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Terri Sjodin: How to Create the Perfect Elevator Pitch

We’ve all heard the term “elevator pitch,” that mini-speech designed to grab someone’s attention, tell them what you do and get them interested in your services – all in the time it takes to ride in an elevator. Although an elevator might not be where you meet most of your potential prospects, having a great elevator pitch is something no business owner or salesperson should take casually.

Elevator pitches can turn strangers into prospects and can be used anywhere.  Whether the meeting is random or planned, whether you’re speaking at a sit-down event or in front of an audience, you should be prepared to capture your listener’s attention quickly. Since you never know when you will have that chance encounter with your next ideal prospect, you must be able take full advantage of the opportunity. 

So what’s your elevator pitch? How many do you have?  How effective are they? How can they be better?

You can’t “wing it,” says Terri Sjodin, and one size doesn’t fit all. The best salespeople in any industry are the ones who are best at telling their story while captivating their audience.

Actually, when you present an elevator pitch, you create art, according to Terri. You weave a compelling case to help people make the right decisions about their finances and their future. You are the orator who moves people to action. The art of the elevator pitch doesn’t just happen. You must practice your pitch in order to make it perfect.

For this month’s interview, we asked Terri, an acclaimed speaker and consultant, to share the art (and formula) to creating a perfect elevator pitch. Terri describes these methods in her newest book, Small Message, Big Impact, which shows how to take big ideas, communicate them quickly and make them hyper-effective.

Terri is familiar to many insurance agents and financial advisors for her work with groups such as the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting (AALU) and insurance companies. In addition to working with the industry, she has worked with an impressive list of clients, including many Fortune 500 companies and even the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2012, Terri was inducted into the National Speakers Association’s Hall of Fame.

In this interview with InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman, Terri tells how to build an irresistible sales presentation, whether it’s taking place in an elevator or in a stadium.

FELDMAN: Why is an elevator pitch important and why should someone spend a lot of time on it?

SJODIN: When you’re selling yourself, you have this burden to communicate ideas in a shorter period of time. No matter who you are or how great your message is, people don’t want to give you an hour and a half in which to communicate it. So your burden is to create clear, concise, compelling messaging that works in a variety of scenarios.

It’s not like the old-school methodology of an “elevator speech” where you come up with one pithy thing that would be a one-size-fits-all message to say off the cuff at a cocktail party. Now, it’s more of a strategy to communicate multiple talking points in a shorter period of time.

Imagine if you had at your disposal anywhere from 10 to 20 “mini-talks” where your talking points are well thought out in a way that you can pick and choose the ones that are most relevant for that listener at any given time. That way, you’re nimble, fresh and conversational. Yet, you are still communicating your message in a way that is clear, concise and compelling and you get your message across in a shorter period of time.

FELDMAN: How long should an elevator pitch be?

SJODIN: I define an elevator speech as a brief presentation that introduces a product, a service, a philosophy or an idea. The main thing is that it’s introducing something. The name “elevator pitch” really is a metaphor. It’s not exclusive to elevators. The name suggests this notion that the message should be delivered in the time span of an elevator ride, which can be up to about three minutes.

An old-school elevator speech was this idea that you’re going to sell the whole dog and pony show in three minutes or less. Instead, we now know that the real burden of an elevator speech is to intrigue your listeners enough that they want to ask the questions that only you can answer.

FELDMAN: How do you structure the message?

SJODIN: After intriguing listeners, give them three solid nuggets that they can do something with. The burden of a great message, regardless of length, is to meet three benchmarks. The first benchmark is your case, your second benchmark is your creativity and the third benchmark is your delivery.

We strive to be good at all three benchmarks. But most people are really strong at one of them. They then have a secondary strength in another benchmark and they really need help with that remaining benchmark. The goal with Small Message, Big Impact is to help people become “three for three.”

We lay out all messaging like a mathematical equation. There are six pieces of the structure: the introduction, the three body points, a conclusion and a close. You divide that into three minutes. There are 180 seconds in three minutes. Six into 180 gives you 30 seconds for each component. So, now you know you have approximately 30 seconds for your opener, 30 seconds for each of your talking points and then 30 seconds for your conclusion and close. Again, it’s done with the intention to get the listener to ask for more time.

Your introduction has a couple of burdens, which include grabbing the listener’s attention and telling them where we’re going. The body of the talk has three talking points. Maybe you’re telling the listener: why you are a good choice to do business with, why they need to choose your company instead of another one, and why they need to take action now. So you must have an argument and a proof or an illustration for each argument. Then you want to answer the “so-what” questions for the audience.

