The Elevator Speech: Approach with Caution

There is a moment I dread, perhaps above all else, at the beginning of a project, and it starts with an innocent-sounding request like this: “I need an elevator speech, so that when I go out and talk to stakeholders, I can explain what we’re doing.”

Elevator speeches, as you and Wikipedia know, are intended to “quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition.” The goal is to deliver your prepared speech in the time it takes to ride an elevator from, say, the lobby to the 6th floor.

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing, by definition. It’s practice where we can falter.

5 Tips to Elevate Your Elevator Pitch

When you’re supporting a project, you can improve the impact of communications by offering a quick bit of coaching. Remember, your team was chosen for their expertise in business process development, HR, change management, and IT, not communication. Some may be project – and elevator speech – newbies.

Help them out with these five tips for effective communications:

Time It Right, Part 1: Don’t Play “Beat the Clock”
Do you know how long 30 seconds is? That’s not a trick question. Unless they’ve worked in radio or racing, it’s unlikely most people have a sense for how many words fit into 30 seconds. Wikipedia gives elevator rides a generous 30 seconds-to-2 minute time span. The reality, unless your stakeholder is traveling from the lobby to a skyscraper penthouse, is more like 30 seconds. After exchanging greetings and inquiries about your health, that leaves just enough time for a tagline about your project. You’ll help your team immensely by keeping the elevator speech to one or two sentences, at most.

When you send it out to the team, append it with answers to a set of questions they can expect to get in response. And, for those used to receiving a paragraph-length or longer elevator speech, remind them that brevity is more likely to invite further questions: it leaves the stakeholder wanting more instead of feeling overwhelmed by a long, verbatim speech.

Make It a Natural Part of Conversation
Corporate initiatives struggle under enough weight – from awkward acronyms to flagging sponsorship – so give your team a fighting chance by helping them sound natural, not canned. This, of course, starts with the style and tone of your writing, but depends on the person delivering the elevator speech, as well. Memorization is key, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. If IT phrases things a little differently, let your IT lead change it up for her or his constituents. Most important, encourage the team to listen first.

Has the other person in the elevator (or cafeteria) said “Hi” just to be friendly or are they really starting a conversation? (Hint: Avoid launching into the elevator speech with everyone who says, “Hi.”) What are the conversational indicators that someone wants to know what you’re working on? (Hint: It’s probably not asking, “How are you?,” after saying, “Hi.”)

Really big hint: Someone is more likely to ask what you’re working on if you’ve invited them to talk about their work and expressed real interest in what they do. If that takes up the entire elevator ride, suggest a lunch (if appropriate) or catch them up on the elevator speech next time.

Don’t Corner Your Stakeholder
Remember that episode of “Seinfeld” with the Close Talker? Elevators, small conference rooms, stairwells, and most especially bathrooms are tight quarters and not your stakeholders’ natural habitat. Also, other people frequent these spaces; they may be less receptive to hearing an elevator speech.

Suggest to your team that effective communication is what they’re going for, not communication-at-all-costs. They should be aware of their surroundings, what the stakeholder is attending to, and the appropriateness of delivering the elevator speech there. (Hint: You’d be amazed how many folks need to be reminded not to talk business with stakeholders in the bathroom.)

Time It Right, Part 2: Be Aware of Social Signals
Did that VP of Sales really want details when she asked, “How’s work?,” or is she just being polite and simply want an answer like, “Work’s great!”? Is he looking for space to think? Is she only riding the elevator up to 2? Is he making a private phone call? Late to the next meeting? Deep in conversation with a boss, customer or direct report? Encourage your team to trust their instincts. The elevator speech won’t get a good reception if someone from your project has just interrupted a conversation or stalked a stakeholder from the elevator to a meeting.

Know When It’s Time to Listen, Rather than Speak
After all, stakeholders are the audience most critical to the success or failure of projects. Now do you see why that request for an elevator speech concerns me? It’s because the focus is on what we, the project team, need to say. When we focus so hard on messaging to stakeholders, we tend to forget to listen to what they have to say.

If this is the case, then we have it backward. We need room in our communication plans – and within tactics like elevator speeches – to listen to key audiences.

Our “value proposition” is only as valuable as the audience believes it to be. It’s our stakeholders who give the project credibility among their constituencies. If we want to earn their genuine support and buy-in, so that they go out to the rest of the organization and help us as ambassadors, we need to engage in two-way conversations.

Write it into your plans and help your project team understand that delivering what we need to say shouldn’t get in the way of listening to what audiences have to tell us about how to ensure the success of the project.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Don’t speak!”
~ Dianne Wiest to John Cusack in “Bullets Over Broadway”