The elevator speech: Take advantage of this essential tool for marketing yourself

Perhaps you’ve heard that you should prepare a minute-long “elevator speech” in case you ever hop on an elevator and serendipitously need to introduce yourself. Maybe you’re traveling up 30 floors with the CEO of a company for which you’ve always wanted to work, or with the key investor you’ve been pursuing for your new business venture. Have you considered how you would make the most of your personal introduction if you ever have such a once-in-a-lifetime encounter? Or do you assume you’ll never experience that scenario, so you have no need for an elevator speech?

There really is no predicting whether you’ll ever pitch yourself to a leader in your industry during an elevator ride per se, but you undoubtedly will need to introduce yourself at meetings, conferences, social functions, and job interviews. When asked “Tell me about yourself,” or “What do you do?” – you want to introduce yourself confidently and effectively to make a strong first impression. If you don’t have an elevator speech, you’re missing opportunities to grow both professionally and personally.

Just because you’re introducing yourself in a conversational or small-group setting doesn’t mean you should wing it. In fact, you should prepare and rehearse your brief elevator speech to an audience of one with as much care as you would a conference keynote to an audience of a thousand. Your elevator speech truly is an essential tool for marketing yourself.

Begin crafting your elevator speech as you would a formal speech. Prepare strategically, rehearse thoroughly, ask fellow Toastmasters for feedback, and rework material if it is not achieving the results you want. This doesn’t mean your elevator speech should be scripted, stiff, or unchanging. On the contrary, make sure it is conversational and can be adapted to fit the situation you’re in. Keep the following three guidelines in mind, and you’ll be prepared to introduce yourself to any person you encounter.

1. Describe yourself as a solution to a problem. The most important part of your elevator speech is the first sentence. When you don’t have much time, use this sentence as a condensed version of your elevator speech. When you have a minute or two for your full-length version, the first sentence will determine whether your listeners will engage in conversation with you or search for a polite excuse to end the exchange.

For that important first sentence, make sure you describe yourself as a solution to a problem faced by your clients, customers, or business associates. Listeners don’t necessarily care what your job title is, how your industry describes the work you do, or what degrees or technical certifications who have earned. Listeners want to know how you can help them.

Take for example, Rui Sun, an accountant in New York City, whose introduction starts, “I take the dread out of April 15th.” American taxpayers recognize this familiar date as the annual deadline for filing a U.S. tax return and immediately have a sense for Sun’s work and value to clients. Video journalist and Atlanta native Kendall Payne opens with, “I bring news stories to life.” This first line has an element of intrigue that makes listeners want to learn more. And, Victoria Harding, who works for Massachusetts General Hospital’s Aspire program for children with Autism spectrum disorder, introduces herself by saying, “I help children with social disorders make a best friend.” Here, Harding shares a concrete benefit she provides and avoids using formal titles or medical terminology.

In these examples, the speakers get to the bottom line in plain terms to ensure listeners engage and that their eyes don’t glaze over during the recitation of an official title, certifications, an alphabet-soup of acronyms, or other jargon. They also keep it brief. An elevator speech can’t be comprehensive; but it should be compelling enough to spur conservation. Remember, the person you are introducing yourself to won’t always be the specific type of person you help. But he or she might know exactly the person who needs your expertise.

2. Tell an anecdote. After you describe how you solve a problem, tell a short story to explain your motivation for doing what you do. This anecdote should be a “signature story” – one that reveals the ah-ha moment when you first realized you wanted to do what you do, or an example that shows that how exceptional you are at your craft.

Payne’s anecdote does the former – it accounts for how she became interested in the field of a video journalism. “When I started applying for internships, I would change my phrasing, but for the most part, I stuck to a simple anecdote about feeling lost and with no creative outlet when coming to college until I joined the school newspaper.”

The personal story you share will help establish a connection and build rapport with listeners. People don’t always remember a name, but they can usually recount an interesting narrative. People enjoy listening to stories because they are entertaining and more memorable than lines from a resume.

As mentioned by Payne, your anecdote doesn’t need to be scripted; the way you tell it will be a little different each time. And, depending on the situation – like whether you’re talking to a prospective employer, having a causal conversation at your neighborhood block party, or networking with other professionals in your industry at a conference, you may have a few signature stories at the ready and select the specific one to share based on the audience and context. Just remember, your entire elevator speech is just one-to two-minutes long, so your anecdote must be brief. Your story should have a few specific details to make it interesting and should include vivid language that piques your listener’s curiosity, but it’s important to rehearse so that it is a breezy anecdote and not an epic tale.

3. Start a dialogue. Finally, conclude with an open-ended question – one that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” The best introductions are not long monologues; they are short and end with a question that turns the interaction into a dialogue. The ultimate goal of your elevator speech is to learn about the person you are meeting and how you might help him or her. To achieve this, your ears have to do some of the work.

Carolyn Semedo, a program manager in Virginia for Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, offers a realistic expectation for the outcome of sharing your elevator speech, “Closing with a question draws the listener in, creating a dialogue that can serve as the foundation for a deeper conversation and, eventually, a relationship.” It’s not likely that you will land a job or close a sale after giving a one to two minute personal introduction. But it is feasible to make a connection that leads to further conversation and collaboration.

The question you ask at the end of your introduction can be as simple as, “And what is it that you do?” Or, depending on the occasion, you can make it more specific to your field of work or the type of person you are networking with. Above all else, your question must show you are genuinely interested in learning more about the person you’re meeting and not just making a sale or advancing your agenda.

The content of a memorable elevator speech should be brief and should position you as a solution to a problem. It should share a personal anecdote that explains why you do what you do, and transform your introduction from a monologue to a dialogue. Make sure you prepare, rehearse, and regularly revise your elevator speech to effectively market yourself and capitalize on opportunities that come your way – whether you’re in an elevator, or not!

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Toastmaster Magazine.