Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Getting In On the Ground Floor: The Elevator Pitch

In our professional communication class, the order of the day was "the elevator pitch." Each student would have an opportunity to pitch their proposal to an "authority figure" (played by a classmate) in one to two minutes. The exercise jogged my memory.

In 1980 I postponed completion of my graduate program and moved to Lisbon, Portugal. I was initially hosted by the locally renowned surgeon, Dr. Antonio Pinto Teixeira and his lovely wife Luisa. They assisted me as I got my wings in the local scene. Through one of their contacts, I met another American who eventually invited me to share a leafy residence amidst the fruit orchards of Ameixoeira, a sleepy village in the hills on the northern edge of Lisbon. 

It was in the Ameixoeira house that I had my first work, tutoring a couple young engineers in conversational English and business communication for the multinational carmaker, General Motors. That was quite the idyllic teaching situation, sitting in the garden at a picnic table under a massive plum tree, discussing topics in readings taken from The International Herald TribuneScientific American and other sources.  

The fellows I tutored would typically arrive in a GM company car on two mornings a week, and sit with me for an hour and a half or so, then return to their jobs at the GM headquarters, twenty minutes away. Through them I learned that there were over a dozen such tutroials taking placing in various places throughout Lisbon, on the same regular basis as my own lessons. Even now I remember that at some point I had actually remarked to the guys that it seemed a bit wasteful on the part of GM, sending its staff members out for English lessons when an in-house program could address the same needs more efficiently. Little did I know then that I'd soon have a chance to make the same pitch to the head of GM.

That opportunity presented itself during a social gathering at the Pinto Teixeira residence. Typical of Portuguese parties, the wine was flowing freely. I'd had a few drinks and was feeling quite confident when someone alerted me to the fact that another guest, the rather gruff-looking, burly man in a tight fitting suit, was the managing director of General Motors. 

While I'm not sure now when the thought occurred to me to approach the GM boss, I do know that I was unenlightened to the nuances of an act that I would later discover was called "the elevator pitch." Still, I knew how to articulate a problem clearly and concisely, and I realized that stressing the main benefit of the problem solution that I could offer for GM could also benefit me.

Some of the details of that long past interaction elude me today, but the gist was this: I walked up to the man and introduced myself as an American recently arrived in Lisbon. The guy seemed disinterested, busy with his wine, until I elaborated: I was tutoring GM employees in a program set up by the American School. The program itself, while effective for giving the young staff members a chance to enhance their English, was inefficient in that it was taking them away from their jobs for too long; it couldn't be cost effective because it was sending those workers out across Lisbon, in separate directions, in individual cars. Setting up an in-house program would accomplish the same goals at a more reasonable price.

The criticism pricked the boss's interest. He wanted to hear more: "Come out to my office next week," he said, " and we can talk about this."

Talk about it we did, and soon thereafter, and for the next few years, I was the sole language and communication skills trainer for GM de Portugal, working both at corporate headquarters and at the factory an hour north of Lisbon. That was a very rewarding way for me to support myself during my Portugal years, and it was the start of my interest in professional communication.

Some of you have also had experiences pitching ideas, whether in class, an elevator, a cocktail party or elsewhere. Feel free to share your experiences here.


Rohan Rajiv said...

Just one comment - the elevator pitch is thought of as a means to pitching an idea. I find that to be flawed.

All the pitch can be used for is to pitch the next meeting, as you did in Lisbon.

My 2 cents.

Lim Shiying said...

I had never done an elevator pitch till that practice in communication class that day and it is quite an experience. It was a really nervous moment, trying to get the attention of that person, and you will never be able to know how he or she will respond. I thought Yea wen (the person I was pitching to) would be ignoring all the way, but it turned out that she is giving attention. I was really shocked me and sort of stammered in the beginning trying to get words out of my mouth, awkward indeed. Well, the fact that the person whom we were pitching to was our classmate eased the situation a lot, but it will never be that easy as compared to doing the real deal. Perhaps a possible way to make the practice more realistic is to ask us to go out to the random people in the school and sell out idea! Now that would be some challenge

Rohit Mukherjee said...

I like the concept of an elevator pitch, it reflects a good amount of abstraction. Explain the idea and leave out the implementation. I actively participate in business plan competitions and they emphasize on the importance of an elevator pitch.I enjoyed the exercise during class, it would be nice to pitch some business ideas as that would model real - life situations in the future

aquabbit said...

When I get to know people that I have just met through my friends, either in a social gathering or on a journey on a public transport, it is very common to do a short self-introduction.

I personally have an elevator pitch when introducing myself, honed through years of practice. It usually begins something like this:

"Hi, my name is Ray and I'm a dancer. Dancing is my passion and I have been very much involved in many types of dances since secondary school."

