Every Pitch is an Elevator Pitch

Every Pitch is an Elevator Pitch

Given the work we do in media, I’ve had a lot of fun chatting recently with some friends with a film script who asked, “What is the best way to get a person to hear your “elevator pitch” if you can’t actually get in an elevator with them?”

Rarely, among startups, do we wrap our heads around the history of the celebrated elevator pitch.   One of my favorite venture capital authors and advisors, Redpoint Ventures’ Tomasz Tunguz noted in a great perspective about the evolution of sales, that “the term elevator pitch originates from the very first demonstration of an elevator with a safety brake. In 1852, Elisha Otis invented a locking system that would catch and secure a plunging elevator. Unable to drive much interest in his innovation, Otis organized a demonstration in New York City. He stood in the elevator as an assistant severed the hoisting ropes and the safety brake engaged. Otis’ innovation paved the way for humans to ride in elevators.”

A Demo Day.  And here we tend to think that the elevator pitch refers to the amount of time you have to pitch while riding an elevator.

Elevator Pitch

There are in fact, many origin stories for the elevator pitch. 

Michael Caruso, a journalist active in the 1990s, was a senior editor at Vanity Fair and was continuously attempting to pitch story ideas to the Editor-In-Chief at the time. Caruso, according to fellow journalist, Ilene Rosenzweig, could never pin down the Editor to do so, simply because she was always on the move. In order to do so, Caruso would get her attention during the short free periods of time she had: in the elevator.

It was though the author of The Art of Getting Your Own Sweet Way (1972) and Quality Is Still Free (1996), Philip Crosby, who suggested that individuals should have a pre-prepared statement that delivers information regarding themselves, or a quality that they can provide, within a short period of time, namely the amount of time of an elevator ride for if an individual finds themselves on an elevator with a prominent figure.

Crosby, who worked as a quality test technician at International Telephone and Telegraph, noted how a pitch in the elevator could be used to push for change within the company because it was there that everyone was likely to run into the executives with that office at the top. Crosby stepped onto an elevator once with the CEO of the company and as the CEO was getting off, Crosby was asked to present the idea to management.

What really pushed my buttons in each of those stories is that whether film, venture capital, journalism, ideas to the CEO, or elevator safety, the way we communicate in an elevator pitch is a skill applicable to everyone in any situation.  Certainly, the practice has merit well beyond the methodology for startups.

The Elevator Pitch

The classic elevator pitch is meant to last the duration of an elevator ride, which can vary in length from approximately thirty seconds to two minutes. You have a minute to get the attention of any audience and hook them enough to want to continue the conversation.

Brian Walter, notable communication consultant and a corporate humorist, coined the technique as How, How, and Now.

  1. WOW. Say something intriguing (even puzzling) that will make the other person want to hear more. A creative summary of what you do that demands some clarification. Ideally, the prospect’s reaction will be to cock their head and ask “what does that mean?”
  2. HOW. Answer the stated (or unspoken) question and explain exactly what you do.
  3. NOW. Shift into storytelling mode, giving a concrete example of a current customer. The key phrase is “Now, for example…”

Chris Westfall, author of The New Elevator Pitch…

  1. Start with a story/humor/news/etc. Don’t launch into your company spiel. Instead, start with something you expect to hear in a conversation: humor, a story, referring to recent news. Choose something that highlights a problem you help customers solve.
  2. Add an emotional benefit statement. Say “That’s what I do.” Then summarize the RESULTS you achieve for customers. It should be an emotional benefit, not a hard-headed business benefit.
  3. Quantify your success. Now you add the proof of your benefit statement, using numbers if possible.
  4. Use the “velvet rope close”. The velvet rope close suggests your offer is only accessible to certain types. For example, if you’re an investment advisor you might say “I normally only talk about investing in gold with my high net worth clients. But I think it might be right in your case.” In your elevator pitch, the key phrase to use is “I’m not sure if I can help you, but…”

As a Gartner analyst, Richard Fouts, founder of Comunicado,created the S.I.R. Framework based on storytelling principles (a notion we advocate most frequently) of creating conflict, escalating the conflict, and then resolving the conflict.

1. Situation (conflict). Illustrate the pain current customers face.

2. Impact (escalate conflict) – Explain the impact of that situation. How is this affecting profits, market share, customer loyalty, or anything else the prospect is concerned about losing.

3. Resolution – Explain how you solve the problem. Focus on benefits, not products and services.

Regardless of the technique ideal to your personality, the most important thing to appreciate, and the most challenging to meet, is that you have more or less than a minute get someone excited or intrigued enough to continue the conversation.

Among startups, this is a critical and too often overlooked skill.  Founders find themselves in networking events, coworking spaces, and at conferences, where this pitch should be second nature as it will be repeated time and time again, thousands of times to be sure.  With a minute that matters, I teach that we can translate the famous 10 slide pitch deck’s Problem / Solution slides into an elevator pitch comprised of Why, Who, and When.  Invariably, founders want to tell you what they’re doing or sell you on the premise when in an elevator ride that last moments, all you can really accomplish is intriguing someone that you should step off the elevator together and keep the conversation going.

Inn Cahoots
Inn Cahoots; Austin, TX

What is the best way to get a person to hear your “elevator pitch” if you can’t actually get in an elevator with them?

With all this in mind, we thought, why not: get in the elevator with them!  And in what better place to do that than a gorgeous three story hotel during SXSW?

Join us in March, at Inn Cahoots, Austin, TX.  Learn more about our elevator here  Funded House will host hundreds of venture capital investors and while we continue to explore how best to elevator pitch that film, we’re going to focus on the founder and entrepreneur, connecting that pitch to one of those most valued of resources.



  • Kristie Hix, March 3, 2020 @ 5:07 am Reply

    Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing.

  • Ted Cohen, March 6, 2020 @ 2:23 am Reply

    Great combination of historical foundation and tips I can use tomorrow, an excellent article!

  • Richard Fouts, June 17, 2020 @ 4:50 pm Reply

    Opening with WOW is a great idea, e.g., “I help brands tell their story in ways they never imagined.” That helps generate the exact response every salesperson wants, “Tell me more.” Great piece; many thanks.

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