An elevator pitch (or elevator speech) is a short summary intended to quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition. The name reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver the summary in the time span of an elevator ride. Most people suggest that your elevator pitch lasts somewhere between 30 seconds and one minute. The problem is, unless you’re in a really tall building, elevator speeches never seen to fully explain what someone does in any meaningful way.

The paradox, of course, is that the elevator pitch is becoming more ubiquitous and more important. Even though strangers rarely talk to each other in an elevator, we’re constantly talking with strangers all over the world online in bios and descriptions on social media. It’s probably time to take another look at yours and see if it needs attention.

There are three problems with most elevator pitches:

They’re about you.
To communicate well with someone, especially someone you don’t know, you’ll need to keep in mind that they aren’t likely to be very interested in you. The best communicators frame their message in relation to the person they’re talking with.

This is one of the reasons that elevator pitches can be so hard to create. If you’ve only just met someone, trying to frame your reason for existence in a way that is meaningful to them is extremely hard. Unless you’re selling something everyone needs, before you start talking you need to know something about the person standing in front of you.

Once you have that, you can craft your message to relate to their needs. Yes, I said “craft” as in “figure out at that moment what you need to say.” This pitch really shouldn’t be written out months in advance; it needs to flow at the moment you need it. And, ideally, if you then turn to the next person you meet, your pitch should be slightly different to reflect the differences between these two people.

They have no context.
Part of understanding the person you’re talking to is getting a feel for what they know and understand. If you start explaining what you do in words that they don’t understand, you won’t get very far. Remember that the point is to communicate, to help someone get to the point where they either want to know more about you or, at the very least, could walk away and explain it to someone else.

For example, two microbiologists should explain what they do to each other in a completely different way than they should explain it to me. So the first thing you need to do is set the parameters for the conversation. If you’re that biologist, you might start with, “Are you in scientific research?” If the answer is negative, then you’ll need to start at a completely different level.

They use words that have no meaning.
Once you’ve got a handle on who you’re talking to and how what you do might be of interest to them, the hard part begins. This, truly, is where things really fall apart. To understand how, we’re going to back up all the way English class.

Somewhere in our past, most of us had a well-meaning teacher that encouraged us to use interesting and descriptive language. To please them (and maybe to get a better grade) we began writing with a Thesaurus close at hand. Suddenly “boring” words began getting swapped out for much, much “better” ones. “Use” became “leverage”, “beginning” became “inceptive”, and everyone became a “thought leader.”

If you remember nothing else, remember this: You are telling a story. Using short words will pack more punch, help people understand you, and make your message more memorable. (For a great examination of the power of short words, see this article by Michael Lydon.)

Now that you know what to do, here’s how to do it.
There are a variety of books, articles, and tools to help you craft your elevator pitch. But I would argue that you already have everything you need rolling around in your mind. You should write down some thoughts, concepts, and ideas to help formulate it, but don’t memorize it. These things are hardly ever used in a meaningful way when your interaction is limited to only thirty seconds, so think of it instead as the opening salvo of a conversation.

Then: be concise, clear, and engaging. People aren’t keen stand still and silent while someone rattles off everything they can do like a laundry list. Instead, frame your work in relation to them, in words they understand and be sincerely interested in what they have to say.

Got your elevator pitch honed to a fine edge? I’d love to hear it: add it to the comments below.

(Edit: Seth Godin agrees. Be sure to see his recent remarks on the elevator speech.]

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