November 26, 2012

Dissecting the elevator pitch

Filed under: Getting in the door, Job Search, Q&A, Readers' Forum

In the November 27, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a writer asks for a job at Ask The Headhunter:

Hi Nick,

[1] I’m going to cut to the chase: I want to write for “Ask The Headhunter”! [2] My name is Melanie and I’m a former educator turned researcher/blogger. [3] I stumbled upon your blog researching for another article weeks ago. [4] My expertise/niche is education so most of my articles deal with learning — whether they’re directed at instructors, students, parents, or business leaders. [5] But of course my edu-centric pieces are always tailored to each blog’s audience. Check out some of my clips to see more of what I mean:

[6] [six URLs to her articles]

[7] Hope to discuss ideas soon,


My Rant

Resumes make me cringe. Elevator pitches make me cringe more. Elevator pitches delivered in e-mail make me wanna barf. Nothing is more banal, misdirected, or useless to someone that doesn’t know you.

Consider how often an elevator pitch, or a cover letter, or a job inquiry reads like the note above. Maybe you’ve written one yourself.

I want to tell you what’s wrong with these pitches. Then I want to know what you think — because most people seem to believe they must “craft” a chunk of b.s. like this to get an employer’s attention.

I’ve tagged each part of the pitch I received with a number. This is gonna get ugly, but let’s tear it apart. (I offer no apologies to Melanie. She offered none to me. But I thank her for helping me write this edition of the newsletter.)

[1] Melanie isn’t cutting to the chase.

The chase is my need to produce profit for my business. What Melanie wants to do (“to write for Ask The Headhunter”) is relevant only if it fits in with my business objectives. What does she know about them?

Oops. If Melanie had spent five minutes on the ATH website, she’d know that — except for one small section, which she never mentions — all the articles are written by me.

And that’s the first problem with elevator pitches: They are by design generic and thus presumptuous. You can’t create an elevator pitch for someone you don’t know and haven’t met yet. If you think I’m full of baloney, try this elevator pitch on the next person you meet that you’re attracted to:

“My ability to make [men, women] happy by exciting them results in fun relationships and could lead to marriage.”

Trust me. When you’re on the receiving end, that’s what an elevator pitch — about anything — sounds like.

[2] I don’t care what Melanie’s former career was.

When you have just a moment or two to engage someone in a business discussion, why would your speech be “crafted” about yourself? The answer is easy: You don’t know anything about the business of the person you’re talking to — the pitch is designed to be memorized and regurgitated in elevators to any captive.

Want my attention? Tell me you know what my business is about and how you can make it better. Tell me about yourself later, after I behave as if I want to know.

[3] Melanie “stumbled” upon my blog.

The analog in our social lives is this phone call:

“Hi. I had nothing to do tonight so I thought I’d call you.”

Gimme a break.

[4] Four sentences into it, Melanie is still talking about herself.

It’s pretty clear she has no idea what Ask The Headhunter is about. She worked in education, so she will write educational articles. About whatever.

Elevator pitches are painful to create because they must account for the orator’s ignorance yet pretend to be insightful. Save yourself the trouble. If you need to break the ice with someone you don’t know, don’t talk about yourself or express what you think. Instead, ask them a question. People love it when we express interest in them. They are turned off when we recite stuff about ourselves.

[5] Melanie suggests she’s qualified.

What is Melanie qualified to do  for me? She hasn’t indicated she has any idea what I need. She’ll write anything for any audience, never mind who the audience is. And that’s the fatal flaw with any elevator pitch. By design it demonstrates one thing above all else: The speaker knows so little about the listener that she promises anything and everything.

Here’s the insult: After the recitation, an elevator pitcher wants me to go figure out what to do with her and her ideas. No thanks. I’d rather she do that work.

[6 & 7] This part of the pitch is the punch line.

Usually, an elevator pitch ends with the orator handing over a resume or suggesting the listener invest a couple of hours in breakfast or lunch to listen to more. After delivering this elevator pitch about herself, Melanie wants me to spend the next hour reading six of her articles.

