One of the most critical skills any business professional needs to deploy either for their job search or networking is a good elevator speech.   Ironically, despite its widespread applicability it is something many of us struggle to develop and perfect.

What is an “elevator speech”?

What, you may ask, is an “elevator speech”?  Simply it is a 60 to 90 second summary that details who you are, what you do, some of your key accomplishments or skills, and how you could potentially service, assist or empower a prospective client or employer.  The concept was first coined from a hypothetical scenario in which a bright, ambitious individual would find himself/herself alone with a senior executive in an elevator car as it was transporting both parties to their intended destination.  The assumption was that the more senior individual, in an effort to break a long and uncomfortable silence, asks his/her elevator companion the obvious but challenging question “So, what do you do”?

Job-seekers are commonly advised and coached on how to prepare and develop their elevator speech based on the assumption that it will be used in the above scenario.  However, in truth, there are multiple instances in which a good elevator speech can be leveraged for a variety of purposes.  Here are just a few examples:

Where it is used

1. At a public meeting or forum.  All of us have undoubtedly attended a function where, to our chagrin, we are asked to introduce ourselves.  It could be a networking event, a conference, a board meeting, or any one of a number of similar venues.  Having a smooth, natural elevator speech can eliminate stress and avoid the last minute scramble of trying to cobble together something that fairly and accurately captures the essence of who you are and the value you can impart.

2. At social functions.  Any social event, regardless of whether it is or isn’t business related, usually results in introductions to new people.  Invariably, the question arises “So, what do you do”.  A good elevator speech adapted for the circumstances can prompt further discourse and break down communication barriers a lot better than simply saying “I’m an engineer” or “I work at XYZ Company”.

3. In Interviews.  At one time or another all of us have been interviewed by someone who is thoroughly unprepared, untrained or just plain uncomfortable interviewing an applicant.  Invariably, we have been greeted with the statement “So, tell me about yourself”.    Being able to leverage an elevator speech that provides relevant facts and information about your career not only provides an applicant with a decided advantage, but also, positions them to control the future conversation flow.

4. On your Linked In Profile.  Of all the many social media tools Linked In is still the premier forum for business professionals.  A good career summary can be crafted from a polished and thoughtful written elevator speech.

5. In your resume.  That summary section in your resume brands your business proposition and highlights your unique contributions as an applicant.  A carefully crafted summary extracted from your elevator speech can reinforce your unique contribution as a prospective hire.

Common Mistakes

When people begin preparing their elevator speech, or even when delivering it, they usually make one of four common errors:

1. The put in too much non-essential, extraneous information.  Someone meeting you for the first time, whether it be an employer, a wedding guest, a conference delegate, or a networking contact, is not interested in hearing your life story.  Information such as where you were born, your marital status, how many children you have, isn’t of interest at the outset.

2. Don’t assume the receiver works in the same field as you, or understands technical terms, acronyms, etc.  Information Technology professionals are especially terrible in this regard.  They recite programming languages and technical terms they think everyone should know or understand, but doesn’t.  Recognizing this, keep your elevator speech simple and easily understood.

3. It sounds canned and rehearsed.  There is nothing worse than an elevator speech that is recited or overly scripted.  Even worse is referring to a sheet of paper.  This type of introductions sounds insincere and even cringe worthy.  A good elevator speech should be as natural and genuine as possible.

4. It fails to summarize what is desired.  A good elevator speech should leave the recipient wanting to know more, or visualizing how the individual’s background or skills could provide a personal or business advantage.  However, recipients don’t always make the connection, so sometimes, one has to draw them a road map.

A Simple 4-Step Paradigm

When assisting clients who are crafting their elevator speech I give them a simple four step paradigm to use that is easily understood and fully adaptable to a variety of circumstances:

Step 1:  Introduction.  Provide your name, title or field of specialty, where you currently or most recently worked, and then summarize your educational or technical qualifications.

Step 2:  Work History.  Give a brief synopsis of the organizations or positions you have held in your career.

Step 3:  Accomplishments.   Highlight three or four key accomplishments in your career utilizing, wherever possible, metrics or quantitative measures to demonstrate progress and benefits that accrued to your employer.

Step 4:  What you could do or what you want.  Detail what you may hope to get out of this or future interactions with the recipient.  Sometimes, you may be looking for employment, or sometimes, it may be information.  The clearer this is, the better your chances of success.

Pulling It Together

Here is an example of an elevator speech for a job seeker searching for a Human Resources opportunity:

“Hi. My name is John Ryder, and I’m an experienced, well-organized and ambitious Human Resources Manager with over 15 years experience in the consumer packaging industry.  In addition to a Masters degree in Business Administration I also hold a CHRP designation.  Most recently I was employed with the Pro-Can Packaging Group in Toronto.

My major work functions at Pro-Can involved recruitment, employee relations, compensation, benefits administration and pension management.  During my time there I implemented a new Talent Management system, and was directly involved in the design and development of a new employee benefits portal.  Under my leadership, we realized a net reduction in employee turnover of 35% within the first two years, and an overall decrease in benefits costs of $40,000.

Currently, I am seeking a position as a Human Resources Manager in the Greater Toronto Area with a small to medium-sized company where I can leverage my skills and experience to help improve employee engagement and improve operating efficiencies.  I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss further the contributions I could make to your organization. Thank you.”

A Final Thought

A good elevator speech is a work in progress, not a fait accompli.  It evolves over time, just as each of us grow and evolve throughout our careers.  Understanding who you are, the forces that have been instrumental in shaping your character and career, a strong awareness of what you are looking for, and most importantly, what you can contribute, is what makes the difference between the ordinary and the memorable.