The difference between a talk that’s informative and a talk that’s persuasive is your ability to answer the question of why they need you. The biggest mistake most people make is that most people have become far more informative than persuasive. The main reason is that there’s no risk in being informative. We don’t hear the word “no” when we’re being informative. So instead, you might give great information but the listener has to sift through all this data before they can

decide whether they want to partner with you. They have to decide but you’re not giving them decision questions or decision issues. It’s just a data dump.

Even seasoned professionals must learn to self-edit because they do these data dumps. The structure I previously described makes you get to the point. You answer these questions: Why do your listeners need you? How are you going to satisfy that burden? What does it mean to your audience? Move onto the next two talking points. Then go to your conclusion and close, where you tell your listener what you want to happen next.

FELDMAN: So beyond an elevator speech, this structure can work with any presentation?

SJODIN: Absolutely. You might want to call it a general introductory speech. Let’s say you’re a top-producing, independent insurance representative. You have the opportunity to speak at your local business council meeting. At this meeting, you will meet other businesspeople who would be prime, beautiful, wonderful prospects for you. You get five minutes at the meeting in which to say who you are and what your company does. Most people just kind of wing it and say, “Hi, my name is Terri. I work for ABC Insurance. I’m an independent insurance agent. As a broker, I can share with you all kinds of different products and services that will meet your specific needs, so come see me after the meeting.” Then they sit down.

While that might sound very normal, it is hardly creative and it definitely wasn’t compelling. But that’s what most people do.

FELDMAN: How would you make that compelling?

SJODIN: There are three steps: Identify the goal or intention of the presentation, determine who the audience is, and establish the best way to close. Then ask, why do they need me? What do they need the most? Do they need to save time? Do they need to save money? Do they need to save sanity? Do they need to have security? If you want them to listen, they must feel as if they need you.

FELDMAN: Would you say that attitude has a lot to do with it?

SJODIN: Yes. In my book, I have a chapter called “Earning the Right to be Heard.” In that chapter, I say you have to get a little bit scrappy because that’s what we entrepreneurial salespeople have to do.

Being scrappy is a commitment, to stand up for yourself and speak up about your vision  despite the inherent risks of embarrassment, rejection, or even failure.

To earn the right to be heard, you often need to do a little extra homework and customize your approach in a way that is unrivaled. Is it possible to do some “intel” before you approach that person? This requires natural curiosity and active listening. Don’t go for the typical kids-and-sports questions. That doesn’t impress or dazzle to win. Instead, ask your prospect about his or her favorite authors, bands, hobbies, and movies. Can’t talk directly to a prospect? Get the information from their friend, colleague, or administrative assistant. I’m talking about really rolling up your shirtsleeves and getting a little scrappy.

FELDMAN: That’s a great chapter and subject. So how do you earn the right to be heard?

SJODIN: Most of our time is spent meeting with and trying to gain access to people who didn’t want us there initially. Our job is to turn them around and to make them extremely pleased that they shared their time with us.

You remember the movie Wall Street, where Charlie Sheen plays Bud Fox, the young man who is trying to access Gordon Gecko. He’s trying to bag an elephant, that’s what he calls him in the movie. In our own ways, we are all little Bud Foxes trying to land our own Gordon Geckos.

So Bud has done the cold calling, sent the materials and the follow-up but he can’t get through. So he starts getting to know the assistant to Gordon Gecko. He finds out when Gordon Gecko’s birthday is. Then he shows up with a box of Gordon Gecko’s favorite Cuban cigars on the day of his birthday.

Because he was scrappy and creative and waits in the office, he gets his three minutes. So he goes in, he gets his three- to five-minute elevator speech opportunity and what does he do? He does the same old, same old as everybody else. Basically does a data dump, gets cut off by Gordon Gecko and he says, “That’s it, kid? That’s all you got? What have you got for me besides connections at the airport to get Cuban cigars?” And he just gets burned. And that’s when the movie turns.

Now certainly we’re not going to suggest that the audience does what Bud Fox does next but in that moment, he knows that he’s crashing and burning. He was creative to get in the door but then he didn’t have a strong elevator speech to deliver once he got in there. So what does he do? He scrambles and that’s when he says “Bluestar” because he knows insider information about Bluestar Airline, which is totally illegal. He drops the nugget about it and then that’s how he gets Gordon Gecko’s attention back.

