The history of the Elevator Speech

After my previous article on how to use an elevator pitch to engage others, one of my networking colleagues, Phillip Khan-Panni, raised a couple of interesting points about the elevator pitch and I thought I’d address these separately. He was concerned about the connotations that the word “pitch” has and offered the alternative “elevator speech”, and he questioned the history of the term in the US and UK.

To begin with, I agree that “elevator pitch” can lead to connotations that we might not always want. As I mentioned before, in some business networking environments, rather naive (or socially inept) networkers can launch into a sales pitch inappropriately. I think this comes down to their own personal issues rather than the actual term, but I take his point that by using “speech” we avoid the more overt demand for an appointment! That said, in my experience their idea of any ‘speech’ is that it lasts 40 minutes simply because it is a speech!

Personally, I tend to use ‘pitch’ because, like it or not, I find people need to be reminded that what they are doing is a form of selling – whether it is internal and upward, across a network, or to prospective customers. They don’t tend to make a sales grab when they shouldn’t as much as not trying to sell when they should.

Now, the history of the term….

My early career was in organisation development, specifically in helping firms move from what analytical thinkers called “total quality management” to what behaviourists called “excellence”. The difference lay in the vision of the most senior strategists. TQM quickly became a process of sometimes pedantic ‘quality’ improvement, whereas “excellence” was about a far more human relationship between the leaders and their staff.

One of the pioneers of the quality improvement industry, who subsequently embraced TQM, but never really got the empowerment message, was Philip Crosby. Crosby had a couple of spells as a rating in the US Navy before getting a private sector job as a quality test technician in 1952. He rose through the quality technology field to become Director of Quality at ITT in 1965. He wrote a couple of books – one on the cost of quality and the second applying qualty management concepts to the management of ‘situations’, as he called them. They were both published as monographs by an industrial education body and remained fairly obscure.

Still with ITT, in 1972, he wrote a book called “The Art of Getting Your Own Sweet Way” which described people management and quality management – giving his perspectives on how you could apply quality management in your management of people. It wasn’t an overnight best seller and Crosby continued to remain well known among quality professionals, but otherwise unheard of.

In the latter half of the 70s, the US was losing market share to Japanese businesses and the common perception as to why was the poor quality of US goods and services. There was a huge demand for quality professionals at the time, and spotting this Crosby set up a consultancy training business in 1979. As was the norm in those days, the best marketing collateral was seen to be a book, and so he quickly produced his next, “Quality is Free”, that year. This propelled him into the public eye, and he was soon a key player on the international speaking circuit. He decided to produce a follow-up book, and for expediency did a 2nd edition of “The Art of Getting Your Own Sweet Way” which appeared in 1981.

Crosby had tended to work in large industrial firms where there were always more senior people whom you needed to sell your idea up to if you wanted it to be taken on board. They prided themselves on always being busy and often got frustrated with socially less skilled technical people, so he spent a bit of time on how to sell-upwards in his training courses.

Crosby was also a master of quick repartee and many of his quotes used to emerge in unusual forums. A classic example: “Dedication is wanting your thing to happen more than they don’t want it to happen.”

In the 2nd edition of “The Art of…” he suggests that all quality improvement people should have a pre-prepared speech selling the benefits of their new approach to quality that they could deliver in the elevator if they find themselves unexpectedly in the company of a senior executive for a few floors.

“When teaching Quality Management, I always teach my students to learn an “elevator speech.” This is an all-encompassing, action-producing set of ideas that you pronounce while on the elevator with the big boss for just 1 minute. “

That’s the earliest reference that I’ve ever been able to find to the term. However, the story doesn’t stop there. Although the distribution of the 2nd edition was better than the original, the idea of the “elevator speech” still didn’t get much attention.

It was in 1987, that two eminent statisticians, Gerry Hahn (from General Electric) and Tom Boardman (Prof at the University of Colorado), who were both very proactive in the American Statistical Association, began to push Crosby’s philosophy of change to other statisticians and to encourage them to promote their value to industry and society. Boardman, especially, made so much of the “elevator speech” that it became a bit of a mantra. By the time Hahn made the WJ Youden Memorial Address at the ASA in Autumn 1987, Boardman’s reference to this had become a friendly joke among the professionals there.

In 1983, Crosby opened an office in the UK (trading as Phillip Crosby Associates Ltd) and appointed the late John Macdonald to run it. John was previously Director of Quality Management for Honeywell. The two practices developed closely together and Crosby was very careful to control the ‘intellectual property’ associated with his name. The training courses offered by John in the UK mirrored closely those of Crosby in the US and certainly the concept of up-selling was a core element.

So… I’d have to say that the term “Elevator Speech” entered the published media in 1981, had become a popular term among managers in the US by 1987, and was already being promoted in the UK from 1983.

Of course, there are usually a number of channels for a good idea to come to popular attention and I’m sure many others have introduced it in their sphere as much as John did on the UK quality scene.

Best wishes

Graham Wilson


  1. Thanks for giving Mr Crosby credit for the term. I’ve not seen any other reference that did so. In about 1976 plus or minus, I heard him speak, i believe at an ASQC annual meeting. In telling how he accomplished some things at ITT, he recounted meeting Harold Geneen on the elevator and in response to Geneen’s question, “How’s it going Phil?” he responded, something to the effect, pretty good, still pissing away $xxx (big number). I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find reference to that speach and the amount of the xxx. Anyway he said he went to his office and held his hand above the phone that he knew was going to ring. And it did with “What do you mean pxxxing away $xxx?” And he was able to go to his office and explain the “hidden factory”.

  2. Hello Ken. Thanks very much for taking a look at my article and for going to the trouble to add a comment – it’s very encouraging when people do so.

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