Creating the perfect one sentence elevator pitch

A woman makes an excellent elevator pitch
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These days, the elevator pitch is a big thing. It’s something every brand should be able to do for itself. But boiling the essence of what you do and why that matters into a pithy, witty statement of intent can be a nightmare. I’m sure you’ve struggled with it – I certainly have.

So, I’m going to help you create the perfect short, sharp, one sentence elevator pitch.

I’m going to start by sharing the best elevator pitch creation advice I ever had. It’s from back when I worked in the place where elevator pitches have become a very fine art indeed – the world of feature film development.

So what was the best bit of elevator pitch advice you ever had, Al?

Well, I’m glad you asked that question. Way back in about 1998, I asked a screenwriter how she came up with good script pitches. She replied:

‘Never mind getting it perfect. Come up with a few different versions of your elevator pitch and test them out at parties. You’ll know within five to ten seconds whether you’ve got a good pitch, because it’s so easy to spot when people are bored.’

So I started doing that. It worked really well. I could tell straight away whether or not my pitch was working. Either people’s eyes would glaze over and they’d change the subject (which is of course bad), or they’d look intrigued and start asking questions (which is much more satisfying).

Those questions were very helpful. They’d show me what people were interested in, and where I could usefully take the conversation next. And then I’d polish my pitch a little, and give it more test runs and polishes, and pretty soon I’d have something short, sharp and very effective indeed.

Then I started to notice that all my good elevator pitches had something very specific in common. And my bad ones often missed the mark for one very particular reason too.

Two great elevator pitches (and how they work)

At this point, I’d love to share some of the great script pitches I came up with. But I left the film business almost 20 years ago, so I’ve completely forgotten them all. So instead I’ll use some great one sentence pitches from films we’ve all seen.

Here’s one for Jaws:

A beachside tourist town’s besieged by an uncatchable shark – it’s Moby Dick crossed with a slasher movie!

It’s a great pitch. It creates an immediate and very specific sense of a pacey thriller with something a little more thoughtful going on too. No wonder it was such a big hit!

And there’s this great summary of some obscure little 70s science fiction flick:

A farm boy crosses the galaxy to rescue a princess from the man who destroyed her home and killed his father.

The stakes couldn’t be higher and the setting couldn’t be more expansive. It’s another smash hit in the making.

And of course, these two pitches have something in common. Both take a familiar reference point (a lovely seaside town, a classic fantasy quest) and then add something new and intriguing to it. In ‘Jaws’, it’s the hungry shark. And in ‘Star Wars’, it’s the galactic setting.

That’s an important part of such a short pitch. There’s no time to explain anything in detail. So you’ve got to start with something your audience already understands, then super-quickly make it new and intriguing. 

Two pitches that miss the mark (and what we can learn from them)

Of course, not all of my pitches worked. And that was usually for a very specific reason too. When you’re pitching, it’s very important to think about who you’re pitching to and what they need to hear. This glorious take on ‘The Wizard of Oz’, from film critic Rick Polito, illustrates that very well:

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.

It’s brilliantly witty, recasting a fantasy quest story as a brutal, noir-ish thriller. But if you used it to persuade people who’d never seen ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to watch it, you’d disappoint everyone.

Fantasy quest lovers would steer well clear of a film they’d actually love, while the dark thriller fans who went for the pitch would end up very confused and disappointed by the actual movie.

The same’s true for this:

A whiny teen with father issues accidentally romances his long-lost twin sister.

It’s an entirely accurate description of Star Wars. But that doesn’t mean it’d put any bums on seats. A good pitch does more than just hook people. It helps your audience find out if the bigger story you want to tell them is one they’d actually want to hear.

The rules of one-sentence elevator pitching

Taken together, that gives us these basic rules for creating our own one sentence pitches. They are:

  • Frame your pitch around something your audience already understands
  • Introduce something surprising that makes it new and attractive
  • Make sure you take them somewhere they’ll want to go

For an example of that in action, let’s go to master pitch-maker Steve Jobs. Back in 2007, he spend ten minutes or so launching the iPhone, and with it a revolution that’s still shaking through all of our lives. Within that presentation, he made the first ever public pitch for the iPhone.

He said he was launching three new products, then described them, then said:

An iPod, a phone and an internet communicator… an ipod, a phone and an internet communicator… are you getting it yet?

At that exact point the audience went nuts, because they did indeed get it. You can watch it here from about 1:20 on.

It’s a masterly one sentence elevator pitch, and it’s a great example of our pitch rules in action.

It was framed around three things the audience already understood very well. It made them new and attractive by combining them in a never-before-seen way. And it was followed by an in-depth product demo, delivering on everything it promised and more.

