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Going Up?

elevatorpitchWhen was the last time you spent a couple of unplanned moments with someone who really doesn’t know you but is critically important to you or your team? Did you take advantage of that time, or did you let the moment pass? If you had a great elevator speech, you could have put it to use in that situation. You‘re probably thinking: “what the heck is an elevator speech and what’s an elevator have to do with it anyway?” Let’s get into that.


The best way to think of an elevator speech is that it’s a mini-presentation that covers who you are and how you add value for your audience’s organization. It lasts just a minute or two and is communicated to a very small group (typically one person) in an unplanned setting. I first heard the term back in the ‘old’ dot-com era, when it sprang up as a result of stories, apocryphal or not, of start-up companies being funded by investors who were ‘pitched’ during elevator rides. Whether that stuff actually happened or not (when you think about how money was thrown around back then, I suspect it did), developing a capability to represent yourself in a concise way to an important audience is certainly a worthwhile endeavor.

Does this type of speech always take place in an elevator? Of course not. Your opportunity may come at the company picnic, in a coffee break during a corporate training session, or at a lunch table where you happen to find yourself seated next to an important leader. It’s not the ‘where’ that’s important, as much as the ‘who’. Your audience may be the company’s CEO, a supply chain VP, a development director for your ERP platform, or even a key customer.

There are all sorts of documents and videos available on the internet pertaining to the development of elevator speeches. Feel free to check them out for hints about how to construct one of your own. I’d like to focus on the content I feel makes such a speech unique for those in our profession. Here are a few aspects of our work that make the development and execution of an elevator speech so challenging for us:

  • What we do is behind the scenes and hidden from view from even our most important internal customers.
  • There’s often confusion with respect to where we fit in the organization. Business people typically consider us to be techies, technical folk think we’re business-side people.
  • Depending on your team’s role in the enterprise, you could provide support to one or two, or more than a dozen (as with the case with our team) different internal groups. This is one of the key challenges: we offer a lot of value, but it’s in all shapes and forms and it differs by partner type.
  • We have many roles that come together to support our partners- technical support, help line, mapping analysts, project managers, supervisors, operations support, and others. Each role has something unique it contributes to the process.
  • Most of our work is extremely detail oriented, so it’s tough to explain the nature of the work concisely.
  • We deal directly with customers, suppliers, and other external partners.

I’ve executed a few elevator speeches in the past, albeit rarely on an elevator since those in our headquarters were super-fast and not conducive to even a short conversation. Here’s an approach you can use based on what I experienced.

  1. Introduce yourself.
  2. Explain who you work for, if you think that might help provide context for the listener.
  3. Provide your title or short description of what you do, in the language and at the level that makes the most sense to your audience. For example, if you’re a mapping analyst, talking about using your Sterling Integrator translation/messaging tool and XML or the ANSI standards to map documents into SAP IDOCs would be understandable to an IT contact, but would likely cause the dreaded ‘eyes glazed over’ look on the part of a sales manager. It’s best to tailor your verbal job description to your audience’s level of familiarity with your work.
  4. State what it is your team does to support the listener’s organization. This is the ‘speech’ part, but really is just a short list of bullet points you want to make based on who you’re talking with. This is really where our spiel differs from everyone else’s. In our case, when the elevator door opens we could encounter a leader from supply chain, HR, finance, customer service, sales, or marketing and we would need a fundamentally different ‘speech’ for each. For example, to an IT leader you may want to focus on the data conversion and communications services you provide. To a Sales exec, you could describe the services we provide in building strong electronic connections with customers that allow them to streamline their purchasing processes. The most important point you should plan to make to your intended audience is the value-add you provide that’s salient to his or her organization.
  5. If you have a relevant statistic (or two) that could provide some depth to your explanation, include it. In general, sales people are interested in sales dollars and the customer experience, customer service execs like to hear about efficiency and operational excellence, finance loves accuracy, timeliness, and audit trails, and other groups have similar hot-buttons.
  6. Be prepared to answer questions. They can arise literally as soon as you open your mouth. Also, respect the wishes of your target audience- remember, this is an impromptu encounter and he or she may be preoccupied or otherwise uninterested in your proceeding past the introduction.
  7. Make an appropriate ‘close’, perhaps by offering to continue the discussion (if the listener has shown interest) or by asking if there’s anything else you or your team could help with.

As an example, here’s what it could sound like if one of our analysts ran into a sales exec who he felt was unfamiliar with our team:

“Hi, I’m Bernie Smith. I’m an analyst on the EDI team that’s in Ken Jones’ organization. You know, we’re the ones who connect customers electronically to the company, so they can do business more efficiently with us. What I do is some of the technical and process analysis work to get their orders into SAP. We serve over 500 of your largest customers (throw out a couple names he’d recognize), and last year we did over $X million through our channel.  In fact, the company’s biggest customer (name), did $Y million with us and that was 97% of all the business they did with the company.” Depending on the response, the close could be something along the order of “We’d love to get into more detail with you on what we’re doing for your customers and maybe get some ideas on how we can improve or provide more services”.

It’s highly unlikely you’d complete an ‘elevator speech’ without interruption, so don’t think of it as being a script or playbook you need to follow. What is important, though, is that you can communicate where you fit in the organization, how you and your team add value, what the results are of your efforts, and what specifically is meaningful to the individual constituencies you support. If you know all of that, you can tailor your speech on the fly to make it fit your audience.

There’s a time and place for an elevator speech, and since it’s just you and one other person it’ll be up to you to make the first move. Don’t force it, though. Maybe you don’t feel up to taking the initiative, or maybe it just doesn’t feel right. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the opportunity to do your speech a few times in your career. But, you know what? Even if you never get to use it, developing the ability to confidently express who you are and how your work supports the organizational goals of your business partners is a wonderful capability for your toolbox.

Hope everyone has a great rest-of-summer!

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