Ban the Elevator Pitch

Warning! This will take longer than 30 seconds to read.

Recently I was at a lunch with an interesting group. Two of the folks were the founders of a start-up and the other two were from an advertising agency. I was present to act as a bridge having been charged with articulating the new entity’s brand. For the next ninety minutes I was highly amused taking in a veritable verbal tennis match between my four lunch mates. At the end, I was more confused by the purpose of the intended business than when I first sat down and said as much.

One of the advertising professionals suggested the founders provide a “30 second elevator pitch”. We were then treated to a string of words that first came across as impressive but really added up to a dense, jargon-laden paragraph of nonsense. elevator-pitch1I am not sure who chuckled first but it prompted everyone to join in. We all recognized the absurdity of the exercise.

It made me think about the ‘elevator pitch’ concept and the broader, more troubling trend of simplifying almost everything these days. In business this seems to have started with advertising and relates quite closely to radio and television advertisement lengths. The thought being, if you could not get your message across quickly there was something dreadfully wrong.

Now brief, staccato-like messaging has become the norm in communications. This is attributed to the growing number of messages people are subjected to and the range of technologies that carry them. Experts claim that people’s attention spans have dramatically shortened as a result. So logically, somewhat ironically, and hopefully not irreversibly, what we communicated got shorter too.

For years I subscribed to this approach justifying it as beautifully succinct, creative expressions of the highly complex. What I have come to realize is we should actually be sharing and celebrating complexity. Why? Because so much of the effort to simplify the complex only serves to dumb down the original idea.

Alfred North Whitehead, the mathematician and philosopher, suggested the pursuit of simplicity was noble but it should be distrusted. He feared that we would err by dismissing or glossing over the intricate and not easily explained. One of his lesser known observations is that people “think in generalities, but we live in detail.” It is actually the detail that provides value and illumination.

Unfortunately we are training ourselves to think curt thoughts. Publications are now collections of top ten lists and news is an assortment of soundbites. Both leave you hungry. Sure they may compel you to seek further information but more often they are unsatisfying and we drift or surf over to another fleeting topic. William A. Henry III, cultural critic and author, bemoaned this fact stating “even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”

This why I believe notions like K.I.S.S. or “keep it simple stupid” are themselves stupid. Henry said, “In the modern world, the cruelest thing that you can do to people is to make them ashamed of their complexity.” More and more I work with clients to tell their complex stories richly. I am not suggesting it elevator-pitchworks for all and everything but I am discovering that many audiences of brands are craving deeper content and connection.

This is an opportunity to differentiate. Instead of living in the mindset of the “30 second elevator pitch” brands need to engage with their audiences with thorough and compelling stories. Google’s Think Insights is a fertile outpouring of world changing ideas. HSBC has long been profuse in its communications. The financial institution’s latest campaign, “In the future, there will be no markets left waiting to emerge”, does not shy away from topics most work hard to avoid. They compel with fact and insights, “By 2050, 19 of the 30 largest economies will be in countries we now call ’emerging’. HSBC’s international network can help you discover new markets wherever they emerge next. There’s a new world out there.”

Unfortunately, mindless simplification continues to be the rule. The ‘elevator pitch’ is employed widely with pundits suggesting it can land you a job, gain customers, attract talent to your business, spark media attention, and create buzz for whatever you are doing. I found one scholarly article that suggested these mini-pitches must last only 30 seconds, contain no more than 80-90 words and run 8-10 lines. One incongruous instructional video on YouTube takes twenty minutes to describe the half-minute process. The obvious irony is lost on the presenter. Disappointingly, Harvard Business Review posted a blog titled, The Art of Crafting a 15-Word Strategy Statement.

Thirty seconds is great if you want to run 200 meters or wish to watch five Vine videos. Insert your own joke here about thirty seconds and lovemaking. The real point is that complex ideas should not be boiled down to irrelevance. We need to end our attachment to slogans and buzzwords that address complexity without unraveling it. Our world is undeniably complex so we do it a disservice by suggesting anything different. Albert Einstein captured this universal tension by saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

2 replies
  1. johnson tsai
    johnson tsai says:

    Thank you for writing this. There is nothing worse than a client who asks you to make it as simple as possible and then they make it even simpler. Paring something down to its essence is fine as long as whole parts do not go missing in the exercise.

    Reply
  2. Carol Dewer
    Carol Dewer says:

    People are petulant children. They want to be spoon fed simple concepts. Even vc’s, private equity investors want to be swooned with simplicity.

    Reply

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