The Art of the Elevator Pitch

It’s the famous elevator scenario — you’re an aspiring entrepreneur on your way to beg for dollars, and you find yourself on the elevator next to Warren Buffett/Marc Andreesen/Santa. How do you make use of what could be the most important 30 seconds of your life?

Of course, most people never make it onto an elevator with a celebrity. But then again, you don’t need a billionaire to make your career. Every day, we’re surrounded by potential customers and clients who don’t buy from us simply because they have no idea what we do. That’s our fault, and a good “elevator pitch” is the antidote. Other cultures may be concerned with your lineage or your hometown, but the archetypal American introductory question is “what do you do?” Cocktail parties, networking events — literally anytime you meet someone new, you’re going to get asked within five minutes, and there’s no excuse for not having a succinct and compelling answer.

When I’m feeling antisocial, I’ll answer, “I’m a marketing consultant.” That usually makes them go away pretty fast. After all, what are they supposed to do with it? It’s a ludicrously broad answer and gives a new acquaintance nothing to latch onto as far as similarities or conversation topics. A better answer? “I’m a consultant that helps clients like Google, the National Park Service, and Yale University enhance their image and increase sales.” Now we’re talking! You want to give someone a toehold so they can ask a few decent follow-ups and continue the conversation.

Crafting Your Pitch

You can follow these four steps to craft a killer elevator pitch.

1. Ask your clients. A lot of us are simply too close to our work to have perspective on how to describe it. That gets us into trouble, focusing too much on describing the minutiae of our methodology and other minor points that bore everyone else. Your clients know better than anyone what you bring to the table, because they’ve chosen to pay for it. Ask them to provide a testimonial and see what trends emerge.

2. Focus on difference. When you’re voting for a candidate, most of us can’t take the time to read their entire health care or environmental platforms. You want to know the basics: Sre they a member of the Sierra Club or Friends of ExxonMobil? Similarly, your customers want to know what you bring to the table that your competitors don’t. If your biggest rival is a large firm, you can stress your boutique credentials and hands-on service. If you’ve got 20 years of experience and your rivals are newbie interlopers, you’re going to stress credentials.

3. Focus on value. Your customers are taking money out of their pockets and putting it into yours. Think hard about what they’re getting back — a better image, security that their legal interests are protected, dramatically enhanced productivity? Focus your message on what customers are willing to pay for.

4. 27-9-3. Several years back, a group of Vermont legislators came up with an extremely effective technique for creating short, snappy messages: 27-9-3, otherwise known as 27 words, 9 seconds, and three points. If you can keep within those parameters (or even shorter), you’re ahead of the pack.

Once you’ve developed your elevator pitch, be sure to test it with your friends, clients, and new people you meet. What kind of a response do you get? It’s a good sign if they engage and ask questions, but if more than a few suddenly decide to wander off to the bar, consider modifications. Ultimately, you’re going to want to deploy your pitch everywhere — in your conversations, on your website, in your brochures. That’s because, if you’re really successful at spreading your message and your repute, your most effective messengers are eventually going to be people who’ve never even met you. As in a game of “telephone,” you better be crystal clear in delivering your message upfront, so it survives subsequent iterations intact — and can turn into real business and real money for you.

This post originally appeared on the The Huffington Post website on September 9, 2013.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.