She’s showing me examples of her work — and she’s telling me to go figure out whether her work is relevant to my business. I didn’t approach her — she approached me. So the burden is on the elevator pitcher to make her case. Suggesting I go figure it out is not making a case.

Consider what an elevator pitch is really about: You and your assumptions.

If you want to do business with someone, why would you open the conversation by talking about yourself and about what’s important to you? If you want to do business with me, spend the precious minute you have with me proving you know about my business and what I need. Prove you thought enough about my business in advance to offer something useful to me.

Ouch — you’d have to invest an awful lot of time and effort in me first, eh? Why would you? Why, indeed? And why should I devote two seconds to listening to you recite?

Do you have an elevator pitch? What is it? What reactions do you get when you recite it? What’s your reaction to elevator pitches? Am I just a rude S.O.B. who needs to be more tolerant and pretend to listen to anyone who wants my time? I want to know what you think.

: :

75 Comments on “Dissecting the elevator pitch”
By Lucille
November 28, 2012 at 9:15 am

@Nick, I’m not picking on you, honest :-).
And I appreciate your compliment. I even showed it to my husband.

There are 2 problems I see with having an improvisational elevator pitch.

The first is that a prepared elevator pitch is part of your deep preparation of yourself in before meeting other people. It is a small item you say about yourself that will be crafted and honed and practiced. It is the essence of what uniqueness you bring to your career. You may of course, prepare more than one elevator. But I claim you must prepare these elevators and memorize them.

The second point is that some people get stressed about meeting new people, and having a prepared, memorized small speech about what it is you do, raises confidence. For example, when I audition for a choir, I prepare a piece specific to the requirements of the audition. But I’ve memorized two pieces I can sing acappella anytime, which will meet the requirements of most choirs. If I’m nervous, I can just sing one of the 2 prepared peices.

By Sandra
November 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Poor Melanie. I found her pitch painful to read, because it lacked the one thing that would have made it more compelling: a real story pitch. Freelance writers who want to write for a publication are expected to pitch story ideas. It’s one way of showing whether they have an ear for what’s newsworthy. Of course, how they express themselves is a key part of selling the idea.

re: elevator pitches that answer the question, “What do you do?”

Don’t forget to convey how your work benefits clients. I bet Lucille’s bug-free software saved clients time and money through more efficient operations. That’s big.

By Mike Bittle
November 28, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Continuing on the improvisation theme, and tying the music angle back to the pitch:

I remember hearing an interview with a Jazz Great (I’m thinking Mingus, but can’t say for sure) on late night radio, where he was asked about improvisation versus formal technique. I’m greatly paraphrasing, but gist was ” you need to have really strong fundamentals in order to improvise, and you need to have improvisation chops to play the standard with true feeling”. You can bet the Dead had superb musicianship (and awesome, leading edge tech, btw) just as the members of Pink Floyd probably did some sweet jams ‘off the record’.

@Nick: It’s not either or for rehearsed vs. improv. At one level I play the same song the same each time, at another, a vary – perhaps timing, emphasis on a lyric or phrase either because the mood strikes, or I’m explicitly experimenting. Same with my pitch.

And what does this have to do with elevator pitches?

To @Lucille’s point, you have to have your pitch down cold before you can “wing it” and have it seem natural. I followed advice to practice 60 (yes six-zero) times in a week. I finally felt natural around 50.

Then I started improvising.

By Nick Corcodilos
November 28, 2012 at 2:17 pm

@Mike: You’ve done a great job explaining the relationship between practiced acumen and improv! The music metaphor really works nicely on this.

By Erich
November 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm

As the Publisher of a major magazine, I would often get a call from a free-lancer or worse, a PR intern pitching a story (I suspect the Editor was bribing the receptionist to send those calls my way.) Invariably, it was the same, an idea that was self-described as incredibly exciting, but absolutely had no place in our magazine. This would have been apparent if they had bothered to actually look at an issue or go to our website. I always took pains to politely hear them out, all the while multitasking and end the call suggesting they forward that great idea over via email (to the Editor.) This invariably made them gush with happiness, and pledge to do that right away. I am sure none of them lived in his inbox more than a millisecond or two.

