Under the Influence

Elevator Pitches: An Encore Presentation

This week, an encore broadcast of Elevator Pitches. The marketing industry is a business of short, concise messages. Be it the confines of 30 seconds, the space in a print ad, the restrictions of Twitter or a site. The true test of an idea is whether or not it can be explained in just a few words.

This episode is about the art of the elevator pitch. The definition of an elevator pitch is being able to pitch an idea in the time it takes an elevator to go from the first floor to the second.

Distilling a selling idea down to a few words is the ultimate test: If it can be encapsulated in one compelling sentence, it's strong. If it can't be, the idea is probably fuzzy. We'll talk about some of the best elevator pitches ever used, from the world of business, books and movies - and we'll talk about why elevator pitches make marketing campaigns better.

Back in 1983, John Sculley was the President of Pepsi.

John Sculley, past President of Pepsi, past CEO of Apple.
Source: harrywalker.com

He was a very highly paid executive sitting atop of one of Pepsico's most important divisions, and was the youngest President in Pepsi's history.

Sculley had dedicated his career to Pepsi, and was widely believed to be a serious contender to become Pepsico's chairman one day.

As a result of his high profile, Sculley constantly turned down offers from corporate headhunters, trying to lure him away to run other companies.

John Sculley had Pepsi in his veins.

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Sculley was in charge of Pepsi and all its subsidiaries.
Source: wordpress.com

One day, he received a call from the top headhunter in New York, telling him Apple Computers was looking for a CEO. Steve Jobs needed someone to run the company while he focused on product development.

Although Sculley was intrigued by Apple's rise to become a Fortune 500 company in only six years, he said he wasn't interested.

The headhunter urged him to  just meet with Jobs.

Sculley had a trip planned to California to visit some family, so he agreed to meet Jobs while there, but insisted on paying his own way so there were no obligations.

When he met Jobs, he was taken aback by how young he was. Steve was only 27, but he and Sculley had a lot in common. Both were detail-oriented perfectionists, and both liked to build companies.

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 1.36.55 AM.png
Jobs was only 27 when he tried to steal Pepsi's president.
Source: retronaut.com

But Sculley was shocked by Apple's headquarters. It looked like the branch office of an insurance company. Completely unimpressive. Sculley also noticed he was the only person wearing a suit, as all the Apple employees were dressed less formally than the maintenance staff at Pepsi.

Jobs told Sculley that Apple was going to be the most important computer company in the world because it was going to put the technological power of corporations into the hands of the individual.

Sculley was impressed with Jobs. Jobs was fascinated by Pepsi's marketing. But at the end of the meeting, Sculley reiterated that he wasn't interested in leaving Pepsi.

A few weeks later, Jobs flew to New York and dropped in on the Pepsi President. Sculley still resisted the offer. Then Jobs started calling him every three or four days.

While intrigued and flattered, Sculley kept declining the job offer. Apple countered by offering a huge salary and stock options that would vest at over $50 million dollars. Sculley  still refused.

So Jobs flew up to New York again and asked Sculley to reconsider one last time.

Sculley said thank you, but no thank you. He had invested too many years in Pepsi, and he had a future there.

That's when Jobs looked Sculley in the eyes and said, "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?"

That challenge hit Sculley like a fist in the stomach. After all the meetings, the huge salary offer and the stock options, it was that one sentence that haunted him.

It gnawed at Sculley. It wouldn't let him sleep. It was so powerful, it finally convinced him to leave Pepsi behind and join Apple.

Jobs finally seduced Sculley with an elevator pitch.
Source: wordpress.com

That question from Steve Jobs is considered one of the best  elevator pitches in history.

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"Do you want to spend your life selling sugared water?"
Source: wired.com

An elevator pitch is a short, concise encapsulation of an idea. But so compelling that it ignites action.

In marketing, the elevator pitch is the soul of the industry. From summing up a campaign idea to a client, to making a compressed, precise pitch to consumers, the ability to distil an idea to its very essence is a vital art.

The elevator pitch is the ultimate test of an idea - if you can't short-form it, it means your idea lacks focus and clarity.

And that's why an elevator pitch is one of the key aspects of communication - whether it be in movies, politics, school essays... or marketing.

An elevator pitch is a very specific kind of pitch.

It's about clarity - born of an enforced time constraint.

The classic definition of an elevator pitch is: How you would describe an idea to someone in the brief time it takes for an elevator to go from the first floor to the second floor.

