“What do you do?”

Have you ever had a family member, friend, or acquaintance ask that dreaded question?

You clam up. You don’t know how to respond. You stumble over your words, and all that comes out is, “It’s complicated.” It’s not a pretty sight, and the look on the other person’s face says they regret ever asking.

People want to listen, and they’re eager to look for themselves in the story you’re telling, but you need to grab their attention quickly or you’re going to lose them. You often have only a short amount of time.

They call it an “elevator pitch” because you may have as little as thirty seconds of someone’s attention before they leave an elevator you’re sharing. You need to be ready to give a pitch for what you do at any time, for any amount of time.

Freezing up on a pitch is a common problem that stems from two things: a lack of clarity and a lack of practice. You need clarity on what you’re about, and you need practice delivering.

The elevator pitch illustrates the importance of curation. If you tell your fellow elevator companion what you ate for breakfast, show them a photo of your child, and talk about your music hobby, do you think they’re going to remember everything? Probably not. If you tell them too many things, they won’t remember any of them. Less is more. By focusing on sharing just one thing, the chances they’ll remember it are greater. If you try to share everything you’re about, you’ll never see someone exit an elevator faster.

Share Your Long Pitch with a Trusted Friend

Before anyone else can get clear on what you do, you have to get clear on what you do. The first step is to find a kind soul who’s willing to listen to you tell your whole story and take them out for a drink. Tell them the big, long, messy version of what you do. It will probably take you twenty minutes. As soon as you’re done, ask, “If I got up from this chair and someone took my seat and asked, ‘So, what was that person all about?’ what would you tell them?”

Get ready to take notes. The words that come out of their mouth next will be gold. Watch in astonishment as they’re able to convey everything you just shared over the course of twenty minutes in just a few words—possibly even a single sentence.

How is this possible? The reason they have so much clarity on your story is that they aren’t as emotionally tied to it as you are. You shared a bunch of irrelevant details you thought were integral to your story, but listen to what they repeated back to you. Those are the important parts of your story. Especially note what they didn’t repeat back. What comes out of their mouth is the part of your story that resonated with them.

Write down the exact language they used. The words they used are something you want to hold on to. That’s the essence of your story and what you’re actually about. You can use this to explain what you do to others in the future in a much more concise manner.

What’s important about your story isn’t what you think is important. All that’s important about your story is what resonates with others. You must tell the story people want to hear. What’s in it for them? Why should they care? Who’s your target audience? How are you reaching them? If you reach them successfully and they consume your content, purchase your product, or hire you for your services, how is their life made better?

Prepare Your Six-Second Pitch

Be ready to give a six-second pitch, a sixty-second pitch, or a ten-minute pitch at all times. The first is a single-sentence pitch. Start with this formula: I help [X] do [Y] so that they can [Z].

  • [X]: Who (specific person you help)
  • [Y]: What (their desired end result)
  • [Z]: Why (deeper reason for what you do)

[X] and [Y] are relatively easy to come up with. Defining your [Z] is where you can have some fun. The deeper explanation for why you do what you do is your differentiator—it’s the passion behind what you do. The reason is what makes you interesting. There are plenty of other people who also help [X] do [Y], but what makes you unique? Why do you do what you do?

Go back to the response you wrote down from your friend when you went out for a drink. Study their summary. Can you find elements of this formula? See if you can use this formula to restructure the way you tell your story. Don’t start with yourself. Instead, start with the people you serve, [X], what you help them with, [Y], and why you do it, [Z].

Only after you lead with this formula should you talk about yourself. Anything else you add should support this phrase.

Prepare Your Sixty-Second Pitch

If you find yourself getting off the elevator on the same floor as your companion, you may have more time to go into greater detail. The first part of your sixty-second pitch should be your six-second pitch—that’s your opening sentence. You then have roughly eighteen seconds to elaborate on each individual element of your XYZ. This comes to about three sentences per element. Don’t get caught up on the exact words or seconds—this is just a guide.

For instance, my single-sentence pitch is: “I help people stuck in soul-sucking day jobs start their own businesses so they can have financial freedom and enjoy their lives again.”

If I had sixty seconds, the next thing I’d do is define who I help in greater detail and really agitate the pain points of their current situation:

“These are people who feel miserable and stuck at their job. Their boss is overbearing and their workplace is a bad environment. They know they want something more, but by the time they get home from their job, they’re overwhelmed, tired, and feel exhausted. They feel like they just can’t find any more time in the day.”

Next, I would talk about what this person wants and where they want to go. This is where I’d paint a picture of the future they desire in vivid detail:

“They want to start a business and do things on their own terms. They’re looking for a practical, step-by-step guide on how to create financial freedom. This will allow them to stress less, spend more time with their family, and enjoy their life.”

