Elevator pitches – engaging others in social talk

“I never know quite how to introduce myself…”
“People never seem prepared to listen to me when it’s my turn to explain what I do…”
“Well, I’m just one of those boring…”
“I come away thinking that they haven’t really a clue what I do…”
“No-one ever seems to follow up with me after a networking lunch…”
“I work for a high profile company yet no-one has told me how to describe it when I meet outsiders.”
“I’ve never found that networking events work for me – there’s never enough time to get to know people.”

For shorthand, we refer to the need for people of all kinds to have an ‘elevator pitch’ – a short, pithy, statement that introduces them and hopefully leads to a more extensive conversation later.

Whether it is for purely social use, specifically for selling, or for the more general purpose of work-related networking, the ‘elevator pitch’ helps the other person to understand, or be curious, enough about you to allow them to carry on a conversation. It doesn’t have to be everything there is to know, but it needs to help them fit you into a context that is helpful for them (even if you resent this kind of ‘pigeon-holing’).

The trouble many people have is that, asked, for example, “What do you do?” or “What has brought you here?”, they launch into a long explanation that goes beyond what the recipient needed to place them in context. This makes it hard for the person on the receiving end to know how to reply. What’s more, taking over the conversation that way and making it into a one-sided monologue, is just plain rude.

When people do this it is usually because they feel socially uncomfortable and are glad to be able to do the talking rather than, what is harder to them, the listening. Recipients of such a blast, don’t see it the same way – unless they are emotionally fairly sophisticated, they perceive the person to be rude, boring, and selfish.

So, the key is having something to say that is interesting, the right length, provides plenty of conversational hooks for the other person to catch on to, and yet stands alone (in case the conversation is interrupted).

Fairly obviously, the term ‘elevator pitch’, implies that it is something that you could say to someone that you met in a lift before reaching your destination just a few floors away. The analogy doesn’t really work as there are far too many variables, it needs to be half the length of the journey so you can reciprocate, and besides who speaks to strangers in a lift anyway?

Let’s deal with length first… It will help if you are ready with a few variants – the purely social one, a straightforward short one for normal work purposes, and a slightly longer version for where people are asked to introduce themselves more formally.

There are formulas for creating such introductions – and there will be plenty of variations on the theme – but there are some pretty obvious ground rules;

* People need to know your name.
* You (rather than your introduction) need to be memorable.
* What you say needs to ‘strike a chord’ (or have some relevance to) the recipient.

The second of these depends as much on your delivery as on the content and that’s why practicing in front of the mirror or a web-cam is a very valuable process. Notice the people you feel most comfortable with at networking events – the ones you feel are doing a good job of meeting people and creating a positive impression of themselves. One of the first things you’ll spot is that they are confident in themselves. They don’t hesitate. They don’t stutter or recoil away embarrassed. They look the person they are speaking to in the eye, they breath, and then they speak. They hold the person’s attention – not just because of the gripping content of what they say, but the way in which they say it.

All too often, people feel embarrassed by their own past (or lack of it) and not sufficiently confident in their future, that they become defensive. This is never going to lead to a good introduction.

If you’ve been made redundant it is not a reflection on you. Initially, we’re often in disbelief that this has happened to us, angry at those who made us redundant, and then disappointed in ourselves. And we stick there. We have to put this behind us, and look positively into the future.

If you’re a recent graduate and feeling rather overwhelmed by the successful role models around you, then it’s easy to undervalue what you have already achieved in your life. If you are looking for a job, then be honest and talk about those things that you REALLY enjoy. If you are in a job, talk with some passion about the firm you are working for. If you don’t know much about it – don’t ask other people HOW you should introduce it – do your research and decide on what it is about the organisation that excites YOU.

I met a couple of young Red Cross employees a while back at a reception. One said; “Oh yeah, well, I kind of work for the Red Cross, y’know.” The other said; “Oh, I joined the Red Cross because I’ve always felt I wanted to be involved in humanitarian work and there’s really no better organisation to work for in that field.” I know which one I figure will have the more exhilarating career!

The Harvard Business School alumni website has a tool – a wizard – for creating these introductions, and while it seems a logical approach, I am not convinced that the end result is as memorable as it could be. (http://www.alumni.hbs.edu/careers/pitch/)

I’ve written before about the ‘formula’ used for sales writing since the 1920s (http://www.the-confidant.info/2009/writing-and-speaking-made-easy-part-3-the-sales-model/) and in most cases, I find thinking of your introduction in these terms helps focus your approach and makes for a memorable contact.

The steps are; Attention, Interest, Conviction, Desire, Close. Let me give a couple of examples…

“Hello, my name is Helen and I work for the RSA – [A] we’re a charity that is pioneering a new ‘enlightenment’. [I] We’ve many thousands of Fellows who, through hundreds of projects, are championing new intelligent ways of tackling the social issues and opportunities around us today. [C] We are running schools, engaging designers in sustainable manufacturing and engineering, pioneering alternative banking models, finding new uses for vacant premises and lots of other initiatives. [D] If that’s the kind of thing that excites you, I’d be delighted to introduce you – [C] as I said, my name is Helen and you can find me through the RSA website.”

“Henry Wallis is my name. [A] I’m here on a bit of a mission, actually. [I] For the last decade or so I have been managing major infrastructure projects in the high tension power sector – big networks, huge budgets, hundreds of engineers, massive danger. [C] We’ve been so successful, no-one has ever heard of us – no outages, well within budget, never a complaint from customers or staff, and a perfect safety record! [D] There’s lots of people – you might be one – who have nightmare challenges that need very careful management. [C] I’m hoping to meet someone who would like Henry Wallis to help them.”

This isn’t intended as a hard sell, so the cringe-making, over-the-top attention grabbers aren’t necessary. It’s key that people remember your name and what it is that gets you excited.

Sometimes, a little humour can be a great ice-breaker, but unless you are a stand-up comic there are too many ways in which you can come across as cynical or stupid, so try to avoid this route – keep your introduction focused on the future, what you want or expect to be doing, and why.

The final words go to Flora – an undergraduate I met last week – she’s been at Oxford for just two months and is engaged in a fascinating spoken history programme. In one of the broadest, yet most softly spoken Perthshire accents, she said; “[A] I’m Flora, I’m Scottish you know! [I] I’ve only been here two months and I’ve discovered that Perth and Oxford have something amazing in common – [C] so many old people with incredible stories to tell and no-one to tell them to. It’s wonderful seeing their spirits lift when they do so. [D] I’ve come here hoping to find a mentor who can help me. [C] There’s no-one like that really, but would you like to tell me YOUR story?”. Aargh!

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