What’s Your Elevator Speech?

Pepper de Callier

Whether you are a leader of a small team or the CEO of a big company or even if the only one you’re leading is you, an elevator speech is undoubtedly one of the most powerful tools in any leader’s tool kit.

Many years ago in Silicon Valley when everything was done at “Internet Speed” and there was no time to do things as slow as, say, the fastest human on earth was capable of, many things changed in the way business was conducted. There was no time for pleasantries like “Hello” when you greeted someone, or “Goodbye” when you concluded a telephone conversation, which was usually conducted as one was running to catch a plane or, and this was one my favorites, breathlessly gasping “My hair’s on fire here and I’ve got three people waiting—What is it you want?” And that was the nice way some people spoke to their children, ailing mother, spouse, or spiritual advisor—ah, the golden age of the Internet Boom.

I was a partner in the largest executive search firm in the world at that time and I was right in the center of it all. It was impossible to be too weird on Planet Internet—that is, if you had hit it big, or were rumored to have the intellectual property rights to what people whispered, with eyebrows fully arched, “The next BIG thing”. It was impossible to be too sloppily dressed, in too much of a hurry, to be too rude or to show the person you were talking to too much of what you were chewing in your mouth as you inhaled whatever you were trying to eat. Wearing a black T-shirt, with crumbs down the front, worn-out jeans and leaning against a Mambo-Black Porsche Cabriolet with a Starbucks in one hand and yelling into a cell phone as you noisily slurped your coffee was every young man and woman’s dream.

We learned so much in those fleeting years—much of it was how not to do things—but one little gem, the Elevator Speech, was given birth right at the height of it all. Venture capitalists (VCs) were deluged with requests and were literally stalked by inventors and crazed hyper-ventilating entrepreneurs who were begging for that elusive PIN number for the mother of all ATMs—the VC’s pot of gold—to fund their very own next BIG thing.

I wrote this one act play just for the readers of this column to show you how it all happened. The Birth of the Elevator Speech, scene one: A well known VC (Mr. Allen) enters an elevator wearing sunglasses, a big hat, looking down at the floor trying not to be noticed. Just as the doors are almost completely closed, a hand holding a canvas bag and a half eaten Snickers bar is thrust into the rapidly diminishing space between the doors. (Hyper-ventilating Entrepreneur, spewing bits of chocolate as he backs Mr. Allen against the wall of the elevator) “Hey! Mr. Allen! What a coincidence seeing you this morning! I’m not sure if you got my message (56 messages in the last three days to be exact) but I have this incredible idea that you are going to love!! Do you have a minute?
Mr. Allen, very irritated, “You’ve got one minute until I get to my floor. Go.” The End.

In that one minute the young entrepreneur would have to peak the VC’s interest causing him to allow a longer meeting, or he’d have to eat the other half of his Snickers bar in shame and silence as he went back down—alone—in the elevator.

Now, the good thing about this is that it caused people to focus, cut out the unnecessary chit-chat, and tell a compelling story in a very short period of time—to tell just enough to make their interlocutor want to hear more. It’s not easy and it takes lots of rehearsing.

For many years I have discussed the importance of an executive having a variety of his or her own elevator speeches and here’s why: No one has time to hear you ramble on about anything and they are all deathly afraid that whatever you’re about to tell them will bore them to death and make them late for their massage appointment or solarium visit. Here’s where your finely-tuned one minute elevator speech gets their attention. No matter what you’re trying to do—if it involves influencing someone—the most successful people I have known in business all had their very own elevator speeches—for themselves, for their company, for that new product, or for why you should do whatever it is they want you to do. Do yourself and your career a big favor today. Google “elevator speech” and learn more about how to take your communications skills to a new level.