Why Elevator Speeches Are Lame - Christine Kane

When I was just out of college, I got a job at a PR firm.  At that time, every new person I met at any party or in any bar always started the conversation with the same question:

“What do you do?”

It’s the classic perfunctory question, and as such, it seems to require a perfunctory answer.

It dawned on me at this point that I’d been getting asked the “Perfunctory Question” – in some form or another – since I was sixteen.

Think about it.

In high school, at some point, everyone starts asking you the same question:

“Where are you going to college?”

So, rather than any exploration of who you are or what you love learning about, you learn how to provide satisfying stock answers.

After you finally make your college choice (or default to where you got accepted), you enter the next level of the Perfunctory Question:

“What’s your major?”

Now, you may be so far away from your college years that you don’t remember every college guy you met at every loud party lifting a plastic cup of keg beer to his mouth and asking you…

“So, what’s your major?”

But it happened, I promise.

At some point in college, after you’ve shared your major with everyone, you enter the next Perfunctory Question, which is,

“Where are you going to work?”

Or “Do you have a job yet?”

Which – again – launches you into easy-to-categorize ways of telling people that you are, in fact, okay, and that you are able to make this conversation safe and easy on them.

Then you enter the world of work.

And along with it, you enter into our final Perfunctory Question, which is:

“What do you do?”

This one will follow you forever.

So even though you know that, as a business owner, your income requires that you learn how to market, communicate and connect — you have learned – from years of habit – to dumb it down and make it perfunctory…

“I’m a therapist.”

“I’m a coach.”

“I’m a graphic designer.”

Most of us reduce our work to the most understandable, easiest-to-say category just so people will “get” us and get us fast.  We’ve learned well.

And this is why, when you’re introduced to the idea of an elevator speech, you cringe.

After all, having a quick, easy, stock answer always got the job done.  Why should you try to create any deep or meaningful response to that question?

Well, because now that you have a business, you have to market. And that means you have to connect a little deeper.

(And no, I’m not asking you to become like your friend Janice who changed her name to “River” and answers this question by telling people she’s a divine presence in the universe here only to provide light and love to all. Please do not do this.)

If you have a business and you want clients, you need to learn how to communicate clearly what you do for people so that you attract them and so that your Ideal Client wants to know more.

You have to break the ‘let’s just get this out and over with” Perfunctory Pattern that you’ve learned up until now.

Here’s how:

1 – CONNECT with your answer.

The elevator speech formula is “I help X [Ideal client] get Y [Results you deliver.]  Take the time to find the most elegantly simple wording of this formula so it works for you, so it’s something you WANT to say over and over again.

2 – PRACTICE your answer.

I know. I know. You’re an “in the moment” kind of person. Practicing your Elevator Speech? That’s so, you know, NOT you.

Okay, yes. But get over it.

When you have a structure and know the steps, you can be “in the moment” all you want. The structure provides the freedom. Every great improv musician started with a metronome at some point.

So, revel in looking like an idiot and walk around your house practicing your Elevator Speech.

3 – ASK a great question.

Rather than waiting for someone to ask you the Perfunctory Question so you can use your Elevator Speech, why not create your own list of three non-perfunctory questions that ultimately defines you as someone who knows the pain points of your clients?

Think about it. You have the opportunity to Uplevel the perfunctory conversation. What questions do you most want to ask people to determine whether or not you are the one to help them or give them a great resource?

  • suz

    love love LOVE this article, Christine! FYI… Valerie Young (changingcourse.com) has been teaching the “i help x do y” formula for years.

    As a natural-born networker (like Natalie mentioned), i also totally agree with Michelle about not focusing on fears when i meet someone new, but on them and their interests.

    I usually ask people questions about themselves when i first meet them simply because i’m curious and genuinely wanna know! (Most people are shy, but who doesn’t like to talk about themselves if they’re asked?)

    Often doesn’t take long before i may also suggest who else they might wanna connect with and who needs to definitely know about them!

    When you put the focus on the other person first, they usually give you tons of friendly info And you have a great rapport going with them.by the time they get around to asking you what you do. In my case, they already know that i’m a networker who loved meeting them and is honestly interested in who they are and what they do.

    For me, it’s a great place to start. 😀

    Thanks for helping me refine it, Christine… and everybody who responded.

    • Michelle Belnager

      Well said Suz. Note to self- listen to people more and draw them out- then think of who they need to connect with and who needs to know about them. I like it.

  • Michelle Belnager

    I have no trouble speaking to people’s fears when talking to people about my carpentry business, although it is not the first thing I would mention. It often goes without saying that someone could leave their teenaged daughter at home with a woman carpenter if they had to drive the other kids around. Still, the idea of focusing on people’s FEARS makes me kind of cringe. I have also had a much harder time imagining what fears I might be alleviating when I play music for people. Fear that they haven’t gotten enough dancing in lately? Did you have some questions you used to ask when you were selling yourself as a musician? Is there any other way to frame this idea that doesn’t involve focusing on people’s fears?

  • james gaffney

    excellent points here! i’ve always been reductionist when i’m asked what i do. honestly, the question has gotten so old – and the answer feels even older – “graphic designer.”

    i’m going to start working on my “i help ____ do _______.”

    i know i’ve missed out on some great possibilities by being so self-effacing. but – NO MORE! thanks for the seriously thought-provoking article!

