Science doesn’t lie: You only have seven seconds to make a first impression, at which point the person opposite you has already decided whether or not you’re worthy of further attention.

In a sales setting, the stakes are high, and chances are a prospect will decide whether or not to continue exploring a relationship with your company in less than a minute. That puts a lot of pressure on you to develop a perfectly-honed “elevator pitch” that can engage and excite a potential customer in virtually no time at all.

It would take a lot longer than an elevator ride to comb through all of the good advice on crafting your elevator pitch, so let’s boil it down to the essentials. I talked to a number of experts who’ve spent time in the trenches – er, the elevators – to get their wisdom on how to pitch your idea quickly and clearly. Here’s the inside line on the very best advice you’ll find on the topic.

Start Strong

With every word you speak, you increase the possibility of losing your prospect. Start with your absolute strongest and clearest message points up front. In most cases, you have one sentence to sway the balance for or against you. “Your opening line will mostly determine your success,” says Steve Hatmaker, Jr., who does digital marketing for Seismic Audio. “Snag your listener’s interest and make them want more.”

Get Super Specific

Brilliant Growth website consultant Alexandra Velez has gotten the pitch down to a science. “Every 130 words equals a minute, so a 15 second pitch is about 30 words. Choose wisely!” she says. Every word is critical, and one of the best word choices, she adds, is to use numbers or quantities to add weight to your pitch. Consider “We reduce pain” vs. “We reduce joint pain by 50 percent in three weeks.” Quantifying your pitch gives it gravity and demands it be taken more seriously. “There’s a tendency to be company oriented rather than customer oriented in pitches,” she adds, so remember to speak primarily to your prospect’s likely paint points, not necessarily your service or product offerings.

Eject the Jargon

“One very simple key to mastering the pitch is to eliminate all industry jargon,” says financial advisor Pedro Silva. “Words like ‘leverage,’ ‘negotiate,’ ‘manage aspects of,’ and so on come across as pompous. Picture asking a pilot what he does for a living and hearing, ‘I negotiate thrust and acceleration to provide lift sufficient to transport goods to new and existing markets.’ Sounds fancy, but, at the end of the day, you’re a pilot.” Your time-crunched audience does not have time to do the mental gymnastics required to figure out what paradigm you’re shifting. Use simple language to keep your message crystal clear and accessible.

Minimize to an Extreme

With your core message finalized, it’s time to pare it down to the absolute minimum length you can. Ovation Communications president Kerri Garbis says to use what she calls the Tweet Test: “If you can’t distill what your company does or product is into 140 characters, you might not be so clear on the message yourself. Remember – people can, and hopefully will, ask you follow-up questions. There’s no need to include every detail about your company in your pitch.” The sentiment is extremely common. Remember what Richard Branson has said: “If it can’t fit on the back of an envelope, it’s rubbish.”

End on a Question

Green Vine Marketing founder Shane Robert offers an interesting strategy: End your pitch on an engaging question. “You can never sell your product or service in 15 seconds,” he says, “so don’t try. Instead, structure your 15 second elevator pitch for a sale that you can close: another 30 seconds of conversation. The easiest trick for doing this is turning the spotlight back on them with a relevant, engaging question, which feels like a conversation, putting your prospect at ease.” Remember: Most people would rather talk than listen.

Pitch for the Long Term

Be honest: As Robert notes, you aren’t going to close your deal on that elevator ride. What you want is a business card, a phone number, or another type of invitation to keep talking. “People think they only have 15 seconds to give an elevator pitch. Engagement is the great equalizer. If your prospect is engaged, the pitch can go on for as long both parties’ schedules permit. So how do you be engaging? My greatest successes have only come when I was actually passionate about what I was pitching,” says online video producer Edward Sturm.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The beauty of the elevator pitch is that you never know when the opportunity to pitch your business will strike. Always be prepared to deliver your message at any time by practicing relentlessly – either in a mirror or on video. Bonus tip: Have a co-worker or spouse surprise you with a “Pitch me!” prompt at random times to test your readiness.


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About the Author: Christopher Null is an award-winning business and technology journalist. His work frequently appears on Wired, PC World, and TechBeacon. Follow him on Twitter @christophernull.