The Reverse Elevator Speech: Disaster and Recovery

Trust requires that someone take a risk. Perversely, that means the avoidance of risk is tantamount to preventing trust.

One of the hardest things to do is to recognize this need in the face of mundane, everyday interactions, where it always seems that taking a risk is inappropriate.

So rather than give a mundane business example, let me do this one by metaphor.

A British account executive years ago told me the following story:

“I was going to see a potential client for what could have been an important piece of business for us. Unfortunately for me, I missed the scheduled plane by minutes, and thus was delayed by an hour. I called, and they agreed to reschedule the meeting to accommodate me.

“When I arrived, a bit flustered, the team of a half-dozen clients execs had gathered downstairs, and we all then went to the lift to go upstairs to the designated conference room.

“Unfortunately the lift was made for about four people. We all crammed into the lift, and it slowly began to climb. At that point someone – how shall I put this – well, as we English say – passed gas. The lift continued its crawling pace upward. No one, of course, said a word, nor even altered their expression. There was dead silence.

“As the doors finally opened, we all rushed to get out – all at once. And all 7 of us thereby tumbled onto each other on the floor. We all picked ourselves up, even more embarrassed, and again without saying a word to each other, made our way into the conference room.

“As I set up at the head of the room, I could feel the weight of this triple discomfort: I was late, the tumbling all over each other – and of course the ‘gas’ incident in the middle. It was all contrived to create a mutual sense of misery.

“What to do? I stood in the front of the room and said, ‘Gentlemen, little did I know this morning what a fine level of intimate relationship we should all achieve in so little time here this afternoon. I am honored indeed.”

“Well, everyone fell all over each other laughing; I had somehow managed to prick the balloon of the unspoken that hung over us like a cloud, and the rest of the day went marvelously. And oh yes, we got the sale.”

What this gentleman had done, in our nomenclature, was to Name It and Claim It; that is, to speak aloud the one thing that no one could figure out how to talk about. He did it with humor – an excellent tool – and was rewarded for the relief he caused by an appreciative relationship, and even a sale.

So What?

Charming, you think, but quite beside the point. What’s it got to do with me?

Well, as it happens, I had another conversation just last week (with, as it happens, another Englishman). He was a business development manager, tasked with what felt like an impossible burden.

“The senior partner insists on bidding a job in a sector in which we frankly have no experience. Certainly far less than anyone else. And he wants me to pretend it just doesn’t matter, or to dazzle them with bluster, or in some way to just blow through it. It’s simply not going to work, and we’ll look the fool.”

Well, yes they’ll look foolish if that’s how they go about it. They don’t recognize the relevance of the reverse elevator speech.

The solution is for the senior partner to say something like this:

“You may be wondering why a firm with so little experience in this sector is even here pitching you at all today. Certainly I wondered it! But I assure you we don’t make a habit of tilting at windmills.

“There is an angle here that I fear conventional wisdom might not point out. We’ve seen it a few times before, and it can make the difference between a run-of-the-mill project and a truly game-changing solution.

“I simply could not let the situation rest un-addressed. And that is why I am here in front of you today. Now, what we see going on here is…”

You may have picked up that there’s a ‘catch’ here.  The catch is that you actually have to have something consequential to say. If you have nothing consequential to say, then you shouldn’t be there in the first place, and you deserve what’s about to happen to you.

But if you do have something to say, the surest way to strangle it before it sees the light of day is to deny the elephant in the elevator – the lack of relevant sector experience, in this case.

Hope, they say, is not a strategy. Hoping somebody won’t notice the obvious is a strategy-killer. In such cases, not to take a risk is the biggest risk of all.

Get credit for stating the obvious, for telling the truth, and for relieving the tension that everyone feels. Put it out there. That way everyone is leaning forward on their seats, waiting to hear the idea that just might be so good as to overcome the banality of traditionalism.

Take the risk. Call out the wind in the elevator. Like a vaccination, it amounts to taking a little risk to mitigate the much larger risk staring you in the face. And you’d be surprised at how often it works.