Guest Post: Elevator Pitches at Cornell

Thanks to Alex Guite for this guest post. You should follow Alex on twitter here.

Air conditioning, super glue and pacemakers have at least two things in common. They were game changing, pioneering inventions. And each one of them was the idea of a Cornell University graduate. So it was with both hands that I seized the opportunity to listen as current students pitch their new business ideas at Cornell’s annual Elevator Pitch competition.

Pressing the right buttons

Bumping into a potential investor, pitching an idea and securing finance between the foyer and the fiftieth floor may or may not be a routine part of business. Still, the ability to explain an idea and why it’s exciting in under a minute is a skill which matters, whatever your job. Your workplace doesn’t even need an elevator for it to be useful. Indeed, unless you can summarise an idea you don’t really understand it.

Get their attention

There were about 20 contestants last Wednesday. Like any public speaking event with so many speakers, the ones which stick in my mind grabbed my attention early. Usually, it was a joke or turn of phrase. If they were funny or interesting it gave me a reason to listen: even if the idea didn’t turn out to be so hot, at least it was entertaining*.

Admittedly, it’s unlikely that the typical CEO receives 20 pitches each time they get into an elevator. Great, so it doesn’t really mater if my pitch doesn’t stand out because I’m the only one pitching? Right? Clearly not: your pitch is competing with every other event and piece of information your target will hear that day.

A logical lift

A lot of thought goes into designing the algorithms which despatch a choice of elevators to passengers on different floors, all with their own destination floor in mind, in the shortest possible time. Yet, as far as any one passenger is concerned, their elevator journey is a simple affair.

So it was with the best elevator pitches: they were simple and just made sense. That’s not to say the ideas weren’t complicated. Clearly, a lot of preparation had gone into the simplest pitches, even if the conversational and informal tone of some speakers successfully concealed it.

The most popular structure, with varying degrees of emphasis on each section, was to outline a problem, introduce their solution and close by explaining how they planned to build a profitable business around their idea. It might not be the most imaginative structure, but it makes sense in 60 seconds.

Easy on the drama

One presenter got my attention from the moment he got to the stage. “Are you feeling what I’m feeling?” he roared. “Are you seeking what I’m seeking?” he bellowed. There was not let up: it was the most passionate and dramatic pitch of the night. To finish it off, he threw his wallet to the floor and urged that today he wasn’t pitching for our cash, he was pitching for our participation. It was brilliant stuff. Except, I have no idea what the pitch was about. Passion in a pitch is clearly a good thing, until it completely eclipses the content.

Be brave

The speaker who made the biggest impression on me might not think he had such a great night. He started strong, but soon got his lines so muddled he decided to start again. This time he barely got past his opening. He tried again. He blanked almost immediately. There was nothing for it: he left the stage and walked straight out the auditorium.

Less than an hour later he was back on stage. Opening with a joke about getting in the wrong elevator last time, he went on to make a confident and fluent pitch. I thought coming back took real guts. He got the biggest round of applause of the night and well deserved it was too.

I have no doubt that whether it’s to angel investors in their office or a busy executive in a crowded elevator, delivering a great pitch would take similar guts in real life (and doubly so if you’re claustrophobic).

* For the record, there were no dud ideas last night. I had many “damn, I wish I’d thought of that” moments.

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One Comment

  1. Freddie Daniells
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Great post. Loved the bit about ‘Easy on the drama’ – had me laughing out loud! haha!

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