  • Ramona King

    Thanks so much Christine. Great article. The elevator speech is indeed a tough one for me. To simply give the one-word answer, “I’m a storyteller”, I leave most people with thoughts of me reading a book to young children in a library. The general response is, “Oh, that’s nice”. I’ve been working on my brief speech for some time now. I use words that come up like a pattern in my work…ancestors, legacy, family, self-determination, wisdom, children, youth, narration, story. Many years later I still work on crafting a speech that is clear and concise. I want to say something that gets a gut response like: “You can help me” “You can help my colleague/friend” “You really take care of the people who do business with you”.

  • Natalie MacNeil

    Great minds think alike Christine! I covered the same topic today and created a step-by-step video to help people craft a perfect pitch, which can be seen at http://shetakesontheworld.com/2013/07/how-to-write-a-pitch.html if anyone is interested. I’m also giving away a 1-on-1 pitch strategy session!

    I love your advice about asking great questions Christine. Listening to someone you’re just meeting is often way more powerful than talking. It’s something that “connector” archetypes do to “file” new people they are meeting into their mental rolodex too so that they can connect those people to others.

  • Lisa Moore

    Thank you Christine for this article, because yes I shy away from it, but it’s something I really need to practice until I feel comfortable with.

    Lisa Moore
    Lismoore Drapery & Interiors

  • Nneka, Working Mystic

    Like Cathy, I would love to see some examples of the lead in questions. I love that approach. It shifts all the surface banter. Come to think of it, I think I’ve used that method when I talk to people on planes. It’s basically engaging in a conversation that will last the whole plane ride versus giving the pat answer so I could take a nap.

    Still working on the I help xxx with xxx though.

    • Christine Kane

      So Nneka…

      Guess what we will be working on as part of our two days together at the Gold Mastermind???

      Elevator questions! 🙂

  • Barbara

    Well of course I love this article, because I help business owners craft elevator pitch content (which then turns into Facebook content and LinkedIn Profiles and About Us messages…)! A great way to get to your that all-important “elegant simple wording” is brainstorm and pop individual words onto post in notes or index cards and shuffle them around.

  • Sandy

    Loooved this! I was at a Brendan Burchard event 2 years ago, and at it, we were encouraged to meet as many people as possible to network. When anyone asked me what I did, honest to God, a different and surprising answer came out every time. I finally turned to my friend at the event and said, “I hate it when people ask me what I do!” aaaaahhh….I’ve come a long way, but still am getting more clear on how to share it. (because I am a universal messenger here to bring love and light to all…lol)

    Thanks, Christine…so happy to be part of your Mastermind group…this is going to be a kick-ass year…I can feel it!! 🙂

  • Susan

    Love this article. I remember being at Uplevel Your Purpose a few years ago. You asked us all to have our elevator speeches ready…and questions. This was profound for me…because as you stated in this article, I just wasn’t up for the challenge of putting together an elevator speech.

    But I did it! and I shared it with others at the event (a safe space where we all got to practice). I met such wonderful people who were encouraged by the questions I had at the ready.

    Fast forward a few years…I still use my elevator speech. I still ask questions as you suggest in this article. It works! Being consistent…having a deeper support for my own work by having words at the ready….and asking questions of others (gets them thinking that someone is interested in them!…which is true).

    Thank you for your timely article, Christine!

    • Christine Kane

      Awwwww. That is so wonderful to read, Susan! So glad you are still using what you learned!

  • Coach Tiko

    Alexandre, I giggled when I read your comment because I, too, have certainly had those deer in headlight moments! Lol!

    Christine, I love the third step you offered…to ask questions to see if and how I can help the person I’m talking to in achieving their goals! It’s a great way to genuinely show you care and are not just going through the ‘networking motions’. Thanks!

  • Cathy Goodwin

    I’m also intrigued by the last part and to be honest was a little confused. It soulds as though you are anticipating questions, but I’d like to see a couple of examples of how you work it in

    Re introducing yourself, I do like to hear some kind of title. If someone says, “I help clients who are stressed,” I want to know if they’re an aromatherapist, licensed psychologist, life coach, massage therapist, financial planner, fitness trainer … could be anything!

    I’ve been encouraging my own clients and readers to share what I call an “elevator story.” That’s an example of a successful client. I love networking and speaking and find that my audience will pay closer attention to a story than to a list of facts.

    • Christine Kane

      Hey Cathy!

      You’re not anticipating questions. You are asking the other person a question or questions about themselves, their challenges and what they are dealing with now. So, for instance, since you are a coach, you would ask a question based on the most common challenges your ideal clients face. My favorite is simply: “What’s your biggest challenge in your business?” This helps me even with non ideal clients because I’m very good at finding the solution and giving people new ways to think about what they are dealing with.

      Might have to write a post just on the question piece!

      And i’m with you on the title or label of what you do. i don’t think the idea is that you hide the fact that you are a consultant or trainer or whatever – but you find a way to share that without letting that be the end point. Your story idea is awesome!

  • Alexandre L’Eveille

    I like that approach proactive approach of, in conversation, “defining yourself as someone who knows the pain of your clients” with some lead-in questions. That would be such a nice lead in to my elevator speech. I like my elevator speech, but when someone asks me the what-do-you-do, I still have that deer in the headlights moment where I just want to spit out the put-me-in-a-box-and-dismiss-me answer. Networking is a big stretch for me and getting it rolling is hard. Once I’m in the moment I get passionate and roll with it. The questions lead in will be a big help to get them engaged even faster.

  • Thea van Dijk

    The last part is an eye opener for me. Never thougt to ask people so “that ultimately defines you as someone who knows the pain points of your clients”

    Great, I gonna make mine questions.