The Bud Fox predicament shows that sometimes you have to get scrappy and creative to get in the door and that gets you access. But then you better be prepared to give a great talk once you get in. So that’s the pairing of the two.

FELDMAN: How many talking points should you have ready? 

SJODIN: It depends. When I was on my high school debate team, we would go into a debate round with something called an ox box with probably 200 talking points in it. But I think you could do pretty well with 10.

In my book, I talk about Ronald Reagan and that specific issue. Reagan was considered “The Great Communicator.” When he would travel to make speeches, he had multiple talking points that he would have to address. He learned to have a talking point card, a 4-inch by 6-inch card, on everything from Social Security to the Cold War to education, you name it.

So let’s say he had a talk in the morning, a talk in the afternoon and a talk in the evening. He would flip through this deck of 4X6 cards and see which three cards were most relevant for this group. Then he’d pull those out and put them on the podium for the talking points for the speech. And then he would go to the next group and he’d pull out the three talking points that were most relevant for that group and do the same thing. And then he’d just hold them together with a rubber band. It was pretty simple.

Reagan didn’t have only one speech to give. He was always nimble. He morphed his speech to meet the needs of that group. He was conversational. Every audience would say, “Oh my gosh, he talked about exactly what we wanted him to talk about.”

Don’t you see the similarities between what he did and what your readers have to do?

FELDMAN: Absolutely. In both situations, you are making connections by captivating people. Which is a critical first step in any sales process. 

SJODIN: Right. And here’s another twist on that. Sometimes an insurance agent will say to me, “I have all these people here to do an educational seminar, I can’t be selling the whole time.” OK, do 55 minutes of content. Then, in the last five minutes, tell your audience that you really want to earn their business. Use the last five minutes of your seminar to give your elevator pitch, to get the next appointment, to talk to them about going to the next level. Have it structured so that three-minute elevator speech is the only selling you’re going to do. Your only sales job is to get an appointment.

The whole point is to earn the right to be heard and to convert. How do you convert those audience members into clients? Disseminating information at a seminar alone is not going to do it. You have to ask. People get in their own way. They don’t ask.

FELDMAN: How do you ask without it coming across as a hard sell? 

SJODIN: Professional transparency. “Hi, I’m Terri. I’m with ABC Insurance. The reason I did this event tonight is because I want to earn your business for the long term. While I’m not going to give you the big sales pitch this evening, I am going to ask you for the opportunity to meet with you for a one-on-one presentation, so I can learn more about what your needs are and how I can be of service.” Boom! You’re done. Ask for the meeting.

FELDMAN: Many people complicate it and they don’t ask for the simple things.

SJODIN: Exactly. Do you think that anybody says, “Oh my gosh, can you believe it? That financial services guy did an hour-long seminar and at the end of it he asked me to work with him? I was so offended.” No. They get it.

FELDMAN: Do you find that people in the insurance business are so focused on the facts and the mechanics of the business that they have trouble engaging their listeners?

SJODIN: I don’t find that so much in the insurance world because in most cases, if someone is drawn to the insurance industry, they’re probably more of a people person. They are pretty confident, but it doesn’t mean that they’re trained speakers. You can take someone who has untrained enthusiasm and really good instincts. Then you give them the right training and now they become unstoppable. 

FELDMAN: What’s a common mistake in making presentations?

SJODIN: Most of the time, the speakers don’t prepare. They wing it.

FELDMAN: How much should someone prepare?

SJODIN: For some people, it takes longer than others. The answer is: however long it takes. It takes at least 10 times, once I get it down on paper, for me to get a speech to a place where I’m really comfortable with it. Sometimes it will look really good on paper but then it doesn’t come across my lips the same way.

FELDMAN: What else do you need to keep in mind as you prepare?

SJODIN: If you really want to take your skill set to an entirely different level, it’s not how much more information about the industry can we cram in your head. It’s how can we get that information out of your head, across your lips and into the mind of someone else so that they can use that content productively.

It is in the presentations that we deliver, all the different types of verbal communication, where human beings come together and talk about the significance of insurance, the value and peace of mind it gives them, and how an insurance advisor can help them save time, money and sanity while giving them security. That is what we communicate.

It is an art form. So, when people focus on their public speaking and their presentation skills, they shouldn’t think that it’s always about speaking to a large group.

We’re speaking over the phone but the magic still has to come through, even over the phone. Presentation skills are the art form of the insurance world.

For more information on Terri, visit

Founder, President, Publisher [email protected].

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