First impression counts. How you introduce yourself in that short few minutes will determine whether you leave an impression lasting enough for others to wish to continue the conversation with you, or to even greet you the next time they see you.

In order to maintain a good conversation, you have to first pique, and then sustain the interest in the other party on what you are talking about. This will be more effective if what you talk about is perceived as 'shocking' or 'unique'. It would be even better if you can relate to the other party through a shared common interest, which could be physical or intangible.

In my case, many people express their surprise when they know that I'm a dancer, since it is rare to find male dancers in general. Once I manage to capture their interest, and the other party is keen to hear more, I would continue to go on about the genre of dance I am currently doing (contemporary), and in turn ask them about their interests. This will hopefully keep the conversation going throughout the gathering or journey without feeling awkward in one another's company.

Chia Jie Wei said...

The elevator pitch done in class that day was interesting, although I felt like a fool at some point.

I found myself unable to get into the correct situation. When Bongjin walked around the common area in Town Plaza, I initially thought he wanted to find a spot so that I can sell my idea to him, and I happily followed him around.

He was supposed to act busy/snobbish like an authority figure, so he did not tell me the 1 minute has already started. It was only after some time then I realised the problem, and I attempted to start selling my idea.

However, at that time, I started to panic and could not get my idea through clearly. I knew I had the content I wanted to share, except they were in a mess. The outcome was quite embarrassing as I spoke whatever that came to my mind.

This experience taught me that while I may have the information I need, it is important to sort them out such that I am able to highlight the key points to others that can capture their attention.

chickinbiskit said...

As far as I can recall, the only elevator pitch that I have done so far is the one that we did in class.

I actually fancy the idea of an elevator pitch. I dig its practicality. It forces one to really trim things and only speak the essence of what one is really trying to put across. One needs to really focus on the idea and it's benefits for the intended listener. While that can be a real challenge in itself, I foresee myself actually doing it some time in the near future.

It would be interesting to actually do it in a real elevator though the chances of me bumping into say a prof I actually want to speak to would be slim. As you can't possibly prepare an elevator speech for everyone you wish to meet, it all then boils down to really thinking on the spot.


Maxime Fugel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maxime Fugel said...

I like this exercise because it was really useful.

I think that the purpose of the elevator pitch is to understand what the key points of our proposal are.

Indeed, if you have just one minute to persuade someone, you have to go straight to the point, to find the best arguments to convince that our project is useful and that the customer has to buy it.

After this exercise, I knew how to structure my oral presentation because, according to me, those 2 exercises are really linked.
During the elevator pitch, I have done a presentation of 1 minute. Next week, I will do a presentation of 20 minutes but the aim is the same. I will say almost the same thing but I will have more time to explain what I present.

Finally, I think that this exercise was really good because it could be a situation that we will tackle in our future career or our future job. The fact that the person plays a role is really good too because in our future life people won't probably be here to listen what we have to say : they won't have time and they will have other things to do. Thanks to the elevator pitch, we learn how to catch the attention of people, how to be persuasive ... That is the goal of professional communication!

Tasha said...

The elevator pitch experience was new to me, I have never tried it before. It was interesting as I have never tried selling an idea or product while walking with a person. Admittedly, it was intimidating and heart-racing because Jie Wei was constantly looking at her iPad the whole time and she looked uninterested. She even made a sudden turn into another corridor which caught me by surprise. However, upon realising that, I quickly rushed after her. At first, my words were caught in my mouth. I was not sure how to articulate our problem at first, like the main gist of the problem. It forced me to think on my feet (pun intended) and quickly decide what were the relevant information that would convince her to buy my proposal. I stumbled a bit here and there, but overall, it was a good experience. Now, I know how hard it must be for those credit card promoters to approach us and sell their product. Kudos to them for having such thick skin. :)

Maple LAi said...

Hi Brad,

I guess the alcohol did help a little for your successful elevator pitch!

For me, I never had an elevator pitch until that day in class. It was a refreshing and fun experience! Anyhow, I think that in order for a successful pitch, it is important to leave an impression right from the start and have the problem stated clearly. To get the attention of the target audience, I believe there is a need to be in their shoes so that we can think in their perspectives. Through that we will know what is important to them and will of course phrase our pitch in such a way that captures the attention of the target audience right from the start. Being confident of your own material is of course crucial as well.

Overall, this whole experience of an elevator pitch has definitely taught me how to leave an impression!


Brad Blackstone said...

Thanks to each of you who has left comments about your own experience with the pitch.

Simin Liu said...

