Where did the ‘elevator pitch’ get its name?

Not listeningEvery day, you’re involved in “selling” although you may not know it! In fact, many of us spend each and every day trying to persuade others to part with their resources – money, time, effort and attention – although I prefer to call this influencing rather than “selling”.

This activity of course takes place in the office or in a shop or as part of daily business life but also takes place in the home or even down the pub!

Increasingly, getting our “sales” message across is becoming a bit of a challenge as most people are time challenged. Ever tried to call a national news journalist about a news release you want them to pick up on? You get my meaning.

In The Art of Influencing and Selling I talk about how to make the perfect ‘elevator pitch’ and of course you may be familiar with this term.  But did you ever stop to think where it comes from?

And did you know it involves a real elevator?

Building in New YorkBack in 1853, many American buildings had elevators but the mechanics of those contraptions were, to say the least, a bit rudimentary.

These elevators tended to be a combination of ropes, pulleys and hope!

In fact, not much had changed since the idea of transporting people on a platform going up and down had been invented by the Greeks!

A thick cable pulled a platform up and down a shaft which did the job until the cable snapped and would send the platform and those standing on it crashing to the ground.

A solution to an engineering problem needed to be found.

One such inventor had the bright idea of attaching a wagon spring to the platform and ratchet bars inside the shaft so that if the rope ever did snap, the wagon spring safety brake would automatically activate and prevent the elevator from plummeting to the ground.

Although such a solution would have the potential in saving lives and money, the inventor faced a sceptical and fearful public.

What the inventor needed was a quick and dramatic way of getting his invention to be accepted without the use of draftsman’s board or complicated mechanical diagrams and pictures.

So he rented out the main exhibit hall of what was then New York’s largest convention centre. On the floor of the hall he constructed an open elevator platform and a shaft in which the platform would rise and descend.

One afternoon, he gathered convention-goers for a live demonstration. He climbed onto the platform and his assistant hoisted him on the platform to the equivalent of three stories off the ground. Then, as he stood and gazed down at the crowd, the inventor took an axe and slashed the rope that had been used to suspend him in mid-air.  The crowd gasped expecting to witness a bit of mess on the floor. The platform dropped.

otisBut in seconds, the safety brake engaged and stopped the platform from crashing to the ground and the inventor announced “All safe gentlemen. All safe!”

The elevator ‘pitch’ worked as a sceptical public now believed with their own eyes.

What had been achieved from a “sales” perspective was a simple, succinct and effective way in communicating a complex message in a way that would change behaviour.

Elisha Otis went on to found the Otis Elevator Company and the rest, as they say, is history.


Ardi Kolah is author of The Art of Influencing and Selling (£19.99). Get your copy at 30% discount.

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Blogger, commentator on all things social media and an experienced PR bloke. Serves oin the PRCA Council.

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