It's an intriguing question.
And a challenging one.
It  forces you to encapsulate the core of your offer.

Without it, your story, your marketing or even your entire company has no focus, no benchmark, no True North.

Every company should have a clarity of purpose. But you might be surprised how many business owners have difficulty articulating it.

I've been in many a meeting where a successful business person cannot express the vision of their company in a succinct sentence.

The problem with lack of clarity is that it has a chain-reaction effect on the marketing.

If a CEO or Director of Marketing can't articulate in a few words what makes the company unique, then the marketing will always be fuzzy.

Every company should have a clear purpose. Everything a company embarks on should emanate from that core purpose. It is a platform. A foundation. A sharp articulation of what a company was born to change.

And all the marketing a company produces should be measured against that benchmark.

By always referring back to it, a company will never stray from its vision. Because that elevator pitch turns into a lighthouse whenever the horizon gets foggy.

But why is articulating an elevator pitch  so difficult?

Maybe it will help to look at some examples of great ones...

One of my favourite monthly reads is a magazine called Wired.

The premiere issue of Wired Magazine.
Source: boingboing.net

It was launched in 1993, and reports on how ideas and innovations are changing the future of culture, business and science. 

According to its website,  Wired Magazine and  Wired.com reach over 14 million readers every month.

All that success is well deserved. But back when it was just a start-up, the founders had to find financial backers to get it off the ground.

Finding money is never easy - especially when a company only exists as an idea.

That's when the elevator pitch is everything.

But the founders of  Wired got funding very quickly. They got the money because their elevator pitch was so captivating.

They simply said they wanted the magazine  to feel like it was mailed back from the future.

A perfect pitch for a magazine that covers emerging technology.

Not only did it sum up the magazine's mission perfectly, but the choice of words was so compelling.

"Like a magazine mailed back from the future."

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 12.11.56 PM.png
Clearly, the future is scary.
Source: wordpress.com

When financial backers heard that line, they could  instantly imagine the magazine. They knew  immediately what it stood for, and what made it unique.

And 21 years later, that elevator pitch is still the benchmark for everything Wired Magazine does.

A clear and compelling elevator pitch says so much about the founder and the company.

Or the director of marketing and her campaign.

Or the salesman and his product line.

Or the politician and his vision. When Ronald Reagan was running for President, he posed one question to America:  Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

Reagan framed his election question in a simple elevator pitch.
Source: YouTube

And when voters were in the booth, that haunting sentence hung in the air as they put an X beside Reagan's name.

When the jury was deliberating on O.J. Simpson's fate, the line, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" rung in their ears.

The elevator pitch that helped free O.J . Simpson.
Source: YouTube

A sharply-worded idea that has been whetted on the stone of brevity is capable of remarkable persuasion. 

Sometimes the purpose of a concise elevator pitch isn't to sell a product, an advertising campaign or a screenplay.

Sometimes that short collection of words can be very motivating.

When Michael Jordan was asked what it was about the Chicago Bulls that made them so dominating, he simply said: "One Team, One Dream." It was a phrase that perfectly captured the team's spirit, expressing their goal to win as a team.

Those four words became the Bulls' mantra in practices, on the bench, and during the game.

In his book, Tell To Win, movie producer Peter Guber tells an fascinating story about legendary basketball coach, Pat Riley.

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Miami Heat basketball coach, Pat Riley.
Source: espncdn.com

Riley led the Los Angeles Lakers to four championship titles before moving on to coach the Miami Heat.

In 2006, the Heat wasn't supposed to get into the finals. Even though they had Shaquille O'Neal, they were overshadowed by many more powerful teams. But under Riley's insightful coaching, they made it to the championship.

The Heat were playing the Dallas Mavericks for the NBA title, and were ahead three games to two, and only had to win one more. But the last two games were scheduled to be played in Dallas, the Mavericks' home court.

Statistically, the team with home-court advantage wins three out of every four series in the playoffs.

And the Heat's handicap would be most intense in the seventh game. If they lost the sixth, winning the seventh game in an enemy stadium would be almost impossible.

But Riley felt certain his team  could beat the Mavericks as long as  they were convinced they could. He had to make his players  believe they could win the championship in  game six.

Because he didn't want them having to play that dangerous seventh game in the Maverick's house.

So... how did he motivate his players to win game six?

He simply told the team the whole story of their upcoming victory in a single line:

He told everyone to pack for just one night.

Not two. Just one small overnight bag.

