Why the Best Ideas Fail the Elevator Test, According to Pixar’s Ed Catmull

Why the Best Ideas Fail the Elevator Test, According to Pixar's Ed Catmull
Images: Getty Images. GIF: Inc. Magazine

As president of Pixar, Ed Catmull must be on the receiving end of an enormous number of creative pitches. You’d think, therefore, that he’d like those coming to him with ideas for the next animated blockbuster to keep it brief. But you’d be wrong. 

As Catmull once explained as part of MIT Sloan’s Innovative Leadership Series, he actually believes the best ideas just can’t be boiled down to an elevator pitch.  

The best ideas can’t be squeezed into a 30-second pitch. 

The concept of the elevator pitch is seductive. Decision makers are busy, the thinking goes, so if you want to sell your idea you’re going to have to be able to convey its essence in the time it takes for a bigwig to make it up to her top floor office. There’s only one trouble with this thinking, Catmull explained at the MIT event. Truly great ideas can’t be boiled down to 30-second sound bites. 

“If you can pass that test, [your idea] is probably derivative of what’s been done before,” Catmull said.

“Ambitious, unlikely ideas — ‘a rat that wants to cook, or an old man who floats away on a balloon with a stowaway,’ Catmull said — can’t be summed up in 30 seconds, but they can go on to become the Oscar-winning Pixar films Ratatouilleand Up, respectively,” MIT’s writeup of the events goes on to explain.

At least some research and a handful of entrepreneurs agree with Catmull. “For years, I’ve struggled to come up with my Basecamp elevator pitch–a succinct description of our product, in standardized, universal terms,” confessed Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried here on Inc.com, for example. He concludes thoughtful conversations tailored to the listener beat pre-rehearsed scripts for selling your ideas.  

Why you might want to work on your elevator pitch anyway.

Of course, not every boss or investor is as enlightened as Catmull. Nor is everyone looking for ideas as innovative as Pixar’s Soul or Inside Out. If you’re selling an improved mop design or a nice one-bedroom apartment, getting your pitch down to the length of an elevator ride is probably still a smart idea. 

And even if your idea is complex or ground-breaking, developing your best attempt at an elevator pitch may still be a worthwhile exercise. Cornering a new contact to deliver your spiel almost never works, no matter how good that spiel may be (just take it from this Hollywood veteran), but trying to craft your idea into a simple, cohesive story is still a useful way to clarify your own thinking and nail down at least the essentials of your plan. 

So if you’re struggling to shoehorn your idea into 30 seconds, be heartened by Catmull’s remarks. Your troubles are not necessarily a sign your idea is bad. In fact, it could indicate you’re working on something truly innovative. But don’t rest on that fact either. Chances are excellent you’ll never have to charm an exec in under 30 seconds, but working out what you would say if you did is still an internal exercise worth doing. 

All Rights Reserved for Jessica Stillman 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.