Since my primary focus was ad sales, I used the experience to instruct my salespeople. It is never about us, it is always about the customer and “what’s in it for him/her.” There are no “informational” sales presentations where we go on for 50 PowerPoint slides on how great we are. WE only do presentations that show how we relieve a specific client’s “pain” and that we never assume what his need is. We do what is necessary to find out.

The metaphor I would use with them I called “listening to records.” A bad sales call, (as well as a job interview for that matter) can be very much like two people listening to an old LP. There can be routineness about it where the entire meeting unfolds with a nice soft soundtrack behind it, (think Kenny G.) The potential customer (or interviewer) sits back and listens to a certain extent, but all the while in the back of his or her mind is an internal monologue consisting of anything but what the salesperson of candidate is trying to convey. “I should be working on that report,” errands to do after work, whether yoga or Pilates is on their plate at the gym, or whether it is their turn to pick up Jimmy from day care. It is a comfortable, polite 30 minutes, and when it is over, smiles and handshakes, and not a single result except wasted time.

My advice to my people was never to bring a record player to a meeting. Know your stuff, and arrange it beforehand as best you can, but improvise off what the audience (customer) is doing. In rare instances, no matter how good you are, you may find your Herbie Hancock is coming across as Lawrence Welk. So, in that case, “scratch the record.” Stop the meeting and ask “It seems to me that what I’ve saying isn’t coming across. I must have prepared poorly, or maybe this is a bad time…Should we stop here?” The point being, the prospect might respect you more if you admit the truth and waste less of his time?maybe even invite you back; you are not getting the business anyway. The closest thing to “scratching the record” in a job interview would be to use that “Do you have any questions for me” window to ask this: “Is there anything that I have said in the past 30 minutes in this interview that has caused you to think you might NOT want to hire me? If so, I want to take this opportunity right now to address that.” Granted, a risky move. However, I can think of at least twenty or so off key candidates I have interviewed that would have benefited by shutting off their soundtrack and ending their gig on a high note.

By Suzanne C.
November 29, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Thank you for asking. It means that even though it is important to tailor our messages to the audience, even very talented people make mistakes or have bad days. My point is that there is more to be gained by educating each other in how we can best work together than by dismissing each other.

But what the hell do I know…

By Jason Alba
November 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm

In response to the people defending Melanie, I got 3 of these emails today. They are canned spam. This is common for bloggers and writers (like Nick) to get.

I think Nick should have written: Here’s a spam, canned letter I got. Understanding Melanie isn’t a real person (or, lying about herself), but someone who is trying to get some ink on my blog…. let’s break down her pitch. I’m comparing this pitch to a job seeker’s 30 second pitch,”

Which could, of course be compared to a business’s 30 second pitch.

Anyway, the point is this is a critique of a branding statement, and not about Melanie, the fake spammer.

By Gwen
November 29, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Always good stuff Nick. I have a friend who is an MBA and she actually bragged about that’s what business schools develop in students: confidence and how to elevator pitch a strategic person for a job. Bull. I cringed as well. She told me this while I agreed to attend a conference with her and all I saw was rehearsed, unauthentic MBA’s running around like robots to what they believed were key personnel. I think she told me this because I was the only one being my authentic self and not conforming, creeped out by it all to be honest.

Well, while I am on my way getting ready to show a potential employer tomorrow what I will bring to the bottom line and breaking into my dream job of statistical marketing, she is still thinking that elevator pitch will give her that chance. She wants to get into marketing,funny how I may be the one doing it first. I wasn’t trained as an MBA but as a liberal arts master’s degree psychologist. Funny.

Yeah, don’t get me started on the crap they are teaching that is non-applicable real world skills to students paying about 40K-120K in graduate schools to get an education that will land them that “dream” job. It needs to be restructured period. Doesn’t happen that way, and that is another story, but I digress..

