July 26

How to Build Your Elevator Pitch Structure for a More Powerful Message


A great elevator pitch is a versatile messaging tool. Get your core elevator pitch structure right, and you’ve got a powerful foundation for communicating the uniqueness of your school.

The term “elevator pitch” keys into a familiar story.

You’re an administrator, educator or ambassador at a conference. You step into an elevator with another attendee, or maybe it’s a guest at the host hotel.

After reading their name badge or picking up context clues after a few words of polite conversation, you figure out that this is someone you want to make a good impression on.

The opportunity comes. They ask you what you do.

You have maybe half a minute to answer. What do you say?

Why an Elevator Pitch Is Useful

This elevator scenario is a bit cliche, but it still makes a good point. There are many situations where you need to make a good impression quickly and succinctly, lest you lose your audience.

With a solid elevator pitch structure in place in your mind, you can quickly and easily adapt it to whomever is in front of you – whether that’s an individual in an elevator or a larger audience.

Every enrollment marketer, administrator or educator charged with representing their institution should have a core elevator pitch structure in mind when:

  • Writing print or digital content about the institution.
  • Speaking to the media.
  • Addressing a group of peers.
  • Delivering a speech.
  • Attending or speaking at a fundraising event.
  • Attending a party.
  • Meeting with a government official.
  • Meeting with potential business/internship partners.

No matter who you’re addressing, your elevator pitch structure is your default messaging platform. With a little practice, you can use it in every conceivable setting.

In time, you’ll learn to adapt it to your audience to make the greatest impact.

Crafting Your Core Elevator Pitch Structure

You’ll find the following six steps, give or take, in many general resources helping business people craft an elevator pitch. I’ve adapted them for higher ed.

1. Set a Goal

No matter whom you’re speaking to, what about your institution do you most want to get across?

Basically, this is one of two things:

  • The Big Idea. This is an evergreen concept at the core of your school’s brand that you want to be sure to get across every time, like a mission or vision statement.
  • Today’s Big Idea. This is a timely concept that goes along with a campaign, a theme that focuses on something new and exciting, like expanded program offerings.

Once you’ve established the central idea, you can start building your pitch around it.

2. Establish Who You Are

Don’t overthink this. The first thing out of your mouth should help your audience put you into a category with little effort. This will prime them to hear more.

For example, you might say that you work in the administration of an institution that is:

  • A “state school” or “private school,” establishing public/private.
  • “Christian,” “Jewish” or other term establishing religious affiliation, if applicable.
  • A “small college” or “university system,” establishing size.
  • In a major city or rural area, establishing the type of community.

This part is not about setting yourself apart. You’ll get there. But first, you have to put yourself into a box that people readily understand.

If you try to lead with outside-the-box innovative concepts or fancy jargon that need lots of context to fully explain, you’ll lose them.

For example, let’s say the idea pops into your head to use a sporty slogan to describe your school in an effort to be more memorable. What comes out is:

“I’m an administrator at X University, where we – like our football team – talk with our pads and play with our heart.”

You don’t want to waste time explaining what the heck that’s supposed to mean.

Just be straightforward. If you’re a small, private Christian college in the Midwest (rural implied if you don’t name a city), just say that and move on.

3. Say What You Do

Next, zero in on something simple about your school that relates to your overall goal (see step one). While you want to start to set yourself apart, don’t try too hard to be unique just yet.

Tell them:

  • One or two things about what you do – liberal arts degrees, number of programs or majors, online courses, etc.
  • How this helps people – offering a broad foundation for a successful life, flexibility for working students, etc.

The first part is about helping your audience see some value in what you have to offer, and the second part drives the point home. 

Tell them (briefly) why what you do matters. An elevator ride isn’t long enough to expect someone to recognize your value on their own. You have to help them along.

4. Touch on Your USP

Now your audience is primed to hear a little about what sets you apart from all the other schools that could say the same thing you just said. This is part of your unique selling proposition (USP).

This is what you hang your hat on. It’s something you believe you do better than anyone else. It could be a:

  • Success metric, e.g. “the highest graduation rate in the state.”
  • Unique focus, e.g. “every student completes an international internship.”
  • Mission promise, e.g. “every graduate is equipped to be an agent of change for social justice.”
  • Anything else impressive that will stand out in their memory.