A more local (but equally unforgettable) example

I was at a start-up workshop the other week and heard one of the best one-sentence pitches I’ve ever run into. We were taking it in turns introducing ourselves and our businesses, and one attendee – Simon Batchelar of Pallant Design – said something along the lines of:

We do technical web and SEO stuff that’s hard to explain concisely – but one of our clients called us the other week to ask us to pause their paid ads, because they were bringing in so many new leads they couldn’t handle them all.

We were all open-mouthed. We all wanted to know more. It was a brilliant pitch. And it worked in part because of the three rules.

His pitch was framed around things we already understood very well (sales teams, leads, complex web tech). He introduced something radically intriguing – a lead generation campaign that’s so successful it has to end early. And of course Pallant Design can absolutely deliver on that pitch.

My own one-sentence pitch

As you’d expect, my own one-sentence pitch is constantly evolving. At the moment, I tend to say something like:

I’m like a brand design agency, except I sort out your words instead of your visuals.

Most people understand the need for a logo, look and feel, brand iconography and everything else, so that’s usually an easy sell. But very few people have met someone who specialises in brand language rather than brand design, so that’s the tweak that hooks them.

Then I go on to talk about brand messaging, tone of voice, content strategy and everything else that turns dense, generic business writing into impactful, unforgettable brand language. That’s like the trailer for the movie. And then, if they decide to do a project with me, that’s the movie itself.

Over to you

So that’s my rough guide to elevator pitching. I hope it helps you when you’re coming up with your own short, sharp pitches and helps you start many productive conversations in just the right way!

Brand learnings from ‘Super Mario Bros’

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So there’s a lot you can learn about how important good brand writing is from 1993’s failed ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie.

OK, bear with me here.

Dennis Hopper nails it

The reason I’m bringing up one of cinema’s more epic turkeys is this article about its troubled production. The shoot looks tough to live through, but it’s great to read about. In particular, it’s hard to beat Dennis Hopper’s epic two and three quarter hour rant about:

  • the poverty of the script
  • the inexperience of the directors
  • the iniquities of Hollywood in general

I wouldn’t pay to watch the movie, but I’d love to see that rant. Especially because Hopper was surrounded by 300 baffled extras (except when he broke for lunch, still ranting) and dressed as a humanoid dinosaur.

Image result for dennis hopper super mario bros

And also, he nailed the big problem that sunk the movie.

Of course, lots of inexperienced directors have made great movies despite the difficulties of Hollywood. And making a ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie wasn’t actually such a crazy idea. Films like ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the various Lego movies have spun cinematic gold from very similar material.

The problem was the script

The script’s first version was by ‘Rain Man’ writer Barry Morrow. But something about his road-tripping mismatched brothers story was a little… over-familiar. After another false start, producer Roland Joffé brought in the Max Headroom team. Their cyberpunk dystopia wasn’t quite right either.

British comedy legends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who’d written everything from ‘Porridge’ to ‘The Commitments’) then worked on it. The directors loved this draft, but the film’s financial backers didn’t. So, just before the shoot, they had the co-writer of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ produce a final version.

Apparently, it wasn’t bad.

Image result for bill ted excellent

Unfortunately, nobody told the directors about this final version. It came as a huge shock on the first day of filming – they almost walked out. Perhaps they should have done, because the shoot was a disaster and the film was one of the 90s’ biggest flops.

And all of those problems began with the script.

No clear vision

After all those rewrites, it didn’t express a single clear, powerful vision for the film. And without that, all those incredible talents – Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper, some of the world’s finest special effects people, the producer who’d just made ‘The Killing Fields’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’ and so many others – had nothing to bring them together.

So everything fell apart.

In both film-making and business, words are where a clear, powerful vision comes together in a way that everyone can understand, buy into, and act purposefully and creatively on.

If you can agree on the words that describe what you’re all going to achieve together, and if you can make that story clear, compelling and easy to understand, then you’re off to the best possible start.

And if you can’t – well, just go and watch ‘Super Mario Bros’.

A film making masterclass

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Last night I went to the launch of the British Council’s Film Collection. It was a wonderful evening – great to see the films, and very satisfying to see a process I helped begin back in 2009 come to such marvellous fruition. I’ve blogged about it all in more detail over at allumination, where I’ve also picked out three of my favourite British Council short films.

But I wanted to post ‘Island People’ here, too. It’s a marvellous film – culturally fascinating, but also a masterclass in how to pack an awful lot of information into a short, highly watchable package.

And there are many more equally good films to explore over at the archive. They’ve been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, so you’re free to play with them as well as just watch them. Enjoy!