In today’s economy, they want to know if you can do the job, and the resume as people know it is outdated. We’re going back to “can you do the job” versus “I went to Stanford, blah, blah….

Oh well, my rant, but as always, much respect Nick and when I saw this article from you I had to respond. So true, so true, so true….

By Greg
November 30, 2012 at 11:31 am

@Gwen: My MBA program was very different. All programs are not the same.

One of my biggest take-aways in my MBA program was the need to be well practiced and well rehearsed in giving presentations, but also know my subject well enough to answer questions or cover areas quicker if I see I am losing my audience.

I initially surprised at how many students would present that obviously had not ever rehearsed their presentation.

To bring this back to “elevator speeches:” As a number of posters have commented, having a clear, concise statement of what people pay you to do (or what you want people to pay you to do), along with an order follow-up (in case you are talking to someone who asks good questions) is a powerful tool.

By Nic
November 30, 2012 at 11:38 am

It is 2012, and frankly, now I have this take on “elevator speeches:” They do not work.

Maybe pre-1995 this worked but masses of people are too distracted and most are not professional or swift enough to notice an opportunity, no matter how well presented in an “elevator speech.”

By Gwen
November 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm

@Greg: It is noteworthy to be well versed in your subject matter you present. I’m agreeing with you to a degree on this one. I understand that not all MBA programs are all the same, but at the same time, generally, they are educating students with outdated concepts such as (what is a gentle way to say this without being harsh…) an unauthentic-ness that doesn’t facilitate passion from the heart that people gravitate to and listen to. You just made my point: being well practiced and rehearsed for presentations. Isn’t an approach to an individual on the “elevator level” a mini-presentation?

Yes, it was well noted that being concise about what you do (after being asked or after at least an introductory conversation has happened) is appropriate. And this still isn’t a sure for all.

We are not saying that we are perfect in our approaches on this blog, but we seem to agree upon (mostly) that we don’t like the canned fake and plastic ones pre-generated to any and every individual who seems have an opportunity for us (i.e. elevator speeches).

I think the most powerful tool is showing you have passion for the job and profit you want to bring to your employer while showing that you have solutions to their problems. Good questions are powerful if they are directed for the common goal of prosperity…

@Nic: you said, “It is 2012, and frankly, now I have this take on “elevator speeches:” They do not work.” My response, “AMEN!”

By Greg
November 30, 2012 at 1:23 pm

@Gwen: I am not clear on the outdated topics, or the teaching of unauthentic-ness of some MBA programs. That was not my experience with my program.

Communication is a big deal. And I learned a lot about communicating; speaking the language of value to different parts of the business organization.

Nick C. writes about communicating to the hiring manager how you will make them more profitable. “Profitable” is perceived differently in Sales, Operations, Marketing, and Finance. In my experience and observation, most of us struggle with how to present to these different interests. If we do not communicate in their language, we lose their interest.

I am not, and will not advocate reciting canned speeches (especially to someone stuck in an elevator). But I will always advocate being well rehearsed and well organized on any topic we want to inform or pursued others. Personally, I would rather listen to a well put together, informative, and interesting canned recital than a passionate, engaged, free-form that I can not understand or follow. The key is taking the best elements of both.

By Graham Wilson
December 1, 2012 at 9:35 am

It seems to me that this ‘rant’ has confused several different themes. It’s also become a little irrational. Given that it presents you in a less than positive light (some might say it reveals a rather dark aspect to your character), it might be worth reflecting on what was going on for you when you were crafting it, as continuing to present yourself in this way might be counter-productive to your business.

I wonder if you often find yourself getting angry like this or whether it is a new phenomenon? Swings of mood towards anger, and a general drift towards it, especially when associated with a loss of rationality, can be symptoms of a more serious condition (such as diabetes) and it might be worth asking your physician for a few simple routine checks just to make sure that this is not happening here.

