Turning on your Reality Distortion Field

I was catching up over coffee and a muffin with a student I hadn’t seen for years who’s now CEO of his own struggling startup.  As I listened to him present the problems of matching lithium-ion battery packs to EV powertrains and direct drive motors, I realized that he had a built a product for a segment of the electric vehicle market that possibly could put his company on the right side of a major industry discontinuity.

But he was explaining it like it was his PhD dissertation defense.

Our product is really complicated
After hearing more details about the features of the product (I think he was heading to the level of Quantum electrodynamics) I asked if he could explain to me why I should care. His response was to describe even more features. When I called for a time-out the reaction was one I hear a lot. “Our product is really complicated I need to tell you all about it so you get it.”

I told him I disagreed and pointed out that anyone can make a complicated idea sound complicated. The art is making it sound simple, compelling and inevitable.

Turning on your Reality Distortion Field
The ability to deliver a persuasive elevator pitch and follow it up with a substantive presentation is the difference between a funded entrepreneur and those having coffee complaining that they’re out of cash. It’s a litmus test of how you will behave in front of customers, employees and investors.

The common wisdom is that you need to be able to describe your product/company in 30-seconds. The 30 second elevator pitch is such a common euphemism that people forget its not about the time, it’s about the impact and the objective.  The goal is not to pack in every technical detail about the product. You don’t even need to mention the product. The objective is to get the listener to stop whatever they had planned to do next and instead say, “Tell me more.”

How do you put together a 30-second pitch?

Envision how the world will be different five years after people started using your product. Tell me. Explain to me why it’s a logical conclusion. Quickly show me that it’s possible. And do this in less than 100 words.

The CEOs reaction over his half- finished muffin was, “An elevator pitch is hype. I’m not a sales guy I’m an engineer.”

The reality is that if you are going to be a founding CEO, investors want to understand that you have a vision big enough to address a major opportunity and an investment. Potential employees need to understand your vision of the future to decide whether against all other choices they will join you. Customers need to stop being satisfied with the status quo and queue up for whatever you are going to deliver. Your elevator pitch is a proxy for all of these things.

While my ex student had been describing the detailed architecture of middleware of electric vehicles I realized what I wanted to understand was how this company was going to change the world.

All he had to say was, “The electric vehicle business is like the automobile business in 1898.  We’re on the cusp of a major transformation. If you believe electric vehicles are going to have a significant share of the truck business in 10 years, we are going to be on the right side of the fault zone.  The heart of these vehicles will be a powertrain controller and propulsion system. We’ve designed, built and installed them. Every electric truck will have to have a product like ours.”

75 words.

That would have been enough to have me say, “Tell me more.”

Lessons Learned

  • Complex products need a simple summary
  • Tell me why I should quit my job to join you
  • Tell me why I should invest in you rather than the line outside my door
  • Tell me why I should buy from you rather than the existing suppliers
  • Do it in 100 words or less.

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20 Responses

  1. Seems like the question is “So What?” and there is a great interview from Andrew Warner at Mixergy.com to discuss this topic:

    The book written by Mark Magnacca is a quick read that helps get you on track for answering this question.

  2. The problem with most engineers is that they don’t realize that you are selling the solution to a problem. There’s no concept there that you need to make people think about what it will cost them if they DON’T get your product–how much money it will cost, how much worse their life will be, etc.

    That’s why most startups need a tech guy and a marketing guy, because a combination of the two is very rare.

  3. The thing think the guy missed is the ceo is everything at the company, so he should also be a sales guy.

  4. I always think it makes sense to have 3 versions of that summary prepared. One sentence, 3 sentences and then the 100 word summary. Each one has it’s time and purpose and is very handy to have.

    What do you think of this one for Cornify?

    “Unicorn & Rainbows On-Demand”

    Now if that doesn’t spark instant interest, I don’t know what will.


  5. […] Turning on your Reality Distortion Field I was catching up over coffee and a muffin with a student I hadn’t seen for years who’s now CEO of his own […] […]

  6. […] Do it in 100 words or less. via steveblank.com […]

  7. […] Blank made a great post today called Turning on your Reality Distortion Field, explaining how he recommends doing a 30 second, < 100 word elevator […]

  8. I experienced this exact same thing a couple of weeks back. I was consulting to a hardware company and their CEO is/was also an engineer (v smart guy). I was with them in one partner presentation and he was way too far in the weeds of the technology. In the taxi on the way back to the airport I was encouraging him to take a different approach in the next meeting (which happened to be with the ‘big boss’ of this particular company). Very much along the lines that you suggested.

    To his credit he took the suggestion on board. Net result? The next meeting was far more productive, big boss was impressed and they seem to have a good opportunity to do some serious business together.

  9. […] key to a successful elevator pitch. It’s not about all the details; it’s about simplicity. That’s the advice offered by Steve Blank in a recent blog post. “[A]nyone can make a […]

  10. Actually, that 75-word summary can be boiled down further and made ‘punchier’:

    “Electric vehicles today are like cars in1898; on the brink of transforming society. In 10 years, most trucks will be electric; the heart of an electric truck is a powertrain controller and propulsion system. We’ve designed, built and installed those systems. Every electric truck will need one of our products.”

    50 words.

  11. Often our communication and understanding centers of our brains are in conflict. There’s a challenge in boiling down the essence of complex problems and creating a stylized message that anyone can understand. This is the hallmark of a legendary founder, and I hope it’s a skill that can be learned in the nature vs nurture debate.

    I appear to have turned my reality distortion field on myself, and uninstalled simple scripts a vital component of my wordpress blog due to nuisance and erroneous update messages…

  12. […] via Turning on your Reality Distortion Field « Steve Blank. […]

  13. Do I have a problem because I did not believe a single word in this pitch?

  14. It takes a lot of imagination to translated a business idea to the language that customers or investors understand in 30 seconds, and can get excited about. I read an excellent book about this topic (Seth Godin ‘All Marketers are liars’)

  15. Steve Jobs has always had an ability to simplify complicated concepts. This video from Next is an excellent model for refining a presentation to its essence, and defining your competitors in the way that fits your own needs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9dmcRbuTMY. Next may not have succeeded on its own, but its software got Steve back into Apple.

  16. […] key to a successful elevator pitch. It’s not about all the details; it’s about simplicity. That’s the advice offered by Steve Blank in a recent blog post. “[A]nyone can make a […]

  17. […] May 10, 2010 · Leave a Comment From Steve Blank’s BLOG post:    Turning on your Reality Distortion Field […]

  18. […] recently read this article, “Turning on your Reality Distortion Field” which made me rethink the way I tell people about Envision.  The article discusses the “30 […]

  19. I found this article very insightful and valuable advice for communicating the benefits of your product to customers. It reminds you to really simplify your idea, because most people aren’t interested in all the technical jargon etc. I applied this to our product Envision to write a really simple 30 second elevator pitch, check out http://blog.envisionapp.com/2010/05/how-will-envision-change-the-world/. It’s still a bit long, but is quite simple.

  20. […] are loads of great resources on Elevator pitches online, checkout Venture Hacks, Steve Blank, and Read Write […]

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