How to Make a Great Elevator Pitch?

So, you are at an important networking event in your field of expertise. Maybe it’s a symposium, maybe a conference, or some important event organized at your company. Maybe you’re defending your PhD today. Maybe you even went out of town for this. Heck, it might even be in a foreign country. No matter what, this is the day.

You will be talking.

You prepared for days, weeks, or even months. You organized your material, structured your speech, got your best outfit. You honed your powerpoint slides, chose the best pictures to illustrate your work. Wrote just enough text on each of them. Not too much, not too little either. You rehearsed several times. Maybe you learned each word of the presentation, because you don’t feel confident enough to leave any room for improvisation. Or maybe you just learned the whole structure, but not the exact wording, because it does not sound natural enough.

Anyway, you are ready.

And then, the day when you are supposed to speak, maybe just a few minutes before you go on stage, or maybe a few hours before, you take the elevator. You’re waiting a few seconds, and as the doors open, you see him.

Or her, but let’s pretend she’s a he. The most important person at that event. Maybe the big boss, or somebody that could hire you. Maybe it’s a journalist covering the event. It could even be someone you admire from your domain, a public personality everybody knows. He’s in the elevator, too. You just have a few seconds to make a great impression. He breaks the ice, and asks: “So, you’re going to talk today? What are you working on?”

Elevator pitch: a man in an elevator
This guy wants to talk with you. You better not disappoint him.

Just a simple question, an easy one, and yet you stumble over the words. That’s easy, you know your topic, you rehearsed for so long… But you know you only have a few seconds to answer, so you’re trying to sum up your 15 minutes speech in a short sentence. But you didn’t prepare for that! So, you just answer words in a random order, trying to fit as many keywords as possible. He frowns, he doesn’t seem to get a word of what you’re talking about. And how could he?

“Ding!” The door opens. “OK, this is my floor, see you later!” And he’s gone. You failed at making a good impression. He probably won’t show up at your presentation. You won’t get that job, or that promotion. And yet you could speak about your topic for 15 minutes, but not for a few seconds? How come? The reason is: you don’t master the elevator speech and, as mundane as it may seem, it is key in your public speaking life, and it is something we introverts tend to be notoriously bad at.

Well, you better improve at them, because mastering elevator speeches has tons of advantages:

  • You won’t miss opportunities like the ones above.
  • Preparing your presentations will be way faster in the first place, especially if you haven’t started yet.
  • Your presentations will be more focused and engaging.
  • You will be able to adapt to any last-minute constaints given to you. You know the kind: “oh, sorry, we’re running short of time, you were alloted 15 minutes but we cannot listen to you for more than 5 minutes, is this okay for you?” Well… It’s not like you have the choice, anyway.

What is an elevator speech, anyway, and why should you care?

So, what is this elevator speech I’m talking about? As you may have guessed, it’s any speech you might have to make in an elevator, or in any other setting, where you only have a few seconds to convince. They have the following characteristics:

  • They are very important, because they involve you and a person you really want to impress, either because you admire her or because she might let you have a job you’re dreaming of.
  • They can happen at any moment, even (and especially) when you least expect it. You cannot plan for them, like any good old presentation where you know you will talk from 11 to 11:15. No, despite their importance, they happen at any time, and you better be ready, because a few seconds later they are gone.
  • They sound like small talk, and, for that very reason, we introverts tend to fear them. We don’t like chit chatting, right? Yet, the good news is, despite the lack of formal setting, they are not just meant to let un socialize: they are focused on our field of expertise, usually something we really like.
  • They happen in a setting with very few people. It’s highly unlikely that someone is going to ask you, in the middle of a crowd: “Hey! You! Yes, you, on the border of the room, close to the window! Could you tell all of us what you’re currently working on?” No, usually it happens in a one on one setting, which is great for us introverts.