Of course, your full USP may include several differentiators. But if you’ve got just half a minute, you don’t have the luxury of going over all of it. 

Pick one juicy, memorable item. Say it with enthusiasm and pride, and you’re sure to make an impression.

5. Ask a Question

The term “pitch” is a bit of a misnomer. It sort of implies that it’s all about one-way communication, delivering what you want to say as a pitcher on the mound chucks a ball – fast and furious, hoping it’s not batted away.

But this is really about opening the door to two-way communication, and there’s no better way to do that than by asking a compelling, open-ended question.

While you may want to adapt your entire pitch to your audience, adaptation is especially important here. The idea is to encourage them to shift from listening mode to critical thinking mode – but gently. 

Your question should be in their wheelhouse, something it doesn’t require too much thought to answer but keeps them thinking about your conversation afterward.

That question might be:

  • “What are your career goals?” (prospective student)
  • “What careers are your students interested in?” (K-12 educator/referral source)
  • “What educational backgrounds do you look for in new hires?” (prospective internship partner/graduate employer)
  • “What workforce gaps are you seeing that higher ed can help fill?” (legislator)
  • “Where do you think the focus should be in higher ed today?” (philanthropist/funder)

Of course, when speaking rhetorically to a group or in writing, questions have to be more general. You’ll want to key into your brand message.

To impact a diverse audience, ask a broad question that evokes the future, individual potential, adding meaning to life, etc. How you phrase it depends on your school’s brand messaging.

  • Stanford University has used the slogan, “The wind of freedom blows.” So, they might ask a question with an entrepreneurial theme, like, “What’s your dream business?”
  • The University of Idaho has touted “A legacy of leading.” They might ask a question that invites the audience to explore the theme, like, “What inspires you as a leader?

When adapting your pitch into Web content, you won’t always ask a literal question. But every good tagline implies a question. It works as an invitation for the audience to learn more.

6. Call Your Audience to Action

There are two distinct scenarios to consider when structuring your final step, your call to action. One is a “one-to-one” situation. The other is “one-to-many.”


In person, the call to action is the act of giving someone a business card and either asking them to contact you or offering to contact them (asking them to take your call, read your email, etc.).

Either way, this is an invitation to continue the conversation about their interests. Remember, this is about two-way communication. It is not about asking them if they’d be willing to hear more pitching. 

This part comes after you’ve asked a question to get them talking, so you can say, “I’d love to hear more of your thoughts,” or “I’d love to talk more about this.”

TIP: You may want to experiment with putting a brief version of your elevator pitch on a business card, literally putting your message into your audience’s hands.


In a presentation or in writing, the call to action (CTA) is generally about prompting the audience to go to a resource where they can learn more. Essentially, you are guiding them toward an answer to your question (see step five).

The CTA is most effective when the resource you’re offering is something special or personalized, not just the general website.

This resource might be a:

  • Specific webpage with relevant information for them, e.g. an academic page for students interested in that subject.
  • Landing page with a PDF available for download, e.g. graduate outcome stats for funders/partners.
  • Webpage on your site (or possibly YouTube, but your site is better) with a video that echoes your pitch and illustrates it.

In summary, there are many situations in which you’ve got maybe 20-30 seconds to capture your audience’s attention. Maybe it’s on an elevator, maybe in a bit of Web copy.

Be prepared to:

  1. Keep your goal in mind.
  2. Say who you are.
  3. Tell them what you do and how it helps people.
  4. Explain why you’re unique.
  5. Ask a question.
  6. Call them to action.

If you’ve never crafted an elevator pitch before, it will feel awkward and canned to deliver one in person for the first time. 

That’s okay. It’s better than hemming and hawing in a clumsy attempt to make an impression on the fly! And it will feel more natural the more you use it.

Beyond that, you’ll be able to build upon this core elevator pitch structure with powerful messaging you’ll be able to use everywhere from the elevator to the lectern to the Web.

Need help putting something like this together? If so, let me know.

Here’s my “card.” Looking forward to hearing from you!

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Featured image by Artur via Adobe Stock

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