If those are eliminated, it may be worthwhile reviewing why you are finding relatively minor events such as receiving a simple unsolicited email so provocative. If nothing else, perhaps a valuable role for someone else would be to act as an editorial board – just reviewing whether any future postings are ‘on topic’ and balanced before you post them.

Just a few thoughts.
Best wishes

By Melissa Monson
December 2, 2012 at 11:29 pm

When looking for a job, it is not about you, it is about the employer. What can you do to help them? That is where Melanie failed. I agree in that she needed to work on the elevator pitch. If a random person sends me six articles to read, why should I invest that kind of time in someone I don’t even know? That is the question!

On the other hand, we have learned from a brutal take apart of Melanie’s pitch, how not to write an elevator pitch. Perhaps you could post an example of how to write and/or say a good elevator pitch?

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By Anonymous
December 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Why all the cynicism and judgment? Today’s hyper-artificial, phoney, absurd world of job seeking that young(er) people in the US have been forced to deal with nowadays is exactly what causes othweise intelligent, good people to stoop to stupid methods like this – the elevator pitch and other nonesense. Maybe everyone should just slow down, be a little more refelctive and thoughful (i.e., use the intelligence and insight we have), and take some more time with things. The world would not end if we all slowed down a bit and started to treat each other like people again.

By marybeth
December 4, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Excellent post Nick! I’m glad that I’m not the only one who thinks elevator pitches are absurb at best.

Ever notice how most people in elevators don’t even make eye contact with one another? If so, then why would you decide that this is an opportune moment to pitch yourself, your idea, your business to a total stranger? It is one thing, if, as Lucille wrote, that you’re already having a conversation with this person.

There’s a tv news show on one of the cable channels (can’t remember which one) called “your business” or something to that effect. One of the features of every show is an elevator pitch…an entrepreneur or even an established business person gets into an elevator with one or two more established businessmen and proceeds to pitch his/her idea/business/self. I’ve found it painful to watch, and have thought that it does a disservice to both the more established businessmen as well as to the young dog trying to make a favorable impression.

And just how much of an impression can ANYONE make in 25 seconds or less? Studid, stupid, stupid….

By Tracey Shine
December 4, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I do have an elevator pitch, However I agree with the outlook on the elevator pitch not being most valuable(not S.O.B) for career networking and job inquiries. I believe the original dialog should be detail, personal, and hooked together with a common interest dialog(civic group, current event, key player in industry of interest, or mutual contact). I hold tight to my elevator pitch for those individuals that ask for quick media release clips, brochure information, or fundraising interest.

By Jennifer Bulman
December 8, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Brilliant and bang on, Nick. Let’s not forget the person at the networking party who pretends to be interested in you, cross-questions too closely for five minutes and then starts the pre-prepared irrelevant hard sell.

By Erich
December 10, 2012 at 11:39 am

Nick, no advice on anger management here. I share your pain. Let’s have more honesty with each other in the workplace. It saves time and effort. Life is Short, Hell Is Hot, and The Stakes Are High (as was embroidered on a couch pillow in the office of an ex-boss.)

An elevator malfunction can be your downfall, giving you the shaft with a very abrupt and potentially disastrous ending.

If I am ever stuck in an elevator with a prospective customer or employer, I’ll make sure to listen first while awaiting rescue. Hmm…might pose a question via LinkedIn Answers if that could be mechanically prearranged.

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By Douglas W. Boone
December 19, 2012 at 8:10 pm

An elevator SPEECH is the brief answer to what it is you do, or the like.

An elevator PITCH is what you say to someone who may want to help you but doesn’t have much time. Prime example: the venture capitalist (if you’re en entrepreneur). I don’t know, however, who you must be for a film producer, television executive, or magazine editor to be open to hearing your idea.

In the elevator pitch, there is a clear parallel to both job seeking and selling a product or service — but the hoped-for result is more of a collaboration than in those cases (despite the power differential).

This is not to be confused with brainstorming sessions, such as I gather that writers for a television show regularly hold. They’ve earned their place at the table, and the pitches are made before they are refined.

It may however be akin to the tag lines on film posters.

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