That simple line telegraphed Riley's intention that there was  not going to be a seventh game.

That his team  wouldn't need a second change of clothes because they were coming home the night of the  sixth game as NBA World Champions.

He told it. 
They felt it.
And they did it.


Riley motivates the Heat with an elevator pitch - and they win the championship.
Source: YouTube

Pat Riley didn't need to make a speech.

He just had to make one, concise elevator pitch to motivate his team.

And with it, the Miami Heat owned that goal.

In marketing, the elevator pitch is essential.

The heart and foundation of a campaign has to pass the test of being summed up in just a few words.

If it can be, its probably a solid idea.

If it can't be, chances are great that it's unfocussed, rambling or can't exist fully inside the harsh walls of 30 seconds.

If you've ever wondered how a product can connect with huge swaths of people who seem to have nothing in common - just look at the core of the message.

That essence - the elevator pitch - will tap a universal desire.

Apple products are used by teens and people in their 50s and 60s.

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The core of Apple's offering appeals to young and old alike.
Source: magbooks.com

But how can one product appeal to such a wide demographic?

Because the core of Apple's promise is "empowerment." That the power of technology taken from the  few was put into the hands of the  many. It was Steve Jobs' pitch to John Sculley that day. And that notion is meaningful to so many people.

One of the fundamental aspects of marketing is that a company has to know what business it's in.

That may sound like a laughable exercise. But it's not.

Apple  is not in the computer business. It is in the empowerment business.

Nike  is not in the sneakers business. It is in the personal goals business.

Molson  is not in the beer business. It is in the party business.

A company can't articulate its elevator pitch unless it truly understands what business it is  really in.

As Simon Sinek says in his must-read book titled, Start With Why, products don't create customer loyalty.

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A must-read for all business leaders.
Source: ted.com

A company's core purpose does. 

People are attracted to Apple because of what Apple stands for. Not the gizmos. There are less expensive options out there.

Yet Apple is one of the most profitable companies in the world.

People are attracted to Nike not because of the shoes, but because they are pulled to the philosophy of  Just Do It - whether that pertains to getting fit, or popping the big question, or leaving a bad job or starting your own business.

80% of Nikes are not worn by people who work out. That should tell you everything.

Nike's elevator pitch fuels its business.

In the online world, mentors and venture capitalists get inundated with start-up pitches.

And at conferences where hundreds of start-ups go to network, getting a meeting with someone influential is difficult and challenging.

That's why many companies have started to ask for a 21st century version of the elevator pitch.

It's called a "Twitpitch."

Essentially, a new company would pitch its idea via Twitter.

A Twitpitch is a very short elevator ride.
Source: businessinsider.com

So if you thought an elevator pitch was tough, imagine a 140-character one.

But the purpose of a Twitpitch isn't really to get funding on the spot, it's to engage or intrigue someone enough so that they want to hear more.

The Twitpitch is kind of like an entrance exam.

If you can sum up a new idea in a sentence and still intrigue a jaded venture capitalist, well... you get a meeting.

Again, it's a pitch to ignite interest.

And nowhere is this concept better understood than in Hollywood.

Movie studios know that consumers make quick decisions about which film to see.

And they know there are lots of choices out there for your entertainment dollar. So they try to make that decision easier by using elevator pitches.

The question - What is the movie about? - is the crux of all movie marketing.

And the elevator pitch starts at the screenwriter stage.

When a screenwriter is trying to sell a story to a movie studio, much of that writer's success will be based on the elevator pitch.

Some refer to it as an "escalator pitch." That doesn't mean you have to pitch your story in the time it takes an escalator to go from the bottom to the top.

But rather:

The screenwriter is going up one escalator. The studio with the money is going down the other escalator.

And in the brief moment the two pass each other is the pitch opportunity. That's how fast it has to work.

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An escalator pitch has to work in the moment the up passes the down.
Source: visualphotos.com

In his screenwriting book titled  Save The Cat, screenwriter Blake Snyder says that if a writer can't sum up his or her story in one intriguing line, they haven't thought their story through.

Until you have your pitch, you don't have a story.

Again, it's the discipline of clarity - the one-line pitch forces you to articulate the core idea.

Or... it forces you to  admit there  isn't one.

One of my favourite elevator pitches was for the movie Dirty Harry.

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The elevator pitch for Dirty Harry sold the movie on the spot.
Source: jasonquintal.com

The film became a phenomenon, and made Clint Eastwood a star for all time.

