Peter Whent

May 16, 2022

The fan belt and the elevator

Hands up who knows the French for fan belt. No?

Let me leave you with that little challenge while I move on with the task in hand, and today that task is the Elevator Pitch.

The Elevator Pitch is the anxiety dream where you find yourself getting into a lift and coming face to face with the CEO of your perfect customer. He asks you what you do, and you’ve got exactly one minute to explain, before he reaches his floor.

What you think happens

So let’s just suspend our disbelief for a moment and imagine this unlikely situation did occur. There he is in front of you, he’s asked the question, and you draw breath and say…..?

What do you say?

Well most people answer the question literally and tell him what they do. But he’s the CEO of a company and he’s heard a thousand of these feature led, me, me, me pitches. The result?

Well, in your dreams (or your sales training roleplays), as you reach his floor, and the lift doors open, he turns to you and says, “I’ve heard all I need to hear. Come to my desk and I’ll sort out the million pound purchase order”

Back in the real world, by the time you’re sailing past the third floor his mind has wandered to the lamb cutlets awaiting him in the Director’s Dining Room (1970s CEOs), or the beetroot smoothie he’ll need after his lunchtime personal training session (2020s CEOs).

Your efforts are totally forgettable, and the PO ain’t happening.

Sorry to break it to you, no-one cares about you or your product. The CEO cares about himself and his own problems. You need a better way.

What should actually happen?

So, if we ignore elevators for a moment, I think it’s reasonable to believe that something along these lines, where you have to make a spontaneous pitch, does happen. At a lunch table, at a networking event, or maybe at a trade show. A friend of mine experienced it on a plane. So for all my mockery of the elevator situation, it does pay to have a stone cold winner of an instant pitch in your toolkit.

OK, back to our CEO. Wherever you encounter him, the chances that he has the very problem you solve, right now, are extremely slim. Your aim isn’t to sell him something, it’s to make a mark so he remembers you. How do you do that?

The memorable analogy

Well the first thing you have to do is drop the me, me ,me. You have to replace it with something that will stir his feelings. Something relatable. A simple, memorable analogy taken from the everyday world that makes an impression in his mind that he can’t forget. Here’s an example of what I mean.

I live in the world of messaging. Business leaders come to me when they have a great product, but no-one knows they have a great product, because they don’t know how to describe it in a way that makes people notice. So here’s how I would tackle this in order to make an impression.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

“Do you know what the French word for fan-belt is?”

Chances are he’s going to answer no.

“Well imagine you’ve broken down in France. Your fan belt is shredded. You’ve nursed your car to a garage and you’re trying to explain what’s wrong to the mechanic. He doesn’t speak a word of English and you don’t speak French. Try as you might to say “fan-belt” louder and slower, he has no idea what you mean. Can you imagine how frustrating that is?”

Everyone has probably had a language problem of some description in a foreign country. So I'm guessing he's going to be nodding along. If you’re really lucky, he might even say:

“Yes, I know exactly what you mean”

From analogy to reality

So far so good. I’ve used a story to plant an image in his mind of a situation he can immediately relate to. My next move is simple.

“Well business leaders come to me when they have that frustration. Not about being understood in French. Their frustration is that they have a great product, but can't find the words to make their audience understand how great their product really is. They have a messaging frustration.”

In 90% of cases, my work is done there. He knows what I do because I’ve painted a picture he can see very easily. He’s not going to forget my story of the fan belt in a hurry. But if I was unable to resist a bit of product, I could finish off with,

“And we offer a “done for you” service which involves a couple of workshops and a lot of thought by us. It usually lasts four weeks”

Personally, I would avoid the last bit unless he asked me a direct question. All that’s left is for me to give him my card with the words “fan belt” written on it, hand it to him, and as his leaves the lift, I’d say:

“It’s courroie. Fan belt in French is courroie”.

I’m betting that the next time he’s in a meeting and someone says they need help with messaging, he’ll find my story easy to recall.

“We need to call the fan belt guy”.

I doubt many of the forgettable product pitches he’s heard will get the same treatment,

Action plan

So here’s a quick action plan that will have you arriving at your next elevator ready to go:

  • Think of the biggest problem you solve, and then flip it round and express it in terms of what is your ideal customer's biggest frustration.
  • Now think of an relatable analogy from everyday life, that describes that frustration.
  • Now wrap a simple story around that analogy.

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