Why Is It Called an “Elevator Pitch”?

The phrase might have origins in a man risking his own life to sell his big idea.
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Sometimes a big idea conflicts with a small amount of time—and when you need to explain a concept quickly and succinctly, you might refer to it as an elevator pitch.

What Is An Elevator Pitch?

Usually, an elevator pitch involves taking anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes to summarize a concept. They may be common at work when you need to accommodate a busy colleague or employer, or you might use them in your personal life: Your spouse or partner might be rushing home and you’ve got scarce time to convince them why they should pick up a pizza.

But why is it called an “elevator pitch”? It may have something to do with a people-moving pioneer and a stunt that could have turned deadly.

Elisha Otis and the Elevator Stunt

Given how often they’re used (according to one estimate, there are around 900,000 elevators in use in the U.S. that make 18 billion trips a year), elevators cause relatively few deaths annually—perhaps as few as 30. But in the 1800s, when elevators first came into widespread use, they posed far more significant risks. Any damage to the cables maneuvering the lift could result in occupants plummeting to their deaths. Many people avoided them altogether; rent for upper floors in residential buildings was often cheaper thanks to the difficulty in climbing stairs.

Elisha Otis, the owner of Otis Elevator Company, had a solution: He pioneered a mechanism for elevators in 1853 that would act as a failsafe. It was little more than a wagon spring attached to the cables and held in place by the downward pressure of the platform. If the cable snapped and the platform broke free, the spring would release; its ends would lock into notches in the beams on each side of the shaft, halting the platform’s descent.

Otis was so confident of his invention that he arranged for a public display of its effectiveness—and used himself as a guinea pig. He stood on a platform as it went up several stories in the air, then used a blade to cut the cable. As onlookers screamed, the spring was activated and Otis remained aloft.

The advancement revolutionized elevators, not only giving users confidence to ride them but also leading to more efficient construction as well as the emergence of skyscrapers. (It also raised the rent on the upper floors of buildings.) To some, this was the original elevator pitch—a brief, effective demonstration of an idea taken on literal terms. But elevator pitch as a figure of speech may have started in another industry.

Elevator Pitch Redefined

While Otis perfected the elevator pitch, the term may not have come into broader use until the 20th century. According to Forbes, screenwriters in the early days of Hollywood would seize upon elevator rides to capture the attention of busy executives.  Knowing they had a captive audience for at least a half-minute or so, the writers tried to sell decision-makers on movie ideas.

Charlie Fink, a onetime Disney executive, once wrote that elevator pitch was used at the company in the 1980s and 1990s. “When I worked at Disney in the ’80s and ’90s, we defined it as ‘[if CEO] Jeff Katzenberg steps into your elevator,’ ” he wrote. “ ‘You have two floors [or] 20 seconds to pitch him your movie.’ ” One example of an elevator pitch, according to Fink, was The Lion King, which he had summarized as “Bambi in Africa.”

But elevator pitch didn’t get much play outside of the film industry. One of the earliest printed examples of the phrase in another line of work didn’t come until 1966, when a First National Bank employee named Duncan Williams was overheard by a senior executive “giving somebody a sale pitch” in the bank’s elevator. Impressed with what a newspaper article on the events called Williams’s “elevator pitch,” the executive put him in the bond department. He eventually made senior vice-president.

Another version of the phrase, elevator speech, was mentioned in a 1980 Associated Press article as part of “Pentagonese,” or slang terms that were used “by the men and women responsible for America’s national security.” An elevator speech was a “short two or three-minute briefing.” In the decades that followed, elevator pitch (or speech) seemed to catch on in the business world.

It’s possible Otis brought the concept of an elevator pitch to life, with the film industry taking it from literal to figurative terms. But for the most part, people have used the phrase to conjure a brief window of time to explore an idea. If you couldn’t explain something in the time it takes to ride in an elevator, it’s probably not an elevator pitch.

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