Elevator Pitch

3 Steps to the Perfect 3-Minute Pitch

3 Steps to the Perfect 3-Minute Pitch

Money talks: Chelsea Fagan of The Financial Diet.

Image credit: David Johnson
This story appears in the March 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Chelsea Fagan launched The Financial Diet last year as a real-life money blog for Millennials. This is not your father’s investing newsletter: Posts have included “One Day, I Woke Up and My Car Was Missing” and “How Not To Be an Egg Donor.”

Fagan had previously worked as creative director of brand content at Thought Catalog, an independent online magazine that reaches more than 18 million readers monthly. When she decided to pursue The Financial Diet full time, she figured that with her experience creating custom content, shaping a compelling three-minute pitch to attract corporate sponsors would be easy. 

But crafting that pitch proved harder than expected. “I’d never had to distill an entire brand concept down to a few minutes in front of a client. It was an entirely new arena of communication,” she says. Casual surfers might be pulled in by the mission statement—“The Financial Diet is a blog about the luxury of spending less”—but potential partners would need more. They’d wonder how The Financial Diet was different, and why Fagan should be the one to crack the mystery of how to reach underpaid, underemployed, overly indebted Millennials with usable financial insights. She needed to deliver these answers concisely, and with confidence.

Even if you aren’t looking for sponsors, the challenge remains the same. When startups attend pitch days in front of prospective investors, there is a formulaic approach to the ask. While you may not need to adhere to a script for a slide deck, a solid three-minute pitch can help you attract vendors and suppliers, woo landlords and advertisers, recruit employees, and win over other advocates. And, yes, maybe even investors someday (at which point you’ll revisit that pitch deck). 

Follow these three basic principles to frame your pitch and easily adapt it in the moment. 

Get their attention

A three-minute pitch isn’t just an expanded mission statement or the “About” section of your website. It is a short opener that tells what your company does, why it’s unique and how it serves your customers. Your goal is to encourage your audience to want to hear more. When they’re interested, you have won permission to tell them additional details about your company that might intrigue them, be it the underlying technology or the potential financial return. That’s how and why you need to customize this template for each audience and for each occasion. 

At the most basic level, you should explain your concept, your target audience and how your idea solves a problem. Vendors, suppliers and investors will want to know more about the potential market; customers and prospective partners will want to know more about the product.

You can start by pulling winning metaphors, terminology, phrases and examples from existing materials: both short and snappy (e.g., your elevator pitch or tagline) and long and leisurely (case studies and market research). 

Take that cherry-picked material and organize it into three parts: an opener, an explanation of what your company does, and a very short story or technical detail designed specifically to invite your audience to pick up the conversational ball. 

This is how PerryCrabb, an Atlanta-based company that sells complex engineering services (mainly to healthcare systems), operates. 

“I’m not a salesman,” CEO Jim Crabb admits. For help honing his company pitch, he turned to Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk of bbr marketing, also based in Atlanta. 

Crabb knew that his company’s engineering case studies were too technical, and the copy on the website’s homepage too general, to be incorporated into a pitch. Ruszczyk helped him find the sweet spot of being specific without plunging into too many technical details and being engaging without making sweeping statements. 

“Don’t just say, ‘We improve lives,’” Ruszczyk says. “It’s important to convey what you actually do. But then segue in a way that is relevant to that audience.” 

An opener that resonates and conveys personality is especially important. “The first line is essential—‘We are an engineering firm in the business of healthcare,’” Crabb says. “That gets us out of geekdom and says that I’m comfortable in the business that we serve.” 

The PerryCrabb pitch explains what the firm does in simple terms and tells what it does differently from its competitors: It figures out how to make building systems more environmentally sustainable and less expensive to build and operate. 

Money talks: Chelsea Fagan of The Financial Diet.

Tell them the right story 

In a short pitch, you can grab attention with a quick story about a client experience, a breakthrough or the light-bulb moment when you came up with the idea for the company.

Brevity is key. You’re excited about your business and want to prove that you have, indeed, researched all the possibilities. But the idea of a pitch, in any format, is to start discussion and engender continued interest. Your pitch should whet the appetite, not leave your audience full.

Ruszczyk and Crabb developed several two-sentence examples of client experiences. The first sentence explains what PerryCrabb did for the client; the second provides just one fact about the results the project delivered. Each example is tailored to a specific audience. 

The same works for businesses in less technical sectors. Angie Allison founded Bellies and Babies, a Charlotte, N.C.-based therapeutic massage and wellness service for expecting and new moms. “Anyone who’s had a baby says, ‘I wish I’d known about you when I was pregnant,’” Allison states. 

As she plans to expand into new markets, Allison is considering all options, including franchising, licensing and company-owned locations. Each option demands a pitch geared toward a different set of potential partners. 

Allison already has a successful pitch that wins a steady stream of referrals from obstetricians by speaking their language. “I introduce my company as ‘the only office in the region that offers prenatal corrective care,’” Allison explains, noting that she doesn’t use the word “practice,” which would imply medical training, and she doesn’t use “spa,” which invokes aromatherapy and relaxation. 

But potential partners are different—they don’t want to hear anecdotes about how her techniques can ease back pain. They want to hear how teaming up with Bellies and Babies could benefit their own businesses. 

Allison talked through her dilemma with Megy Karydes, president of Karydes Consulting, a Chicago-based marketing and communications firm. Karydes zeroed in on the story Allison could tell to highlight the key benefits she offers to potential partners: management training, marketing support and consulting for finding qualified staff. Bellies and Babies simplifies the business of simplifying life for moms—and it does so with a proven business model that helps potential partners quickly launch their own Bellies and Babies operations.

Keep ’em on the hook

The goal of any pitch is to tee up an ongoing conversation, explains Teresa Nelson, professor of entrepreneurship at Simmons College in Boston and a member of the global advisory board for Astia, a nonprofit that works with women leading fast-growth companies. She says many entrepreneurs make the mistake of assuming they have to cram everything about their company into a three-minute pitch. But whether you are presenting a PowerPoint slide deck or introducing yourself at a networking event, your goal is to start a relationship. Make the pitch more about the audience and less about you. 

“You have to quickly figure out how your business is relevant to that exact person you are speaking with,” she says. “It’s not about sharing what’s interesting to you about the company, but what’s interesting to them about it.”

Be ready to pivot as you learn what your audience wants most to understand about what you are doing, Nelson advises. 

Use transitional phrases to engage the listener, such as “Have you ever had personal experience with this kind of product or service?” or “One thing that really surprised us when we started exploring this market was …. ” The goal is to equip your audience with just one key message that they might use to introduce you and your company to someone else.

Fagan is still honing her pitch for The Financial Diet. There are plenty of financial advice websites, but few that integrate lifestyle, career goals and daily financial management specifically for Millennials. Fagan believes that The Financial Diet reaches readers through the share-it-all mentality of social media. “Someone has to translate their objectives in a way that young people want to read,” she says.

She aims to pique readers’ interest by crafting her opening pitch line as she would a click-worthy headline. From there, she’ll explain how The Financial Diet is uniquely positioned to help sponsors connect with hard-to-reach Millennials. Her goal is to find out why that particular potential sponsor needs to build that audience and propel that information into a relationship. 

“The pitch metaphor is a good one: Think of pitching to someone who will catch that ball and keep it moving,” Nelson says. “It’s not an opportunity just for you to speak. It’s an opportunity for ongoing conversation and for repeated play.”