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The 30-Second Business Plan Want to impress a potential investor quickly? Here's exactly what to say.

By Cliff Ennico

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You board an elevator in a high-rise office building. Just before the doors close, in walks Bill Gates Jr.--the world's richest human being, who can fund your entire business plan out of his pocket change. You and Mr. Gates are completely, totally alone, and you have his undivided attention for a few moments. What would you say?

If you are an entrepreneur, you would launch into your "elevator pitch"--a carefully prepared, well-rehearsed summary of who you are, what you do and why you are better at it than anyone else. It's the verbal equivalent of your business card, but it needs to say much, much more, and it needs to say it very quickly.

Next Step
Still struggling to put together a good business plan? You need that before you can begin to think about pitching your idea to investors. Our Introduction to Business Plans can help.

It's called an "elevator pitch," by the way, because it shouldn't be longer than the time it takes for an elevator to rise or fall 20 stories--about 30 to 45 seconds on average. In that time, you must:

  • say who you are;
  • describe the salient features of your business plan;
  • and get your listener excited about what you do, so that they want to hear more details.

Most entrepreneurs have elevator pitches, but very few of them are effective. The three biggest mistakes people make in their elevator pitches are: 1) describing skills rather than purpose; (2) failing to tell an interesting story; and (3) forgetting to rehearse and prepare.

Skills vs. purpose. Too often, an elevator pitch merely describes your skills, as in "Hi, I'm Cliff Ennico, a lawyer and columnist." While this is 100 percent accurate information, it is totally useless, as it doesn't give a clue why the listener should care who you are. There are many types of lawyers and columnists in the world. What kind of work do you do? What is your specialty--the stuff you do best? What types of clients do you represent? What is your column about?

Instead of focusing on your skills, your pitch needs to describe the people you serve--your customers or clients--and how you add value to their lives. For example: "Hi, I'm Cliff Ennico. I help business start-ups solve their management and legal problems. I also have a syndicated newspaper column in which I answer difficult questions raised by business owners, entrepreneurs and self-employed professionals." Much better, no?

Tell your story. It's critical that an elevator pitch "hook" your listener--get them interested in who you are. Consider the following two pitches for the same company:

  • "Hi, I'm Jane Doe, president of XYZ Corp. We publish law books."
  • "Hi, I'm Jane Doe, president of XYZ Corp. We publish books, newsletters, audio programs and seminars designed to help lawyers and other legal professionals manage their careers better. Our best-selling title, How to Make Partner in 30 Days or Less, was named the book 'most frequently stolen from law schools around the country' in a recent poll of law librarians."

Both statements do the job, but the second one is much more compelling, isn't it? Even if you're not at all interested in legal publishing, you are just a tad curious about Jane Doe, aren't you? Maybe, just maybe, she's got a hot new niche publishing company and you should consider an early-stage investment.

Practice, practice, practice. You never know when you will need your elevator pitch. Situations like the elevator encounter with Bill Gates happen all the time, usually without warning. If you've got a terrific pitch, but can't call it to mind at a moment's notice, it's the same as not having an elevator pitch at all.

Nothing--I mean nothing--sounds worse than a badly prepared elevator pitch, or one that sounds overly "rehearsed." If you stumble over your pitch, it may just be a case of the jitters, but many people will assume you don't really know what you do for a living!

Just like an actor or a stand-up comedian, you need to rehearse and improve your elevator pitch constantly, so it flows like butter from your tongue. It should come out of your mouth without forethought, as a Pavlovian reflex, exuding confidence, energy and enthusiasm.

Cliff Ennico is a syndicated columnist and author of several books on small business, including Small Business Survival Guide and The eBay Business Answer Book. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.

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