By Katherine Halek

A high-rolling venture capitalist and an eager entrepreneur walk into an elevator.

This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but this hypothetical situation is one in which entrepreneurs often find themselves. What would you say if you found yourself in an elevator with a potential investor, and how would you start?

As a business owner, it’s important to have an elevator pitch ready at a moment’s notice; after all, you should always be the best salesman of your company. But traditional elevator pitches can be awkward.

That’s because people these days balk at anything too sales-y; it can sound disingenuous and rehearsed. Instead of memorizing a speech about your products or services, you should be focused on building business relationships. Here’s how:

1) Lead into a conversation

The trick to starting a conversation with anyone, even if they’re the CEO of a major corporation, is to be prepared and be friendly.

The easiest thing to do is to be friendly. Ask them how their day’s going or just introduce yourself. Most of the time, something as simple as “How’s it going?” or “Hi, I’m John” is all you need to jump into a conversation. Most people will be pleasantly surprised by your friendliness and respond accordingly.

Once you’ve introduced yourself, ask a question. People enjoy talking about themselves, so center the focus on them. Start with something simple – such as “I like your tie. Where’d you get it?” or “I enjoyed your presentation last week at XYZ Conference, but had a question about…” These questions help the conversation going. Of course, you don’t need to interrogate the other party.

Keep things easy, and pay attention to social cues. If it seems like the person is in a rush, it’s probably not a good time to bother them, besides holding the elevator door open for them and wishing them a good rest of the day. If that happens, don’t be too disappointed. There will always be other opportunities. However, if you do get the opportunity and they ask the golden question…

2) Jump into your pitch

“What do you do?”

That’s your cue. Unless you can find another natural way in the conversation to bring up what you do, wait for this question. Fortunately, it seems like it’s one of the most common questions that comes up in a networking conversation.

Keep your answer short and simple. It should be no longer than a sentence or two. You don’t want to ramble for ages. The average attention span in today’s world is 8 seconds, so you need to keep it short.

To hone in on a short pitch, first, write out what you want to say into a short paragraph. Take the essential elements of your business and boil them down to your unique selling proposition. This might take several attempts before you get it right. Be a ruthless editor, and use short sentences, mind you. No rambling run-ons.

Once you’ve determined your unique selling proposition, break the paragraph down into bullet points and memorize them. They’ll be your springboard into the conversation.

Why bullet points? They force you to speak naturally. Memorizing your pitch word-for-word can make you sound like a robot.

To get comfortable, practice speaking off the bullet points. Get in front of your family and friends, a mirror, anything, and practice what you’ll say out loud. Aim to hit all your bullet points in a concise manner. Fumbling for your words at first is natural, so keep practicing.

As an example, if I was presenting a pitch, I would use the following bullet points to represent my company:

– E-commerce printing company
– Helps small businesses promote & grow
– Focus on unique, high-quality printing

It seems simple, but having bullet points rather than a memorized speech also gives you more flexibility in case someone interrupts you or if the conversation deviates. They’re easy to remember, so you know you’ll hit the major points of your business.

3) Wind up the Conversation

You’ve gotten the conversation flowing, but how do you wrap it up? As always, be friendly, and end with a call-to-action. Always have a way for them to follow-up, such as a business card.

“I’ve got to run, but it was great talking with you. Here’s my card. You should check out my website when you get the chance.”

If they offer you their business card, take it and say thank you. Later in the week, send them an email saying how great it was to meet them. You should also include a link to a relevant article that you think they might find interesting based on your conversation.

Simply put, that’s how business relationships get started. Unless you’re on Shark Tank or in a formal presentation, your elevator pitch should be a useful tool that helps you start a conversation with someone. The traditional method of hard-selling someone on your business is gone. You’re in the business of building relationships, not being awkward. All it takes is a little practice.

Katherine Halek is a Marketing Associate at, a leading online printer that helps small businesses grow around the country. Katherine enjoys writing about networking, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Connect with her on Google+.