Ditch the Elevator Pitch and Take the Escalator or the Stairs

As tech infiltrates every aspect of our personal and business lives, efficiency becomes an ever-more celebrated virtue. This is as true in communications as elsewhere. Think one-word book titles (Blink, Switch, Drive); think the obsession with CRM metrics; and think the Elevator Speech.

You know the “Elevator Speech.” It’s the hypothetical answer you would give if you were alone in a high-rise building elevator with the CEO of a potential client. Presumably the CEO says, “Tell me about your company,” or “Tell me why we should work with you.” Your presumed answer – sometimes called “the elevator pitch” – turns out to be a good solution in search of the right problem.

There are situations where a 30- to 60-second answer to those questions is exactly what’s called for. But there are other situations – far more, in fact – where different approaches are called for – let’s call them the Escalator Speech and the Stairs Speech.

THE STANDARD ELEVATOR SPEECH

Try searching “elevator speech.” Depending on whom you read your elevator speech should last 30 seconds – or maybe 120. It should answer the question, “What do you do?” or maybe it should just make an impression. It should – or shouldn’t – be a sales pitch. It is applicable to a job hunter, as well as to an entrepreneur in search of venture capital.

One size does not fit all, of course. But there is one simple question to help you craft your response speech, and it is this: What does the other person really want from you?

There are three possible answers, each requiring a different “speech”:

  1. Do I want to be involved with these people?
  2. What can these people do for me?
  3. Who are these people, and do I care?

Let’s examine each.

DO I WANT TO BE INVOLVED WITH THESE PEOPLE? THE TRUE ELEVATOR SPEECH

If you’re an entrepreneur pitching a venture capitalist, there is a definite frame of reference established simply by naming those two roles. A venture capitalist’s key question is, “Shall I invest more time, and ultimately more money, in developing an investor relationship with these people?”

Answering that question is part of what venture capitalists do. They deal in business models, competitive analyses, concept descriptions, and corporate story lines. A snappy 60-second comprehensive, high-talk, low-listen pitch is very right – if you’re an entrepreneur in an elevator with a venture capitalist.

WHAT CAN THESE PEOPLE DO FOR ME? THE ESCALATOR SPEECH

That question rarely comes up in other corporate roles. A line executive doesn’t spend much of his time interviewing consulting firms or deciding on systems or communications vendors. Even an HR executive doesn’t spend a lot of time interviewing candidates.

If such clients are approached by someone in a captive audience situation and forced to endure a 60-second speech – no matter how insightful or clever – their reaction is likely to be one of resentment. They didn’t ask to be informed about the benefits of a relationship. If anything, it feels presumptuous if a consultant or vendor starts to talk about one. If they’re with you on a trip to the 46th floor, this is when they hit the 26th floor button and say, “Oh, I just remembered, I have to…”

And yet consultants and vendors are often encouraged to think about the “elevator speech” concept – to emulate the entrepreneur – and begin telling their “life story” to a stranger who hasn’t invited a relationship conversation.

Meanwhile, the client is stuck back at something like, “Relationship? Slow down – I don’t even know what you can do for me. Let’s not put the cart ahead of the horse.”

This is the question more commonly being asked in a happenstance business encounter. The client is not interested in an investment relationship, but they might be interested in a simple services relationship. It depends on what we can do for them. So, answer that question. Do it with what I’ll call the “Escalator Speech.”

The Escalator Speech should be limited to about 20 seconds and culminate in a question. The rest of the time is entirely up to the client—who can, after all, choose to invite you to continue the conversation on whatever building floor they choose.

Your “speech” needs to sound something like this:

Mr. Jones, I’m James Smith from XYZ Associates. We’ve worked with a customer of yours, ABC, and I’m acquainted with Janice Johnson of your firm. We work to improve trust levels in our clients’ sales processes. It’s always seemed to me there’s untapped potential for improved customer relationships in your insurance business by changing the way benefits payments are transmitted. Do you see it that way too? Why isn’t there more personal contact at that critical point in the industry’s business process models?

Then shut up and listen for the rest of the escalator ride. There are two possible outcomes to this conversation, and both are good:

  1. The client says, “You’re right, it’s a constant source of amazement to me that we don’t do a better job on that. Let’s talk some more about how you’ve gotten organizations to do that.” Good conversation ensues.
  2. The client says, “Ah, that’s what many people think, and it sounds right at first, but there’s a hidden reason it doesn’t happen this way, and I’ll let you in on it. The reason is….” Even better conversation ensues, because you learned something, and the client had the pleasant experience of giving a smart person an even better education. They get to look smart – always a fun thing. Your original insight doesn’t have to be right; it just has to be intelligent and thoughtful.

The Escalator Speech starts off by giving the bare minimum of information required for social comfort, then it offers a piece of free insight to the client, ending with a genuine question. This gives the client total control over whether to take the conversation further.

DO I CARE WHO THEY ARE? THE STAIRS SPEECH

Both the elevator and escalator speeches happen in a business context – a semi-random event within a non-random environment. But other situations arise as well. You sit next to someone on an airplane who turns out to be a potential client. You go to a neighborhood cocktail party and run into someone who works at a potential client organization.

In such a situation, even an escalator speech is presumptive because the occasion is largely social. The impression you make here is based first on obeying the social roles that govern the situation. And rule number one is you don’t get deeply into business.

In this situation, if someone says, “What do you do?” they’re not inviting you to assess their business, much less pitch your own. And remember, they probably don’t care much about your answer. Their question was a social nicety; they didn’t come to this event looking for business contacts.

Here, you need to say something like this:

“I spent 12 years in consulting. I then joined a small healthcare client company as their CEO. Last year, I started my own consulting firm focused on the health industry. And you – what do you do?”

The rules of this dialogue are that it’s back and forth, and you shouldn’t spend more than 30 to 60 seconds on your side before tossing the conversational ball back to the other side. Your only business objective here is to give the client enough information to know if they care who you are. If they do care, then further discussions can be held later – exchange business cards or email addresses, and look for signs that the other party prefers to start talking about football. Follow their lead.

Let’s call this the Stairs Speech – so named because you take it one step at a time.

The next time someone says to you, “So, tell me, what is it that you do?” ask yourself what that questioner really wants to know.

  • Are they just being polite? Give the Stairs Speech.
  • Are they interested in what you might do for them? Use the Escalator Speech to escalate from monologue to dialogue.
  • Are they interested in investing serious time and money in you? Use the Elevator Speech to show you’re on top of your business and respectful of their time.

There are several ways to get up in a building, and only one involves an elevator.

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