I sighed heavily as I stood on the sidewalk waiting for my ride. 

The man beside me chuckled. “That bad?” he asked.

“No,” I laughed, “But I do need to look for a new hero.”

And then I realized something else: I had discovered a perfect elevator pitch.

The problem with business elevator pitches

An elevator pitch is typically a brief description of an idea, a product, a company, or even yourself. It’s the hook you use to reel in potential customers, investors, or suppliers.

Except people aren’t fish. No one wants to be hooked. We’ve all become experts at sniffing out anything that vaguely resembles a pitch.

Which is why—no matter how well-crafted, well-designed, or well-rehearsed—elevator pitches simply don’t work. Because everyone hates to be sold.

But everyone loves a great conversation.

Why pitching falls short

Imagine this: You meet someone and whip out an elevator pitch that goes something like this: 

“Our customizable CRM tools help any kind of business—from startup to Fortune 500—segment, track, and optimize every step in their sales funnel.” 

While your software may be genuinely helpful, you also clearly have one goal: selling. Which means you’ll never build a relationship based on what social scientists refer to as “multiplex ties,” or multiple points of connection. 

Think about people you’re relatively close to. You share a number of points of connection, like:

  • Work
  • Interests
  • Experiences
  • Goals
  • Activities
  • Perspectives

Occasionally you might have a friend with whom you only share one point of connection, but those relationships typically only last as long as the point of connection lasts.

If you and I work together, we’ll be friends until we no longer work together; then we may drift apart. But if you and I work together and also sometimes work out together, or sometimes get together with our families, or share a common experience that informed who we are—then we may remain friends. 

The more complex the ties, the better the chances of building a meaningful relationship

Which is exactly what resulted from my unwitting “elevator pitch.”

A better way to pitch

“But I do need to look for a new hero,” I said.

He laughed. “What do you mean?”

“I just interviewed (a really famous person who shall remain nameless),” I said. “I was really excited going into it. He’s done really cool things, overcome significant challenges… I felt sure he would share some great tips, perspectives, and lessons learned.”

“But he could not have been less interested,” I continued, “even though his people set up the interview. That whole thing about ‘never meet your heroes’ definitely applies in this case.”

“What did you do?” he asked.

We talked for 15 minutes. He told me about job interviews that had gone badly. He told me about client meetings that had gone badly. We shared horror stories and success stories.

It turned out that even though we work in very different fields, we had a number of things in common.

Over the years, I’ve connected him with people I know. He’s connected me with people he knows. We’ve helped each other out, professionally and personally.

By having a conversation, we discovered a number of multiplex ties.

Which would have never happened had I tried to elevator pitch him—or had he tried to elevator pitch me.

How to craft a winning business elevator pitch

The key to crafting a great elevator pitch is to think beyond pitching. A pitch focuses on what. Great conversations move beyond what to how, why, and even how it feels

This is important because feelings are something everyone shares. We’ve all set goals we reached and didn’t reach. We’ve all struggled with fear and doubt and uncertainty. 

Below the surface level of what is where common human experiences are found, and where genuine connections are made.

Imagine you meet someone new and they ask the old standby question, “So what do you do?” 

You could make your CRM pitch. You could respond using the basic structure of an elevator pitch, which looks like this: 

  1. Describe what you do. Explain what problem you solve, or what need you fill, or what benefit you provide.
  2. Describe what makes you different. Say what’s unique about the way you solve that problem, fill that need, or provide that benefit.
  3. Engage with a question. The transition from “Here’s what we provide” to “Let us provide it for you” can feel awkward. Asking an open-ended question that sparks a conversation (and eases you into your close) can help.

Obviously that approach can work.

Or throw out your business pitch and try this template

Instead of jumping into what you can offer that they may or may not need, start a conversation by opening with a compelling challenge you face:

  1. Describe a unique business challenge. What obstacle is currently at the top of your mind?
  2. Get real about where you’re struggling. Don’t be afraid to say what’s not going well for you. It will immediately demonstrate your honesty.
  3. Allow them to reciprocate. When people hear about others’ problems, often their first instinct is to show they can relate. Give people space to share their own experiences.

For example, you could say something like this: 

“Right now, what I’m doing is struggling,” you say. “We sell enterprise-level CRM software, and I can’t seem to get our engineers to build a streamlined version for people who don’t need all of the tools in the full suite. I like to think I’m a half-decent leader, but wow am I failing at this.”

What will happen? Instead of coming off as the typical uber-confident, super-successful, world-is-my-oyster entrepreneur (which is how most people present themselves, regardless of the reality), you’ll show vulnerability. You’ll show weakness. 

You’ll show you’re human. And you’ll show you’re willing to tell the truth.

Both of which are key to fostering a genuine conversation. Few people will be able to resist wanting to find out more.

Through a conversation, you’ll find things in common. You’ll discover ways to help each other. 

You might even find a new customer, or investor, or supplier.

And the best part is, that will seem like a bonus.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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