I’ve been running into an all-too-common scenario at conferences and networking meetings: the death of the elevator pitch. When asked what their business does, I see far too many people who don’t (or can’t) explain it in the time it would take an elevator to reach their floor. I hear the word “ummm”, “well,” and “basically…” a lot. Even worse, I see people start the conversation with “It’s complicated, but…”

‘It’s complicated’ is a Facebook relationship status, not a business model. I like to say, “explain it like I am five and simplify your brand message.”

An elevator pitch, of course, is what you would say to an important investor if you ran into them on an elevator, and had to convince them of the strength of your business model before they got off on their floor. But here’s the catch; your pitch has to be even better and shorter than that! In an elevator, there is nothing else to focus on but the other person, and you can’t walk away. On a crowded conference floor or networking meet and greet, there are plenty of other people, businesses and ideas to draw away the attention of the person you’re talking to. If you can’t explain in one sentence what your business does and how it makes money, without any filler or verbal tics, then you either don’t understand your own business well enough, or your business plan itself is too vague or complex.

Likewise, if you can’t explain to a potential customer or client why they should put their money into your brand in a single sentence, you have a leak in your marketing funnel. That’s like paying someone just to talk to them, and then babbling about the weather once you have their attention. You won’t keep it very long, and you’ve wasted your money and your audience’s time. You need a rock solid, concise and elegant brand message to attract customer’s attention and keep it long enough to close the sale.

This is true whether you own a business that sells toothpicks, or you are an independent consultant to NASA who advises on compliance and environmental issues for the insulation panels on space shuttles. The complexity of your pitch, and therefore your brand message, has nothing to do with the complexity of the industry or niche that you occupy. It has everything to do with your understanding of your own business, and the strength and clarity of your business plan. To prove that you have that clarity, and that your plan has that strength, there is a very simple technique to pare down your brand message to answer the question “why should I spend my time and money on you?”

There is a very silly yet revealing thread on Reddit called “Explain It Like I’m Five”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Forum members post interesting, hypothetical or complex questions, and other readers try to answer it as though speaking to a five year old. The questions don’t matter, but developing the skill of answering so succinctly and clearly that a five year old could understand is something that every single business owner and entrepreneur should be doing. The trick is not to answer as though you assume the asker is stupid—assuming that your customers or clients are stupid is the best way to ensure that you don’t have any. Don’t “Explain It Like I’m an Idiot”. Instead, explain your brand message assuming that the attention span of the asker is very short, that they will lose interest or become confused if you include any extraneous information, and that they have no previous knowledge of your industry. In that way, your potential customers are very like a group of five year olds.

A brand message should be succinct, simple, and clear. If it isn’t, how can your marketing materials, your pitches, or your company mission be anything other than incoherent? Your brand’s materials don’t need to explain every minute thing about your company. It only needs to answer the question “why should I do business with you?”, and it needs to answer the question as though the asker is five years old. Practice and hone this skill, and watch as you forge stronger connections than ever with both prospects and affiliates alike.

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