Pitching an Idea

Learning Objectives

Explain how to pitch an idea effectively.

The elevator pitch gets its name from the idea that you may only have the length of an elevator ride to capture someone’s attention. It’s public speaking in fast-forward, requiring carefully selected content, tight structure, and polished delivery, all in the span of a minute or two. In some businesses and industries, a well-crafted elevator pitch is incredibly important. A salesperson, for instance, often has only a short time to introduce the product or service to a potential customer; honing their elevator pitch is a big part of their job. A volunteer board member for a nonprofit might develop an elevator pitch about the organization to ask people for money or time. Even if you never find yourself giving an elevator pitch as such, it’s a useful skill to learn. In fact, this kind of public speaking situation stands in for an extremely common scenario: how can you effectively present an idea, opinion, or solution in a limited time to someone who has no experience with it?

A strong elevator pitch will:

  • Identify the problem you’re solving.
  • Explain your solution and why it works.
  • Make it personal and passionate by sharing facts, actual benefits, and concrete examples of how your solution impacts real people.
  • Invite your audience to take a specific action.

Author Scott Berkun offers an eight-step process for pitching an idea.[1]

The crucial first step (Step 0 in Berkun’s list) is to develop and refine the idea. Once you have your idea, it’s time to pitch it. Here are the eight steps, adapted from Berkun.

  1. Define the scope of the idea. Is it a tiny tweak, or a significant change? How much investment of time or money will it require?
  2. Identify who has the power to approve or implement your idea.
  3. Rethink the idea from that person’s perspective. What’s their stake in it? How would they benefit? What do they have to lose?
  4. Structure your pitch. Berkun suggests developing three versions of the pitch: five seconds (one sentence), 30 seconds (a paragraph), and five minutes (a full pitch). The amount of time you have to present and the circumstances of the presentation will determine which extra assets you have at your disposal. Do you have access to a slide deck or are you just speaking?
  5. Practice the pitch. This one we know well. Rehearsal is the key to a polished delivery, but also allows you to tweak the parts of the pitch that aren’t as effective as they could be.
  6. Deliver the pitch. The delivery will depend in large part on the circumstances in which you’re speaking. Are you talking one-on-one at a networking event? A conversational style will be best. Are you presenting to a committee? In a more public presentation, you’ll need to pay attention to all the elements of vocal delivery we’ve covered: pace, tone, volume, and so on.
  7. Prepare for failure. Most cold pitches fail. That is, they’re not immediately embraced and implemented by the listeners. A pitch usually needs to be heard by a lot of people before it really resonates with someone who has the power to do something about it.
  8. Don’t give up. Either go back to step one and rethink the scope of the idea, return to step two and approach a different person, return to steps three through six and rebuild the pitch, or find a way to tackle the problem on your own.

How To: Daniel H. Pink on Pitches

In this video, Daniel H. Pink, author of many books including To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others, gives six tips on elevator pitches.

You can view the transcript for “6 Elevator Pitches for the 21st Century” here (opens in new window).

  1. Berkun, Scott. The Myths of Innovation. United Kingdom, O'Reilly Media, 2010, 175. https://scottberkun.com/essays/38-how-to-pitch-an-idea/