I think the elevator pitch is really cool. It really requires one to think on their feet. Personally, I feel that the elevator pitch only ever works when someone really believes in their idea. Else without the display of genuine passion, it is really difficult to make one buy the idea when it is being delivered at such a rush.

This was also my first elevator pitch (also the first time I have ever heard of an elevator pitch). I must say it was rather scary even though I knew it was a hypothetical situation. Still, it was pretty fun! However, I hold my reservations as to whether or not an elevator pitch works. Not yet convinced, until proven otherwise!

Ramon Bespinyowong (Jae) said...

Hi Brad,

I think elevator pitch is very interesting but it is also hard as we have to think fast and speak fast to cover all the important points in only a short period of time.

I had never done elevator pitch before the one that I did during the class. However, there are many things similar to elevator pitch, such as, an interview, where we have to sell ourselves in 15-20 minutes (while we have only 1-2 minutes in elevator pitch). :) I had many interviews before. Most of them are for applying a scholarship. From my own experiences, we have to list all of our strong points and what we can contribute to those providing use scholarship. This is also the same to our elevator pitch. We have to list all the benefits before talking. :) However, what is harder than an interview is that the authority person may not be interested in you at all.

Kateřina Číhalová said...

The first elevator pitch I had opportunity to do was in the class. I had two minutes for it, which seems to me much easier than have only one minute. In my opinion, the ability to express all the ideas meaningfully and systematically is essential. Also the the person doing the elevator pitch has just first few seconds to catch the attenion of the authority. When I was doing it, I thought about first few words I will say to catch the attention, but then a chaos took place in my head because I did not know how to organize my ideas quickly while speaking. On the one hand, as I could talk for two minutes, I could talk slower so i calmed down and just spoke, on the other hand, with one-minute timing I guess it would be very difficult for me to pick up the most important ideas. Anyways, it was a great experience!

Patrik said...

I think it was very interesting doing the elevator pitch. In some sense it is equal to the reason why we write and send resume and cover letter to companies. The aim in both cases is to grab some attention and interest from the authority and then meet again for interview/further discussion of propsal.
Preparing, for this kind of pitch which should be done in one or two minute, is crucial! You have to know have to get some attention and then you have to convince the person very fast.

Shweta Sharma said...

This was the first time I did an elevator pitch and it was a very interesting and fun experience!

I thought initially it would be very hard to sell your idea and captivate the listener in such little time. I thought it wasn't very practical. Although after listening about your successful pitch; I guess it is possible to influence a person in almost no time.

The good thing about the pitch was that it makes you think on the spot and develops your selling/marketing skills. You only focus on the key issues and present them in an organized manner, while reiterating your original problem.
This is what I tried to follow while delivering my pitch.

I enjoyed this activity a lot not only because it was my first time but also because it was a learning experience.

Teresa Widodo said...

I found the elevator pitch activity was really fun yet challenging! The biggest challenge, for me, was to be persuasive without making it sounded too pushy in a relatively short time. During the activity, what I did was explaining (or, shall I say, summarizing) the takeaways from our proposal but I realized that I did not manage to find a word or phrase that stood out (e.g. Eunice did a great job by mentioning 'billions dollars' when she was pitching her idea to me).

Overall: fun, enriching and challenging! :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Brad,

"The elevator pitch", I guess it can be compared with the "hole in one" in golf. It rarely or never happens and if it does happen it is a combination of skills and luck.

Maybe that is why not many of us (your students) have succeeded with a proper pitch yet.

I hope to, some day, and thanks to this module I now know all the cheeky tricks to apply to success with the hole in one of the business world.

Thank you for a valuable lesson about a real life situation.

Chandra's ES2007S Blog said...

Hi Brad

I did not know what an elevator pitch is till that particular class when we had one. It was really interesting and I would like to highlight 2 cases. Firstly, if the person is not interested in listening to you and is preoccupied with something else, you need to continue making a pitch in a polite manner and try to gain his attention. In the second case, if the person is interested in what you are saying, you need to be careful with the amount of information you provide him with. I was in the second category and I made a mistake of providing him with too much information. In addition to this, we also need to pace our talking in such a way that it can be comprehended. I made a mistake in this aspect too. So essentially, when you want to make a pitch, you need to know exactly what you want to talk about and bring together various things that we have learnt, the 7 C's,pace of talking and so on. So, this activity actually taught me a lot. Thanks a lot :)

Aditi said...

The very fact that it is called a "elevator" pitch intrigues me. Undergoing that experience I must admit that giving a successful pitch is not an easy task. It is a subtle interplay of conciseness and clarity. This form of communication requires an active mind to process thoughts quickly and adequately.

I definitely learnt a different side of communication.

P.S. Sorry for the delay!