Illustration: Ashley Siebels
I like to tell people that I once gave an elevator pitch in an elevator, and I got the job.
Except, of course, it wasn’t that simple at all.
I was intern at the U.S. State Department when I happened to get onto an elevator with one of the editors of the State Department’s website. We started talking, and I told her about myself — journalism student, double major in international studies, interested in writing.
Stop the story when the elevator doors opened, and it looks like a classic example of the old-fashioned idea of carrying around a 60-second story of self-promotion. But, in reality, that elevator ride was just the start of an ongoing conversation that ultimately led to me writing for the website.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience and how to make a good first impression. What’s the best way to start a conversation? How do I describe to someone what I do? Can I sell myself without seeming to brag or causing someone’s eyes to glaze over?
Should I prepare an elevator pitch?
“The elevator speech is dead,” Sam Horn, the founder and CEO of the Intrigue Agency and author of Got Your Attention?: How to Create Intrigue and Connect, told me. “Do you know anyone who likes listening to a speech? It’s one-way communication.”
In a world filled with what Horn calls “infobesity,” or “information that goes in one ear and out the other,” the outdated tactic of presenting a laundry list of positions and accomplishments won’t help job seekers and networkers cut through the noise, Horn said.
“We don’t want to get lost in the crowd,” she said. “Our goal is to pleasantly surprise decision makers with relevant examples that speak directly to their needs and priorities.”
What should we do instead?
When people ask what you do, don’t tell them, Horn said. It may sound counterintuitive, but stating your job title or listing your responsibilities only serves to end the conversation—and risks having people tune you out. This is especially true for those who are currently unemployed or looking for a change.
Instead, offer specific examples that show how you have provided value or made a difference in your past experiences, Horn said. Answer the question: “What are the results of what you do that we can see or smell or taste or touch?”
And then ask questions to help listeners relate to your role. Two great ways to engage in conversations are to ask questions that start with “have you ever” and “did you know,” Horn said.
Now, when I think back to that elevator ride at the start of my career, I have to acknowledge that the only thing that made my summary an “elevator pitch” was its locale.
The real magic came from what happened next: a meaningful conversation in which I gave examples of the writing I’d done and asked thoughtful questions.
How does this help me today?
I may not be able to tell that story in quite the same way again, but at least now I know what not to do the next time I go to a networking event — or get in an elevator.