Once you’ve created the story of your business using the 9 steps of our Lean Story Canvas, you’re ready to start designing your elevator pitch. 

So, how do you explain your life’s work in the duration of an elevator ride? Boiling down your story to its essence is no easy task, but some simple principles can help you design a stronger elevator pitch.

Elevator Pitch Design Principles:

Why, How, What

When you meet someone for the first time, and only have a short amount of time to tell them about your business, there are three key things they need to know:

  1. Why your innovation matters to your customers.
  2. How you approach things differently to others.
  3. What your product(s) or service(s) do to help your customers overcome three key challenges.

Keep it short

Working memory relates to the information we pay attention to, store and share.  Research by psychologists at the University of Missouri-Columbia shows that most people’s working memory has a maximum capacity of three pieces of information – this is known as ‘the power of three’.  

If you pack your whole business case or lots of technical information into your elevator pitch, you’re leaving it to chance which three pieces of information people will pay attention to, store and share. 

Wouldn’t you rather make sure these three things are really important points, rather than relatively minor information about your business case or small technical details?

Your elevator pitch should be made up of around one or two short sentences for each part of your pitch (your Why, How, What). So ideally, six short sentences in total. 

A great elevator pitch is designed to intrigue someone who can help you grow your business (a funder, investor, customer, collaborator, journalist or potential recruit). If it works they’ll ask you further questions, set up a call, or schedule a meeting – think of it as the teaser, for the trailer, for the movie. 

Keep it simple

Dave Peterson is a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned business coach. The first question he asks any businesses he works with is:

“Can you explain to me like a five-year-old what problem you’re trying to solve?”

Keeping it simple is important because:

  • Most of the time, the people who can help you, won’t have the same specific technical knowledge you do.
  • If your elevator pitch isn’t simple people will struggle to share it with others – investors talk to other investors, potential collaborators have to sell your idea to the rest of their organisation, and journalists have to explain complex businesses in a way their readers can understand (The Guardian writes for an average reading age of 14).
  • Research by Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, has shown that keeping your message simple, makes you seem more intelligent and credible, and using complex jargon often has the opposite effect.

In fact, research published in Scaling up: the investor perspective by Innovate UK, showed that 84% of investors often turn down investment opportunities with scale-up businesses because of poor communication – so showing you can communicate well from your first conversation is important.

1. Designing your ‘Why’

Why your innovation matters to your customers.

Funders, investors, customers, collaborators, journalists and potential recruits are all interested in businesses that understand a clear customer need. You need to show why your innovation matters to your customers, not just to you. 

To do this, you need to review the customer-focused elements of your Story Canvas:

Funders, investors, customers, collaborators, journalists and potential recruits are all interested in businesses that understand a clear customer need. You need to show why your innovation matters to your customers, not just to you. 

To do this, you need to review the customer-focused elements of your Story Canvas:

‘Why’ Examples:

Note that you don’t have to give all the elements of your Why equal weight, Octopus Energy has an interesting Villain so they go heavy on that, while Apple has an interesting Hero, so they focus more on that element of their pitch.

2. Designing your ‘How’

HOW you approach things differently to others.

Now you’ve explained why the problem you’re solving is so important to your customers, you need to explain how you help solve that problem, in a way that is different to others.

To do this, you need to review elements of your Story canvas that are focused on you:

From the Mentor section of the canvas, you need to look for a unique viewpoint on the customer problem that lies at the heart of your business.  Behavioural scientist Robert Cialdini, who worked on Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, talks about the power of scarcity and credibility in his work on the science of persuasion.

People want things more when they feel scarce. Having a different approach to others (who might even have similar technologies) can make you more appealing.

We saw this in action first-hand when looking at the elevator pitches of global university brands.  All international universities have very similar Whys and Whats – tackling societies big problems and offering more fulfilling lives through education (Why), and excellent faculty, resources and research. What made the world’s top university brands standout was the implied scarcity of their Hows – only MIT focuses on world-changing advancements in science and technology, only Harvard says it creates leaders with competence and character, only Cambridge leverages its history to talk about academic freedom of thought and a questioning spirit. In fact, as you move down the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, the Hows of the universities become less and less unique. 

Credibility as the mentor is also key. People will only come on a journey of change with you if they trust you. This doesn’t have to be the entire contents of your CV. Is there one piece of life experience, research or an ‘aha moment’ that will add credibility to your unique take on the problem?

The Call To Adventure section of your Story Canvas should be where the ‘push’ of your customers’ needs meets the ‘pull’ of your unique point of view as the Mentor, so it’s also an important section to review when creating you How.

How examples:

Note that a compelling How is often the difference between loving a company and tolerating it.

3. Designing your ‘What’

WHAT your product(s) or service(s) do to help your customers overcome three key challenges

Once you’ve persuaded your audience why they should care, you need to let them know what you’re offering.

When designing your What remember ‘the power of three’ we mentioned earlier. Focus on the three gifts your product(s) or service(s) offer than relate to Three Challenges customers will face adopting your innovation – these three gifts should be in the Mentor & Gifts section of your Story Canvas. 

As customers often have a user challenge (How easy is it to use? Is it better to use than what I have now?), an integration challenge (How does this fit into my current business/systems/life?) and a financial challenge (How much does it cost? How much will I save? What’s the business case?); it’s a good idea to focus on the three gifts that will help them overcome these hurdles. 

Note that the three gifts can all relate to one product or service, or different products and services within your offering.

What Examples:

Improving an elevator pitch is a design process

….you need to try out different versions to see what’s working well and what has room for improvement.  

Remember that you don’t have to give all the elements of your Story Canvas equal weight in your elevator pitch. You also don’t need to pitch your Why, How, What in that order – the key is finding what has the most impact for you.

As a rule of thumb:

  • Start with you Why if you’ve found a particularly unique and exciting customer need, e.g. ‘As online platforms reach saturation point, to continue growing, they’ll need to reach the 4 billion people in the world today who have no internet access…’
  • Start with your How if you have a particularly different and compelling view on the problem, e.g. ‘We turn concrete, which is a huge producer of CO2 into something that extracts CO2 like a forest…’
  • Start with your What if you’ve got a big, bold product claim or killer application, e.g. ‘I’ve got the world’s longest-range electric truck…’

Now go design and test your elevator pitches!