by Neil Gordon
The first time I ever went to a Chamber of Commerce meeting was also the last time I went to one.
It was a fiasco.
We started the meeting going around the table and were each given two minutes to share what we did – our elevator pitch, a way to present our work in such a concise way that it could be shared within the span of an elevator ride.
In theory, by sharing what we did in this way, everyone else would be so bowled over by the possibilities of working with us that the $40 we spent to have breakfast would be worth it.
But when I shared what I did, people smiled and then the next person spoke. And then the next person, and so on.
Eventually, there was more casual mingling, and several people came up to me who seemed REALLY excited to talk to me and hear more about what I did.
The problem was once they heard more about what I did, they immediately wanted to be anywhere else in the room as soon as possible.
The event continued like that for several hours, and the only thing that ever came of having gone was about a dozen follow-up calls from the chamber inviting me back.
Of course, we all know that going to an event like that is not meant to be about getting instant referrals as much as it is about growing one’s role in a community. But still, the fact that no one even wanted to ask me about my work left me feeling pretty low.
What I did for a living didn’t feel like it mattered to anyone.
And perhaps you can relate to that feeling as well.
In the intervening years, I’ve come to realize that there were three critical reasons why my elevator pitch landed like a dud, and why most elevator pitches don’t work. I’ve shared these reasons below.
Reason #1: We fail to provide context.
If we’re an entrepreneur, we have a fantastic new idea that we’re bringing to the marketplace, and it has a marvelous unique selling proposition, it’s easy to think that other people are going to have the same level of enthusiasm for it right off the bat.
But remember, they’ve had a different life experience than us. They’ve faced different problems than we have, and have struggled in their own way. As such, they don’t necessarily know that our solution is even necessary – let alone unique.
People are most likely to embrace a solution when it’s provided within the context of a problem they care about solving. By starting not with our solution but a problem they want to solve, we have an opportunity to get them instantly invested in hearing what we have to say.
Reason #2: We overwhelm our listener with information.
As an expert in what we do, we have amassed all sorts of information. We see the world through the lens of our own knowledge and insight. But when people ask us what we do, they don’t yet have that perspective themselves.
When they ask us about our world and our response is to launch into the facts, figures, statistics, jargon, and technical processes with which we’ve become so intimately familiar, they’re suddenly buried with new stuff to sift through in their minds and they are more than likely to check out.
People are empowered not by the amount of knowledge we share but the belief that change is possible. By instead providing something that plants the seed of possibility in their minds, they’ll want to go deeper.
Reason #3: We make our elevator pitch about ourselves.
If someone asks us what we do, it probably seems like it would be both natural and appropriate to tell them about what we do. We’re just providing a response to the exact question that has been asked of us, right?
But people who ask that question more than likely have goals of their own: to get referrals, to find customers, to get funding, to discover a project that they can fund, or, in a personal context, to simply get through a conversation with a stranger without too much awkwardness. They might listen politely to our response, but in the back of their mind they’re probably just waiting for you to stop talking so that they can have a go at their own answer to the question.
Effective communication values the recipient over the sender. This means to instead make your response about planting an empowering idea in your listener’s mind that actually gets them excited the way they might be at a rally or a conference.
It means that an effective elevator pitch isn’t really a pitch at all – but rather an elevator speech.
How to craft an elevator speech (and not an elevator pitch).
While empowering another person in a short amount of time can take shape in many forms, below is a simple four-part formula:
Identify the problem: Begin with the problem your audience cares about solving, so as to provide context.
Provide typical solutions: Offer an example or two of what conventional wisdom teaches us to do, so as to agitate the listener’s desire to see this problem solved.
State your silver bullet: State a one-sentence recipe for why your solution is as effective as it is so as to spark an ah-ha moment (special note: my explanations for reasons #1, 2, and 3 all have silver bullets – can you find them?).
Describe your solution: This is what most people start with, but with points 1-3 as context your listener will be primed and ready for what you do.
The silver bullet in #3, because of the way it’s created, prompts an ah-ha moment. Think of famous silver bullets throughout history, such as Sun Tzu’s quote “All of warfare is deception” and Aristotle’s quote “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Because of the way these statements are crafted, the listener is suddenly empowered by what is being said. This also means that an elevator speech can take only 20 or 30 seconds to say but that ah-ha moment will prompt so much possibility for our listener that they will suddenly trust us.
Then, they’ll want to go deeper.
This is what happened when I was at a happy hour last year. I was with a group of people the night before a conference, and one woman asked me what I do while we were all talking together. I began my elevator speech, and when I got to my silver bullet they got so excited that they all talked for several minutes about it.
And yet I had only been speaking for 15 seconds by that point.
This is the importance and potential of looking at our communication as an opportunity to empower others. When we prompt someone to have an ah-ha moment in only a handful of seconds, they’ll say the three most important words they can possibly say in response:
“Tell me more.”
Neil Gordon is a communications expert focused on helping his clients attract a following using as compelling of a message as possible. His style has been described as “persuasion with heart” and he has helped his clients double their speaking fees and secure appearances on TV shows like Ellen and Dr. Oz. Neil formerly worked as an editor at Penguin Random House with New York Times bestselling authors and has been featured on NBC, Forbes, Fortune, Inc and he is a contributor for Entrepreneur.