But what was it about the movie that evoked such a reaction? What was that film really about?

A rogue detective?

A cop who breaks the rules?

No -  Dirty Harry was about a cop who was more violent than the criminals he chases.

And when you think about it, that's  exactly what was so mesmerizing about  Dirty Harry.

It's the reason the studio made the movie.

When a screenwriter pitched the movie  Alien, he said it was " Jaws in space."

Once the movie studio heard that line, they bought the story.

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The pitch to sell Alien was short and sweet.
Source: itthings.com

The elevator pitch made them  instantly imagine the movie. And the marketing campaign.

A grandmother from Arizona once sent a 3 X 5 inch card to a Hollywood executive. On it, she wrote: "Are you interested in a story about a man who lives in the Statue of Liberty?" The studio paid her $100,000 for that one sentence.

See, an elevator pitch isn't just an exercise to ensure you have a genuine idea, it is also a detonator.

It ignites excitement.

When Hollywood executives looked at an advance copy of Robert Ludlum's book  The Bourne Identity, they didn't have to read the 523 pages - they just had to hear one line to green-light the movie: What if a man with amnesia has forgotten he's the world's most dangerous assassin?

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The movie studio gave the Bourne Identity movie a green light on the strength of the simple core idea.
Source: collider.com

And then there's  Snakes On A Plane: Actor Samuel L. Jackson signed on based on those four words alone. It was an elevator pitch, a movie title  and a marketing campaign all rolled into one.

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Snakes On A Plane said it all.
Source: movieposter.com

One of my favourite elevator pitch stories involves advertising and Hollywood.

One day in 1986, an advertising copywriter and art director team in London, England, decided to spend their summer vacation flying over to Hollywood to pitch their movie idea.

When the two of them landed, they looked up "Agents" in the phone book, and went down the list until one agreed to a meeting. So they met with that agent and explained their movie idea. When they were done, the agent said, "Listen, I have an appointment with a studio exec this afternoon to pitch a movie, but my writer just cancelled on me and I don't want to lose the meeting. Let's go pitch this idea."

So the British ad guys said, sure, and jumped in his car.

They had  no idea how lucky they were to be with an agent on the way to a movie studio to pitch a story during their  first week in Hollywood.

They just figured this was how it went in America.

When they get to the studio executive's office, they shake hands, sit down, and pitch their movie idea.

The studio exec listens, then says, I hate it. What else you got?

Now - the British ad guys only  have one idea.

So they say, "Umm, let us run down to the car and get our other idea."

The studio exec said to make it quick.

The ad guys duck into a washroom and stare at each other in a mild panic. Then the copywriter says, "Hey, remember that idea you had where twins are separated at birth and meet later in life?"

The art director says yeah, but that was all he had. 

No story.

The copywriter finishes his business at the urinal - turns and says: What if the twins are Schwarzenegger and DeVito?

So they march back into the office and say to the studio exec:

OK - twins separated at birth that meet later in life. One's Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other is Danny DeVito.

There was a pause in the room.

Then the exec said, "I'll take it." 

Because  in that instant, he could imagine the movie, the marketing, the poster, and most of all,  this scene:

When Twins was pitched, the studio executive bought it based on imagining this scene.
Source: YouTube

And that's the story of  Twins.

Sold with just an elevator pitch.

Ideas fuel the world.

And everybody's got one.

But so  few ideas see the light of day. Because so  many die during the presentation.

Selling an idea is a very difficult process. The key is clarity.

An elevator pitch  forces you to distil your idea down to its very essence. If you can articulate your idea in a single thought - in language that excites people - you win.

Refining an elevator pitch is the ultimate test of an idea. If it can be condensed down to a dynamic nutshell, it's a strong idea. If you struggle to articulate it - it's fuzzy.

When Steve Jobs wanted to persuade John Sculley to leave his top post at Pepsi, money and stock options didn't work. But when Jobs summed up the opportunity in a single penetrating sentence - Sculley was seduced.

When Wired Magazine needed financing to launch, their one-line pitch made wallets open right around the table.

When Pat Riley needed his basketball team to believe they  could win the sixth game - against all odds - he framed that motivation in a single, bold statement, and the team got the message.

An elevator pitch can articulate an idea, define a story, encapsulate a marketing campaign, and even express the soul of a company.

And any company that can't express its vision in a single, vivid sentence is a company that is underachieving.

That's why communication is like an elevator, it only goes in one of two directions...

...when you're under the influence.