Again, this takes roughly eighteen seconds or three sentences. You now have just enough time left in your minute to zoom into the third part—why you do what you do:

“I think it’s a shame that most people don’t enjoy their work and end up hating a third of their life. I believe the world is a better place when people enjoy their work. I want to give people the resources to do what fulfills them so we have more people creating value for the world.”

There you have it! In exactly sixty seconds, you delivered a detail-packed message that was engaging and fun to listen to. Hopefully by this point, you’ve piqued the interest of your listener enough to continue. After all, your sixty-second pitch is simply an invitation to your ten-minute pitch, if you’re so fortunate as to get the opportunity to share it.

Prepare Your Ten-Minute Pitch

A good six- or sixty-second elevator pitch makes someone want to get off the elevator with you. It’s a starting point and a conversation starter. You’re not trying to close the deal right then and there. Your short pitches are useful at conferences, networking events, or parties where people have relatively limited attention to give. These are also good places to practice. It might go without saying, but be prepared to talk more about what you do if the other person shows interest! You’re not always going to have only sixty seconds. If you do a good job and you’re able to capture someone’s interest, they may want to talk to you much longer.

Unlike your six- or sixty-second elevator pitch, your ten-minute pitch will not be a long, highly scripted speech. Here, you’re going for more of a structured dialogue.

If someone is giving you a greater amount of time and attention, spend a few minutes learning more about them. Ask questions and talk about their interests, business, or hobbies. Get to know them better.

Ten minutes is a lot of time, and you could go in many different directions. Rather than get carried away in a monologue and risk completely losing their interest, tailor your mini-presentation to your listener. Spending just a few minutes getting to know more about them and their context will enable you to zoom in to what you think will most interest them in your pitch.

Revisit the XYZ formula. When asking this person to speak more about what interests them, pay attention to what they focus on the most:

  • Do they care more about people?
  • Do they care more about results?
  • Do they care more about the deeper reasons why?

Respectively, these are the three elements of our formula. They are also the three parts of your story. When you recognize which of the three your conversation partner tends to dwell on longest, you will know which part of your story to focus on.

Tailor your message and spend more time on the element you heard them talk about the most. This will have the greatest chance of making an impression on them as well as eliciting a stronger emotional response. Getting them emotionally invested is a great way to be memorable. Conversations in which we do not experience strong emotions—either positive or negative—are soon forgotten.

You never know how long you’re going to have, and you need to be ready to select a pitch that fits the amount of time you have. But if you’re fortunate to have more than a few minutes, take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and customize your message in a way that will uniquely resonate with your listener.

Constantly Answer the Question: “What’s in It for Me?”

Remember that people are inherently selfish. They always want to know what’s in it for them. They’re constantly asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?” If you can constantly answer that question in your story, you will have their attention. Stories are useful because people envision themselves in the story you’re telling. Avoid rambling about irrelevant things that don’t interest the listener.

Working on your elevator pitch forces you to seek clarity on your own situation. You can’t give a good pitch if you don’t know what you’re pitching. If you’re pitching everything, you’re pitching nothing. The attention someone gives you for a few seconds in an elevator is not unlike the precious few seconds you have everywhere with anyone else. Attention spans are limited. Simplify like your life depends on it because it does. If you cannot simplify your message and simplify what you’re about, it will never be heard, remembered, or shared.

Few people have clarity on their situation. This is a shame because, as a result, they miss out on the many opportunities they would have had to share their message. Think about how many more opportunities in a day you’d have to share your message with someone if you developed the discipline to do it in a few seconds. If you had the ability to pitch someone in six or sixty seconds, you could talk to more people. If you talked to more people, you’d increase your chances of talking to the right person. One right connection can be all it takes to completely change your life, your business, and your career.

Key Takeaways

  • People want to listen, and they’re eager to look for themselves in the story you’re telling, but you need to grab their attention quickly or you’re going to lose them.
  • They call it an elevator pitch because you may have as little as thirty seconds of someone’s attention before they leave an elevator you’re sharing. You need to be ready to give a pitch for what you do at any time, in any amount of time.
  • A good elevator pitch makes someone want to get off the elevator with you.
  • Remember that people are inherently selfish. They always want to know what’s in it for them. They’re constantly asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?” If you can answer that question in your story, you will have their attention.
  • Describe what you do to a friend. Go into as much detail as you can, and then ask them to summarize what you’ve just told them. Take notes while they describe what you do. Write down the exact language they use. The words they use are something you want to hold on to. Use this to explain what you do to others in the future in a much more concise manner.