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The Elevator Pitch: What Showbiz Can Teach You About Selling in 30 Seconds

Master this Hollywood secret to sell your business ideas.

Elevator Pitch​​​

In showbiz, the elevator pitch is the critical first step to sell your film and see it up on screens—and it's no different in the business world.

Whether you’re working your way up the company ladder or thinking of creating your own startup, you’ve got an idea you need to sell someone on.

You’ve white boarded it, analyzed the ROI, built a presentation deck and have dozens of appendices that prove your point. But, can you sum up your great idea in 30 seconds and get everyone so excited about it that they have to say yes?

If not, then you need to think like a screenwriter and work on your elevator pitch.

What is an Elevator Pitch?

You guessed it—an elevator pitch is a short summary of an idea that sums up its key points in the time it takes to ride an elevator. That's a very narrow window to get your idea across—between 30 seconds and two minutes.

It should define the process, product, service, business benefits and summarize the entire idea that you’re proposing. It should also sum up your value proposition—what is unique and special about it. And it should use compelling, visual language so that the listener can see what you’re talking about and get just as excited about it as you.

But creating a great elevator pitch is hard work. Just ask the people who invented it—the writers who work in showbiz.

Screenwriters and movie producers are always coming up with new script ideas that they are trying to get networks and studios to say 'yes' to. But if they expected every studio exec to read their 100-page script, they’d never get one sold. People are just too busy.

Everybody knows the cliché: a struggling writer finds himself riding an elevator with the president of the studio. This is his one shot to pitch him, and he’s got about 30 seconds before the doors open.

The writer summons all his courage and pitches his 100-page idea in the most exciting and compelling way he can before they hit the lobby. The pitch intrigues the studio president enough that he brings him into his office to tell him more, where hundreds of other scripts are stacked in the office, all covered in dust and waiting to be read.

That 30-second elevator pitch put the struggling writer’s idea ahead of all of them, because it captured the imagination of the studio president and got him excited. And by the end of the meeting, he’s bought the movie.

And that was no accident. That winning elevator pitch wasn't made up on the spot. The writer worked as hard honing those 30 seconds as he did writing the entire 100-page script.

And we can all learn a lot from him about pitching our ideas.

What are the key elements to a winning “elevator pitch”?

According to award-winning Canadian screenwriter James Phillips, who lives in Canada’s “Hollywood North” of Vancouver, it comes down to capturing their attention and making them care about your idea—fast!

“When time is of the essence, you need a strong and very succinct hook to immediately grab their attention,” explains Phillips, who has written TV series like Arctic Air, and thrillers like Undercover Wife, Amber Alert and Kept Woman.

“You then quickly lay out the world and introduce the main characters with enough detail to make it clear why you should care about them. And then leave them wanting more.”

Replace “main characters” with “elements of your business proposition” and this can work for you.

Winnipeg-based producer Kyle Bornais of Farpoint Films, who has produced series like The Illegal Eater and Escape or Die!, says you better know what you’re pitching—and practice makes perfect.

Bornais offers his wise advice. “Be concise. Nothing kills a pitch faster than fumbling with your thoughts. If you only have two minutes, don’t take five.

"You need to know your concept so well that you can sell it in as few sentences as possible, with very little room for interpretation. Know who you are talking to, know what they do and what they spend to do it. And do your research.”

For Bornais, all that advance legwork is what gives you credibility.

“If you aren’t willing to put the time needed into getting your pitch thought out and complete, then why would anyone get behind you? You need to know and believe what you are selling so that they will too.”

What are the three keys to writing and practicing your pitch?

James Phillips has sold a lot of screenplays, and he breaks his winning strategy down to having a great hook for each project, along with a compelling personal connection and knowing your audience.

“The hook is key. Your audience needs to be immediately engaged. It should be exciting, visual and provide a clear idea of the tone of the project. Then, you need to convey a personal connection with the material. Why is this so important to you? Why do you not only want to make this, but why do you need to make this?

"Passion sells. And most important of all, know your audience. Without turning your project into something it isn’t, you need to tailor the pitch to the individual buyer.”

What that means is that you might need to tweak your pitch every time. To really sell someone an idea, you need to think about what their needs are and how this will help them achieve their goals. In the business world, just like in showbiz, you need to uncover how you can tailor your idea to fit what they need.

For Bornais, the keys are research, relevance and conciseness. “Research the market. It doesn’t matter how amazing your idea is if there’s nowhere to sell it. At the end of the day, what we do comes down to one question, ‘Will it make money?’  Make sure you have the answer to that.

And he stresses the importance of keeping the pitch airtight. “Be clear and concise in your pitch. So often people use 10 words when five will do. How long should your pitch be? Easy—as long as it needs to be and no longer. This isn’t high school English class, no one is counting your words or page count. The idea and it’s marketability are what matters, so have that down cold.”

And have faith in yourself, says Bornais: “Don’t be cocky, but do believe in yourself and your idea. That’s probably the hardest line to walk, but if you can do that well then you will come across great.”

What can ruin a pitch?

For Phillips, the real buzzkill when he’s pitching comes down to emotion.

“A lack of energy will ruin a pitch. They need to feel your passion. That said, keep it real – don’t overdo it, or they’ll see right through you.”

The same can apply when pitching business ideas. You need to be passionate about your idea and genuinely believe in it, so that your audience will get just as involved. 

And Bornais warns that a lack of credibility is what will kill your pitch. “If you fumble with your thoughts, you’ll lose credibility and trust, and then you’re done. [Making things up] is worse than saying ‘I’m not sure’. You can go back to the table with new information, but you can’t change information you made up without ruining your pitch.

"And if you haven’t researched who you’re pitching and why your idea is right for them, you’re in trouble!”

For more lessons from showbiz, read how this production duo built the hit TV shows Game of Homes & Highway Thru Hell, but then realized that selling their company was the best bet of all.

Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy is a Vancouver-based television producer, writer and development consultant. Through his company Perfect Day Productions, Robert works with leading producers, writers and networks to help create innovative new television series, digital media and documentaries.

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