Elevator Pitch: What’s Wrong With It & How to Make Yours Work

Author: Zenresume Editorial Team
Updated on February 01, 2021

How many times have you heard this fantasy elevator pitch scenario?

You enter an elevator, press your button and, OH MY GOD!, you realize you’re riding with Elon Musk, Susan Wojcicki, or Larry Page. Or all three of them. Plus Steve Jobs’ hologram.

One of them looks at you and asks:

“So—What do you do?”

You’ve got thirty seconds to deliver your fast-and-furious speech so that, by the end of the ride, they like you enough to hire you or give you money.


Because of stories like this, the mythical elevator pitch has been ridiculed by many a career expert.

When presented this way, the concept is laughable.

And that’s not the whole problem.

It gets worse:


The traditional elevator pitch is a lost cause

That’s a research-proven fact.

A group of Stanford University researchers have investigated whether sales/elevator pitches (or even business plans) can actually influence decisions of potential stakeholders.

The result?

There’s no correlation between the presence of an elevator pitch and the final desired outcome.

Another study published by the MIT Press focused on elevator pitches used by tech innovators to sell their ideas to potential VC investors.

They suffer a failure rate of 96%.

Does that mean you should ditch the idea of an elevator pitch altogether?

Far from it. Let’s do something else instead...


Let’s redefine the elevator pitch once and for all

Here’s a quick story for you.

When faced with the cornerstone of smalltalk, the “What do you do?” question, Tim David, an author and a contributor for the Harvard Business Review, begins his pitch with:

“You mean, in addition to being an international bodybuilding champion?”

(He’s five feet ten and a buck thirty five. “When I step on ants, they live,” he says.)

Upon hearing this line, whoever David talks to usually laughs. He laughs too. Then he starts chatting with them.

But is that even an elevator pitch to begin with?

What is an elevator pitch?

The common elevator pitch definition is:

A short (20 to 30 seconds), verbal description of an idea, product, or oneself, that gets attention of the person you’re talking to and helps you get you want. Be that selling your products, getting funds, or landing a job.


Why is “attention” in bold?

Because without it, you might as well talk to the hand. And yet, almost everyone seems to ignore this. Most elevator pitches sound canned and gimmicky, like ad slogans.

Tim’s self-depreciating bodybuilding one-liner is a head-turner. Once he drops this joke, he gets attention. He makes them eager to hear out his “actual” elevator pitch.


Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook

Let’s be honest—to get someone’s attention only by “pitching” them is little short of impossible.

That’s what Rob Biesenbach, a keynote speaker and communications consultant points out to:

The problem with the elevator pitch is right there in the title: nobody likes to be ‘pitched’ and few people are comfortable ‘pitching’ themselves,” Biesenbach says.

The purpose of an introduction speech is to communicate something to your audience. Good communication is a two-way process.

So—to make your elevator or sales pitch work, you need to reinterpret it.

No more droning on about being a professional X with Y years of experience in Z.

Treat the elevator pitch as an invitation to a conversation. It’s way easier and less awkward than to deliver a pitch prepared in advance.

Get it right, and you won’t have to limit yourself to 30 seconds. You’ll get the person you’re speaking with to actually listen to what you have to say.

Start your elevator pitch with something surprising, like the bodybuilding joke I mentioned. David calls it “an elevator pitch for your elevator pitch.”

And that’s something you have to come up with yourself. There’s no secret recipe. It has to sound 100% you.

“I’d write this for you if I could, but I can’t. Nobody can,” says David.

Alright. But once you’ve got your conversation-starter, what about the actual conversation?

Let’s break it down.


The only formula for an effective elevator pitch

You got your audience’s attention. Halfway there. What’s next?

Get your audience nodding.

Identify a problem related to your profession that your audience will be familiar with. Make them go “Yeah, that’s right, it is a problem.”

Then, spark curiosity. Tell them that you fix this problem. And let them ask you how you do it.

Finally, deliver your actual “pitch.” Summarize what you do in an engaging yet concise way and be ready for more questions.

Remember: you need to keep the conversation alive. The moment you start feeling that your “pitch” is turning into a robotic commercial, slow down. Maybe ask a question or two. No one wants to feel like they’re being pitched.

To show you an example of what I mean, I reached out to Pete Sosnowski, our co-founder and VP.

“Hey Pete, for a moment, let’s pretend we don’t know each other. I’ve got a question for you. Tell me… What do you do?”

His response?

“You know this feeling when you send out 100 resumes and get no call back?” (Identifying the problem.)

Yeah, who doesn’t?

“That’s not your fault. That’s because the hiring industry is defective and needs a revolution. So I want to spark this revolution and fix HR.” (Sparking curiosity.)

Wow, that sounds amazing. How do you want to do it?

And now it’s the time for Pete to launch the rest of his pitch. I’m ready for it. I’m dying to find out more.

See what I mean?

Pete made it irresistible for me to ask for more information. The technique he used turned me from casual into an engaged listener.

And what if you can’t do it? What if you identify a problem, say that you solve it, and still, your listener isn’t interested?

Then just don’t bother.

If the person you’re talking to isn’t willing to learn more about you at this point, they’re just not your right audience. Even if you started with your proper “pitch” right off, you’d just waste your time (while being salesy and awkward). They wouldn’t pay attention anyways.

I know what you’re thinking—


But what about that “proper” elevator pitch?

Guess what?

That’s the easy part.

When someone asks you “What do you do?” they’re just being polite. They don’t care.

But if you follow the two crucial elevator pitch steps—identify a relatable problem and spark curiosity—the same person who was merely being polite, now really wants to know what you do.

Tell them. You no longer have to worry about cramming your career into a 30-second pitch.

And, tell us!

What do you do? Try to answer this question in the comments, using the technique I discussed. I can’t wait to hear your pitch!

Have additional questions about your elevator pitch? Feel like you could use some help crafting one? Drop me a line in the comments. Let’s chat.



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