Elevator tweets and other nonsense

young-bill-gatesImagine it's 1977, nobody owns a computer, nobody needs software, and the people who do all share it with one another. You have 30 seconds, or one tweet, to sell me on the idea that the next big thing to invest in is computer software.

Or go back more than a century, you're facing William Preece, chief engineer of the UK's General Post Office, trying to sell him your new-fangled telephone device:

"There are conditions in America which necessitate the use of such instruments more than here," he told a House of Commons committee. "Here we have a super-abundance of messengers, errand boys and things of that kind. The absence of servants has compelled America to adopt communications systems for domestic purposes. Few have worked at the telephone much more than I have, I have one in my office but more for show. If I want to send a message - I employ a boy to take it."

Until you get his attention, and engage with him, what chance do you have of persuading the expert that you have something worthwhile?

Quite simply, anyone who asks you for an elevator pitch or one-line summary of a complex idea is doing you a dis-service.

As someone else once said, "an average writer is happy to produce a thousand words but a great writer is happy to remove a thousand words."

I spent nearly ten years teaching language and writing. If I was looking for a hot new startup to join or invest in, I wouldn't judge the opportunity by the quality of the elevator pitch. The hardest single task for all students is to be concise. They may have been brilliant engineers, great scientists, visionaries who had mastered knowledge that I could barely understand. But unless they were gifted communicators, all of them struggled to get their message across quickly. I've learned the hard way that many of the best ideas are hidden behind fumbling language and unclarity. (And a lot of mediocre ideas are dressed up with fancy descriptons and snappy attention-grabbing statements that don't hold up to detalied scrutiny.)

In order to find out what a founder is working on, there is only one way to go about it: You have to give them thirty minutes of your undivided attention, listen a lot, and ask questions to help them communicate their vision more clearly. Only then can you have a clear(ish) idea of what their vision is and what they're capable of. If you want them to be already skilled communicators, as well as formidable engineers and business-people, then you're closing the door to a lot of great opportunities.

Of course, many investors (and accelerator managers) will tell you that they don't have time for this, but that really doesn't make sense. Try saying this out loud and see how ridiculous it sounds: "I haven't got time to really try and understand what you're doing, Bill."

Do you want an invetsment from someone like this?