Yes, they are important, and they can be frightening, but as you can see they are somehow introvert friendly: it’s just a single person asking you to talk about a topic you have some expertise on. So, yeah, you can do it, it doesn’t require you to become some kind of social savvy extrovert. Actually, I tend to consider this is an easier exercise for us introverts who know how to focus and synthesize information, rather than for extroverts who aren’t necessarily able to say all they have to in a very limited amount of time. Great for us!

But, if those speeches are so introverts-friendly, why do they seem so hard? Shoudln’t it be a second nature of all of us? Not so fast! This is a technique that must be learned.

OK, I’m sold. Now, how do I make a great elevator speech?

“So, Fabien, how do I make an elevator speech? I’ve got a 15 minutes presentation ready, with tons of slides, how do I make a 15 second speech out of it?”

Quite easily, actually. The first thing you have to do is to identify the key message of your speech. This is something you should do anyway, as it will help you make better presentations, and prepare them wayyyy faster. But we’ll talk about all of that in another post. For now, just remember this: you must identify your message.

How do you do that? Just act like, a few days before the event, once everything is ready, you’re asked to make your presentation shorter. Like, way shorter. Pretend, instead of being asked to talk for 15 minutes, you were asked to talk for 8 minutes. Or even just 3 minutes. What would you keep in your presentation, and what would you remove? Yeah, that’s a lot to remove. Yeah, I know everything is important, but that’s the way it is. Just go down to those 3 minutes.

“But, Fabien, what about my slides? I won’t have slides in an elevator? What am I going to do?”

Oh, come on. I know lots of speakers are convinced they cannot explain something in a professional context without a powerpoint. I mean, sure, it can be a great tool, but it’s nothing more. You don’t need it. I’ll talk about powerpoint in later posts on this blog. Anyway, in an elevator speech context, you won’t have slides. When you extract the quintessence of your talk, its core, to make it last only 3 minutes, just imagine you not even allowed to have them. No fancy diagram, no important photograph, no impressive algorithm or mathematical formula. Just your words.

“No, seriously, Fabien, my field is very technical / very visual / very data oriented, and I just cannot explain it without a visual support, it just doesn’t work, and a picture is worth 1,000 words, and…”

Please. If you can’t say it with words only, you didn’t work hard enough. But you’re almost there. It’s worth it, I promise.

Great. Now you reduced your speech to just a few minutes, reduce it even further. Like, now, you only have a minute. Or, even 30 seconds. Yes, I’m serious. The 3 minutes speech was just a step. An important one, though, because it helped you focus on the most important parts of your presentation. And if I told you in the first place to reduce it down to less than a minute, you would have shrugged, said “that’s impossible, this guy is crazy”, and wouldn’t have done it. Now, you know it’s possible.

Elevator pitch: a timewatch
You better have a clear idea of your key message. Those 30 seconds are going to run real fast.

“Oh, OK, so, I have a 30 seconds presentation ready, am I done yet?”

Maybe, maybe not. I put the focus on time, but it’s not enough. Remember you are trying to sell something. You’re trying to sell yourself, your work, maybe your passion. Don’t be too dry and factual. Show your enthusiasm. And if your topic is boring, just show why it’s important for the company or the person you’re working for.

That’s your key message. That’s the thing you want people to remember when they’re gone. That’s what they’re going to say their spouse in the evening: “hey, I saw a very intersting talk at work today, there’s that guy/that woman, who is working on yada yada and yada yada”. That’s so important. We will talk about key messages in other blog posts. But, for now on, you can use your key message as an elevator speech.

Now, there’s a slight difference between your key message and your elevator speech: in your elevator speech, you may want to keep some mystery, so as to hook your conversation partner. Don’t show all your cards, just tell him enough to stimulate his curiosity.

“So, Fabien, What are you presenting today?”

“Well, I’m talking about introverts, about how they can make great public speakers despite what common wisdom says, and how mastering elevator speeches is such a game changer. I think it’s important to be able to deliver a speech in as little time as possible. I even explain how to do it.”

“Oh, sounds interesting, maybe I’ll be there for your speech then.”