The 60-second ‘elevator pitch’ is a short explanation of your business. It’s often used as a means to help raise funds from a bank manager or venture capitalist – or even a dragon in the Dragons’ Den. In fact, an elevator pitch can be used whenever you need to describe your business to an audience, be that at a networking event or explaining strategy to your current and future employees. It can tell you a lot about your own business too. Because if you can explain the business and any new strategies without hesitation, deviation or repetition, as they say on Radio 4’s Just A Minute, then you know you have built it on a firm base.

The shorter, the better

The term elevator pitch comes from the US and was coined among the Wall Street skyscrapers inhabited by financiers and venture capitalists. If you can get in an elevator – lifts in the UK – on the ground floor with a prospective financier and explain your business successfully, now and going forward, before you both reach the 100th floor, then you have an elevator pitch.

An effective elevator pitch needs brevity. Back in the 1960s, it took anything from two to three minutes to get to the top floor of Wall Street buildings. These days, lifts are faster and attention spans shorter, however the original two to three minutes still stands.

The dragons on Dragons’ Den give their prospective candidates around three minutes to explain their businesses; Hollywood film producers give writers with an idea a single line. The first Alien movie was famously pitched to the producers as 'Jaws in space', while Star Wars was pitched as 'Flash Gordon as a cowboy movie'. You’ll have more than one line, but you need to hook your listener with the first one.

It’s important that you understand your audience, too. Put yourself inside the head of your listener. What motivates them? If it’s finance, then build the finance part of your pitch and make sure that financial concerns are dealt with first. If they’re concerned with security then, talk about all the secure aspects of your service.

A single pitch? 

If you’re a fledgling business then you can get away with a single pitch that you can tweak according to your listener’s preferences. However, if you have a diverse business then summing it up in just a few minutes is going to be complicated. And if you find it difficult to justify why your business is entering a particular market, or launching a new product, then perhaps you shouldn’t be pursuing it anyway. However, if you’re convinced you’re right, then develop an overall pitch for the business and separate pitches for each part, e.g. one for sales, funding and employees, and a forward-looking strategy pitch.

The journey

Structure is important. Films have story arcs, and articles have a who, what, where and when. Your pitch needs to have something similar. Remember that, unlike in Dragons’ Den, you probably won’t have your product with you, or a whiteboard to draw a process. So you will need to conjure up everything using words. You need to tell your listener what it is you do, where you do it, how you do it – if that’s relevant – and what it is that you need from them.

As well as a great opening, the pitch needs a great ending, one that sums up your pitch and passes on the baton to the listener. If your pitch trails off and ends limply, then that’s what the listener will remember. However, if you grab them at the end and get them to react, you will keep up the momentum. If you’re pitching to a financier, ask: “So is that the sort of business/product you’re thinking of investing in?” It’s a great ending. Likewise, “so is this a business you want to join?”, is a great way to end a pitch to a prospective employee.

The delivery

Elevator pitches delivered at break-neck speed with no intonation or pauses aren’t going to win you listeners – or funding. Your elevator pitch should show that you are passionate about what you do, that you are knowledgeable and that you’re on top of your game. Your pitch needs to be word perfect, so practise it as many times as you can. Do it when you have time on your own, driving in the car, or walking. Ideally, get a stopwatch and time the pitch, and record the pitch on your phone or with a video camera and play it back. It may be excruciating to listen to, but stick with it.

Get feedback

When you think you’ve perfected the pitch, read it through to friends, relatives and colleagues. Ask them for honest feedback. Ideally, choose people who know nothing about what you do – if you can make them understand, you’re nearly there.

The last thing to remember is to keep updating your pitch. A good elevator pitch is the audio version of your business plan. Like a good business proposal it needs to be kept up to date.