If you can’t give your elevator speech in 60 seconds, you have a problem. Your strategy isn’t clear enough. It should be a quick description of the business that you could give in the time you share with a stranger in an elevator. The term is becoming popular in the everyday language of the entrepreneur, the venture capitalist, and the teaching of entrepreneurship. There are even elevator speech contests at business schools.

I don’t think its academic, though. I think it’s important. I think it’s a great exercise that everybody in business should be able to do. Let’s get simple, let’s get focused, let’s get powerful. So we’re talking about the heart of the plan strategy. What better way to condense it than in a quick elevator speech. If you can’t do it, worry.

Start with a Story

Start your speech with a person (or business or organization) in a situation. Personalize. Identify clearly. For example:

John Jones doesn’t particularly care about clothes but he knows he has to look good. He sees clients every day in the office, and he lives in a ritzy suburb, where he often sees clients by accident on weekends. But he hates to shop for clothes. (The Trunk Club)

Jane Smith wants to do her own business plan. She knows her business and what she wants to do, but wants help organizing the plan and getting the right pieces together. The plan needs to look professional because she’s promised to show it to her bank as part of the merchant account process. (LivePlan)

Paul and Milena live in a beautiful apartment in Manhattan, with their two kids. Paul has a great job in Soho, Milena works from home, and neither has time for food shopping (Just Fresh).

Acme Consulting has five people managing several shared email addresses: info@acme.com, sales@acme.com, and admin@acme.com. The five of them have trouble not stepping on each other. Sometimes a single email gets answered three or four times, with different answers. Sometimes an email goes unanswered for days, because everybody thinks somebody else answered it. (EmailCenter Pro)

Notice that in each of these examples I could be much more general. The Trunk Club targets mainly men who don’t like to shop but need to dress well and have enough money to pay for a shopping service. LivePlan is for the do-it-yourselfer who wants good business planning software. Outpost is for companies managing shared email addresses like sales@ or info@. But instead of generally describing a market, I’ve made it personal.

Sometimes you can get away with generalizing. “Farmers in the Willamette Valley,” for example, or “parents of gifted children.” It’s an easy way to slide into describing a market. However, I suspect that you’re almost always better off starting with a more readily imaginable single person, and let that person stand for your target market.

Follow With What’s Special About You

In the next part of your elevator speech address “Why you”? Why your business? What’s special about you that makes your offering or solution interesting to the target person or organization you just identified.

This is where you bring in your background, your core competence, your track record, your management team, or whatever. For example:

The Trunk Club invented the best-possible solution to this problem. Founder Joanna Van Vleck first succeeded in sales at Nordstrom’s and then took her personalized shopping-for-others style into a hugely successful first market in Bend, Oregon. Now, having proven the idea on the front lines …

Palo Alto Software has dedicated itself to business planning for more than 20 years. Its founder is one of the best-known experts in the field. Its current management team grew up with business planning, in the trenches. The 8-person development team has more than 50 person years in the same focused area.

Palo Alto Software has been managing this e-mail problem internally for more than ten years now, and has been working with its own in-house solution for nine years. It has a very strong relationship with hundreds of thousands of small but growing businesses.

What we focus on here is core competence and differentiation. And, in the classic elevator speech, you have to say it fast. You make your point quickly and go on.

Make sure your point is the right point: benefits to the target customer. It’s not what’s great about you, but rather, what about you lends credibility to your ability to meet the need and solve the problem.

I included two different paragraphs for the same company on purpose. See how the unique qualifications differ for different contexts. It’s the same company, but in the first example it’s relating its speech to LivePlan, the flagship product. In the second example it’s building up Outpost, the new product. The descriptions have to change for each.

You might also think of this as the classic “What do you bring to the party?” question. It’s not just your brilliance or good looks or great track record, it’s fostering credibility for solving the problem.

Then Explain Your Offering

Now explain what that person you’re selling to gets. You’ve personalized the need or want, identified your unique qualities to solve the problem, and now you have to put the need or want in concrete terms that anybody can see. For example:

For a Trunk Club member, when his wife says it’s time for a new trip or a new activity is coming up, or the mood strikes him, he just grabs the phone and calls his Trunk Club counselor. “I need more casual stuff for the golf course, or cargo pants for hiking, or two more slacks-and-sports-coat combinations.” She knows his size, knows what he likes, what his wife likes, and what he needs. The new clothes come three days later, with a complete money-back guarantee if he or his wife doesn’t like them.

LivePlan lets Jane jump into and out of her business plan at a moment’s notice whenever she wants. She can start with the core strategy and build it in blocks, planning while she goes, refining projections as needed. It’s built around a solid error-checked, financially and mathematically correct financial model, and a generalized set of suggestions for outlines, but is also completely flexible for adding and deleting topics and creating a unique business plan. Each task, whether topic or table, comes with easy-to-understand instructions and useful examples.

Outpost lets a team share an email address like sales@ or info@ efficiently. E-mails can be assigned to team members or not, and answered e-mails are processed and visible, and unanswered e-mails remain at the top until answered. Furthermore, it manages collections of snippets or text templates to build on standard but flexibly customizable answers to frequently asked questions.

In each example here, we can see clearly how this product or service meets the need or solves the problem. Forget features as much as possible, and illustrate benefits. You’ve already described the person with the situation, and built up your ability to solve it, so now it’s just about the solution. Stay focused and concentrated. People will get one or at the most two unique attributes of your business offering. Don’t confuse them with more.

A Note About Context

For the purposes of planning as you go, that’s it, you’ve done your elevator speech. However, since we’re right here together on this page at the end of this discussion, let me suggest what you might do

in a real elevator speech situation: finish strong. The finish depends on who you are, where you are, and what you want. If you’ve personalized in the first part, sold yourself and/or your organization in the second, and established the attractiveness or suitability of the business offering in the third, it’s time to finish strong with a closing.

Your closing depends completely on context. What do you want from the person or people you’re talking to? The classic elevator speech context is a venture competition when looking for investors. But there’s also the true elevator speech for the established company, simply describing your company to somebody who asked, with no real close. Be honest, you’re not always asking for an order, even when you’re just chatting with the person in the next seat on the plane. If you are trying to sell, then do ask for the order. Seriously: “If you give me a card, I’ll send you a copy with an invoice. If you don’t like it, send it back. Here’s my card.”

For the venture competition or investment-variety elevator speech, don’t try to convey too much information. Do establish in general terms where you are or what you want. “We’re looking for seed money of half a million dollars.” Or “We’re now raising round two financing of three million dollars to be used for the mainstream marketing launch.” Or “We’re looking for serious marketing partners able to put money up front in return for privileged first-year pricing.” Or “We’re trying to establish a royalty relationship with an appropriate manufacturer.” And then, ask for a business card, and give one. “If you know anybody who might fit that bill, feel free to recommend us.” Or “Please give me a call.” Don’t offer to send a business plan, and don’t ask a person directly to invest when it’s about investment; reduce the awkwardness by suggesting that your audience might know somebody, not that your audience might invest.

Don’t talk terms in the elevator speech. Just establish what you want or need.

If you’re in a real elevator with a real potential investor, soft pedal: “If you know anybody who might be interested, please pass this along. Or maybe you want a business card and permission to send a follow-up e-mail.”

And if you’re doing an elevator speech in a business venture competition, close with an appropriate call for investment. Venture competitions always hinge on the would-be or hypothetical pitch to the investor, so make it clear. The better ones end up with something like an intriguing reference to seed capital or first-round equity investment. Stay general. Make them want more.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.