Why your elevator pitch sucks

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To get almost anything off the ground at work, you need a business case. If you have no idea what a business case’ is and can’t figure it out from the words involved in the term, well, here we go: it’s a series of arguments and ideas that describe why your business should undertake this action. In the most traditional business case sense, it takes place in a meeting and there’s typically a PowerPoint of some kind involved — although that’s not necessarily the best idea. There are a million and 19 articles online about how to present better, including some by yours truly, and how persuasive your presentation is certainly becomes one aspect of an effective business case. There’s more to it, though.

Here’s a story to begin, because I think stories are the most powerful thing we have in the world. A few days ago, I met this guy in a sales role. His business is kind-of tanking and there’s a lot of pressure on him to drive sales and leads and all that. Revenue growth, baby! Target-hitting! This guy gets 10–12 new leads in his pipeline in one day. That’s not great, but it’s not bad. If you convert half that list at $50,000 per, that’s $300,000. For one day, that’s not a bad haul for a small business sales dude. Anyway, I’m talking to him about the sales leads and the process he goes through once he gets them. He tells me he gets them and blasts out the same intro e-mail to all 12, then waits a bit and maybe starts calling them. Smile and dial, baby!

I kinda stared at him for a while and then tried to shift the topic, because I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Admittedly we’re not talking about a business case here — we’re talking about selling. But if you only have 12 people to reach out to, can’t you personalize it? Wouldn’t that make sense? And herein lies the issue.

The business case and the latitude of acceptance

There’s a concept called ‘latitude of acceptance,’ which is visually represented here:

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Let’s say there’s an issue — any issue — with two distinct sides. Heck, let’s use gun control. That seems timely. So there’s a group of people who hate the idea of gun control at all — the NRA! — and then a group of people who think we need total gun control, and/or no guns. Those are fringes, with smaller numbers. In the middle there’s a huge group of people that kinda lean one way but can be swayed.

That’s the latitude of acceptance. It’s basically how far you can move towards a new viewpoint. If you ever go on Facebook and see people yelping at each other about politics or Islamic terrorism or sexuality or anything else, you know that it seems likely our national, collective latitutde of acceptance is declining each year.

If you tie this back to a business case, well, latittude of acceptance is pretty much everything. There’s a bunch of senior decision-makers in the room, and those are the people you need to get the buy-in from. (In all likelihood, those decision-makers probably aren’t even clear on what exactly they do every day, but that’s another topic.)

If you want to make a successful business case, then, you need to understand where these decision-makers fall on the latitude of acceptance. That’s Step 1. You get to that through researching them, talking to them, talking to their secretaries/admins, and talking to others who have worked with them and pitched them before.

The business case and personalization

There are dozens of business advantages to personalization and customization efforts, which I’m sure most CMOs could rattle off like the birthdays of their children. In essence, it makes you more memorable to your consumers. Here’s some research from Bain Capital around that.

Well look, if you’re making a business case, those decision-makers are your customers. You need to convince them to buy something. So, you need to personalize the argument. This is challenging to do if you’re standing in front of 14 men and women who run 14 different silos, because each is coming at every proposal from a different standpoint and connection to their part of the business.

But you gotta at least try to personalize the business case. That might mean speaking to each person beforehand for a bit and tying the idea to their business unit, then giving a more general presentation with degrees of eye contact to each person to show “Hey, remember what we discussed.”

Here’s one of the great ironies of work: if you show your emotions openly, it will probably destroy your career. Yet, when you need to pitch a business case to an executive, everything is about registering with their emotions.

Whatever your business case message is, you need to personalize it. Make them care.

The business case and laziness

Go back to our friend above.

As you can see, this personalized approach doesn’t always happen — hell, almost all content that marketing departments blast out isn’t personalized minus maybe the first words of the e-mail, and that’s a problem — and the reason it doesn’t happen is plain and simple: laziness.

Most of us white-collar drones work in a business world where:

You add the four bullet points above together and this is what you get when most people try to put together a business case:

  • “No time to personalize, Kenny! I’m fucking slammed this week!”

So if you net-net this entire thing, here’s what we got:

  • A good business case will be personalized to those who decided upon it and tie back to their emotions and needs

That’s a pickle.

The business case and generic business advice

If you go Google around business case work and/or sales advice, mostly you get an entire waterfall of buzzwords and bullshit coming down your throat fast enough to drown you in five seconds. Here’s one hideous example.

In my mind, the reason that many a business case falls flat is because people follow this generic, buzzword-laden advice. It’s also because people are lazy. It’s also because people spend hours on their slide deck and three minutes thinking about their key points or messaging. It’s also because senior decision-makers are asked to evaluate strategic ideas while also serving as individual employees themselves, and that makes nada sense.

There are a lot of reasons.

But IMHO, if you want to nail a business case … personalize the arguments therein.


My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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