Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Is Your Elevator Pitch Doing its Job?

Whether you know it or not, you work in sales.

As a writer and career counselor, I am constantly surprised at how often I am called upon to sell something. Whether it’s pitching an article or book, convincing a client that their "creative" cover letter really isn’t going to work, getting my staff to try a new coaching technique, or proposing a new idea to my supervisor or colleagues, I am in sales. And so are you. So the question is: how well are you doing?

What are you currently trying to “sell”? Are you looking for a job? Are you hoping to get funding for a new venture? Trying to get new customers? Are you promoting your book, your blog, or Twitter feed? Maybe you’re just trying to convince your spouse to let you buy that motorcycle or take that cruise. The bottom line is, no matter what your goal is, what you’re really selling is you.

In most situations we only have one chance to sell. One chance to capture our listener’s attention. That’s where the elevator pitch comes in. So named because you must capture your vision and story in the short time it would take to ride an elevator with someone, the elevator pitch can be the linchpin of your success. The elevator summarizes the essence of you and your goal in less than 2 minutes. Preferably less than 1 minute.

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When you consider how important our desired goals are, why do so many of us create such bad pitches? College students default to “I’m a senior majoring in English at State University and I’m hoping to find a job.” Older job seekers say, “I’ve worked in retail for twenty years and I’m seeking something new.” Writers say, “I’m writing a self-help book about romance that everyone will want to read.” Even Hollywood execs default to “This movie is 'Transformers' meets 'Driving Miss Daisy.'” (Actually that one intrigues me…)

We default to what is simple and easy because it’s harder to be creative, and we often don't know what else to say. But if our pitch isn't working, it's time to update it.  Enter Daniel Pink with a terrific video will help you craft a better story. And isn’t that really what a strong, persuasive sales pitch is-- a great story?  Take a look at Daniel Pink's video on YouTube.

While you'll get more value watching the video, I’ll quickly summarize his six “Elevator Pitches for the 21st Century”, which come from his recent book, To Sell is Human:

1. The Pixar pitch. This pitch is modeled on the narrative structure of Pixar films and uses the power of storytelling to create the picture. You tell a very short story in your pitch. “Once upon a time…. One day… And then...” A good story is memorable and intrigues the listener.

2. An email is a pitch. Use your subject line to sell yourself or your idea. Your email needs to either appeal to someone’s needs (utilitarian purpose) or engage their curiosity.

3. Create a rhyming pitch. (But be careful, Pink warns.  Don’t be cheesy or sleazy.) We remember rhymes.  

This is an interesting idea, although it would need to be applied carefully.  Sometimes when I'm asked about the value of a liberal arts major versus a more "practical" or technical major, I will quote the lyrics of a children's song from an old Danny Kaye movie,  "Hans Christian Anderson":


"Inchworm. Inchworm.  Measuring the marigolds. You and your arithmetic, you'll probably go far.

Inchworm. Inchworm. Measuring the marigolds. Seems to me you'd stop and see how beautiful they are."

I like the way these lyrics find the value in studying both arithmetic and art. It's not an either-or proposition-- do both. 

4. Ask questions. Questions engage the listener. They force the person to interact with you, and are more persuasive.  What question could you ask that could start an interesting conversation with your listener?

5. Tweet. Tweets are the ultimate elevator pitch: short, concise, and informative.  Give people good information and ask questions.

6. Create a one-word pitch. You want people to think of you when they hear a particular word. What one word would describe your essence or what you want to be known for? 

Are you getting some ideas? Try crafting a short pitch. Write down the key words you need to have in your pitch. Focus on what makes you, your idea, or your product unique. Play around. Try humor. Use a thesaurus to see if there are words you could substitute to make your language clearer or more vivid and interesting.

The next step is to practice it. A lot. Try it out on friends and family—solicit their feedback.

Just remember that a pitch isn’t everything. Don’t try to cram everything about yourself, your idea or your product into one short burst of information. The pitch is to intrigue the listener: to capture their attention so they will want to learn more.

©2014 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit:  Matt Ward.  Flickr Creative Commons.

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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