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5 Tips for a Great Elevator Pitch

It could be an MBA student's worst nightmare or their golden opportunity: The elevator doors close, you find yourself alone with a prospective employer or potential business partner.

The uninitiated might cringe at this situation or stare off into elevator space. The prepared, however, have already taken the time to think about a 60-second synopsis summarizing who they are and/or the services their business provides, and can transform this unexpected opportunity into an advantage. This synopsis is called the elevator pitch, and it's an important tool for graduates of MBA programs. It can be the key to obtaining a job, selling a product or service, or even finding capital for a future company.

"An elevator pitch is a brief presentation of your personal brand; it's an opportunity to tell your story in two minutes or less," said Chris Westfall, an executive coach and MBA instructor for the Business Leadership Center at the SMU Cox School of Business. "The elevator pitch answers important questions like 'Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?' or 'Why should I hire you?' and can even be used to sell a product or service."

Westfall should know. He won an 118-second elevator pitch contest held to promote "The Mirror Test," a business book written by former Kodak chief marketing officer and "Celebrity Apprentice" guest star Jeffrey Hayzlett. The contest was highly competitive, with votes coming in online across the country.

"I actually didn't win the popular vote--I came in second--but the team of celebrity judges put me over the top and I was recognized as Grand Champion," Westfall said.

Westfall coaches business school students and salespeople to deliver top-notch presentations. He is working on a book about a new type of elevator pitch--one that business people should put into practice during the social media era. Whereas once a Hollywood screenwriter might have cornered an unsuspecting movie executive in an elevator for a screenplay pitch, business professionals today can create a similar situation using social media.

"The elevator platform is now the social platform," he said. "We present ourselves electronically, but we still have to deliver in person if we want to be heard--and hired."

5 ways to build a great elevator pitch during MBA programs

There are various ways to build a solid elevator pitch. Westfall suggests the following five approaches:

1. Engaging listeners with a strong opening.

A business school student could start a conversation with a hiring manager in the following way: "When I worked for Sun, I learned that customers view technology as a given. That's why I studied information systems at Auburn--because I wanted to make sure that I could deliver what customers currently expect. My name is Saheed Sharma, and I'm pursuing my MBA here at Purdue because…"

2. Focusing on the audience.

To find a great MBA job, students in MBA programs should link the highlights on their resumes with the solutions they can provide for companies, Westfall said. That is, business school students should let hiring managers know what they can do for their firm.

3. Delivering an authentic elevator pitch.

Business school students should know the general ideas they are going to convey and naturally deliver them during conversations. They should not sound like robots.

"You have to be real, and have a real conversation--not a memorized speech," Westfall said.

4. Making sure the elevator pitch is relevant.

Again, students in MBA programs must connect their elevator pitches to the needs of the persons they are addressing.

"You have to explain why you, why this, and why now, in order to get the results you want…hire me, buy my product, vote for my candidate, support my non-profit," Westfall said.

5. Including a call to action.

Business school students with connections through social networks LinkedIn or Twitter can make plans for follow up through these sites. The goal should be to become part of the hiring manager's company or to get investors to fund business plans.

"All elevator pitches are persuasive; your listener has to take action when you are done," Westfall said.

Elevator pitch mistakes to avoid

When delivering elevator pitches, students of MBA programs would do well to avoid common mistakes. Failing to be properly prepared is among the most common.

"Don't just 'wing it,' even if you are a seasoned pro," Westfall said in a blog post titled "12 most common presentation mistakes."

"When the conversation matters, take time to prepare your ideas."

Another common mistake is to choose a poor pitch opening. Stating your name and what you do can be boring, while starting with a joke could lead to failure. Comparing yourself to an individual who may not be as well-known as you think could also sink a pitch, he said. Another mistake to avoid is acting superior.

"If you are so fantastic that you are bombastic, your message doesn't matter," Westfall said. "Relate to people on every possible level, even if--or especially if--you are delivering a difficult message. Respect is the key to effective communication."

To succeed, focus on what is important to your audience.

"As the old saying goes, true leadership is about finding out where people are going, and then getting in front of them," he said.