usually happens in that first 30 seconds, and if it’s done the correct way you’ll have another contact in your network of folks working for you.

Here are some quick tips on how to make an impressive pitch:

1. Don’t be caught off guard! The biggest mistake people make in their elevator pitch is NOT having one prepared. It should be written out, memorized, and practiced in front of a mirror. You need to be comfortable enough giving your pitch do be able to do it in any circumstance from introducing yourself to a group of prospective clients to a ultra-quick introduction to a potential investor.

2. Give yourself a title. If you work for a company and have just one job, this is pretty straightforward. However if you’re self-employed or if you work in entertainment, chances are strong that you probably wear many hats; but rattling off something like “I’m an actor and a writer but right now I work as a claims adjuster” is not quite as effective as “I’m a writer” or “I’m a designer”, plus it screams ‘amateur’ because people assume you’re not really making money from any of the jobs you listed.

This could take some thought on your end. Don’t misrepresent yourself-you don’t want to say you’re something that you’re really not. But it is acceptable to try to come up with a title that represents the majority of the work you do. For instance, I work as an actor/photographer/acting coach/director/producer/writer/entrepreneur, but usually give my title as an entertainment or media consultant. It sums up 80% of what I do in two words. If you’re working on a film, list your most prominent position (if you were associate producer, but also did the editing, were a background extra, and set up the crafts service, just saying that you were the associate producer should be sufficient).

3. Give some very brief background on your company or your project. Again, the whole pitch should be 30 seconds, so you need to be able to condense this to a sentence or two–just enough to give the person some context as to how your project fits in the big picture. If you’re talking about your company, just a quick explanation of what industry you work in or what group of people you serve is sufficient. If you’re talking about a movie or other project, be sure to mention any big name talent associated with the project (whether that’s an “A” list actor or director, a well known production company, etc.). If there are no names attached, just rattle off the name of the production company and director as if they were A-list names. Don’t feel the need to downplay people you have working on the project or make excuses for lack of funding. 90% of the people working out there don’t know it’s an indie film except if you point it out to them, either in how you speak or how you act.

4. Close with a strong action that you can follow up on. This is very important, because this is how word travels about your project. You need to be able to leave your listener with some sort of action they can use to get more info about your project, because if your pitch is interesting they may want to get involved. “If you’re available we still have some tickets left for opening night next week”, “If you’re interested in becoming a client I can give you my card so we can set a time to talk in my office…”, or “If you’d like to get involved in the film let me know, we’re still looking for…” etcetera, etcetera. These are all strong closes that allow the listener to follow up with your project, and you to follow up with them. NOTE: Be very careful about asking people to be potential investors in a film or other business venture. There are lots of guidelines and regulations by the SEC about how and when you can do this, and you want to make yourself fully aware of all of the potential liabilities if your close is a search for funding.

It’s tough for many people to separate themselves from their business or project because they’ve spent a lot of their time and energy, and often put their heart and soul into it. Just remember that you are your best salesperson, and the more concisely you can explain your project, the stronger and more heartfelt your pitch will be.

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