Out of the Elevator (Karrh on Marketing)

My client's board had gathered in the headquarters conference room and was nearing the close of its quarterly meeting. The CEO had carved out a few minutes for me to describe our new messaging project, one designed to bring a tighter corporate story to the field and accelerate sales growth.

A Razorbacks game in Little Rock was coming up (thankfully, not that awful Louisiana-Monroe one) and, knowing these board members would be there interacting with industry decision-makers, I used an immediately relevant example to illustrate field-level messaging.

"Just so we can check for consistency and learn from one another, let's all share something important. You're going to be around friends and contacts at War Memorial who know you much better than they know this company. What exactly will you say to someone at the game if the conversation comes around to this company and its unique niche?"

Believe it or not, 11 high-powered executives and investors were silent for 30 seconds before one member finally gave it a shot. "Oh, you want our elevator pitch?" he asked.

The elevator-pitch concept has in recent years expanded from the realm of venture capital and investing to now include TV shows, personal networking events and other communication venues. Anyone in sales, marketing, customer service or an entrepreneurial pursuit can benefit from harnessing the inherent power of a brief, interesting and externally focused message about what they do.

However, I'm afraid that the popularity of elevator pitches has in many ways also harmed the quality of business-level conversational skills. Too often the focus is on delivery (as in cramming the maximum number of "power words" into a 60-second rapid-fire monologue) versus real engagement.

There is no shortage of advice about what to include in your pitch, although I believe much of that advice will lead you astray. Harvard Business School even has an online elevator-pitch builder that suggests specific words you might want to use. Some of the words HBS recommends ("inceptive," "inaugural," "peerless) sound like they came from a committee; it is better to be conversational, real and decidedly not "pitchy."

To me, the term "pitch" can itself distort the intent of a sound introductory message. It is neither a pitch nor a speech, but rather, in an attention-challenged world, a means to quickly engage another person. If you do it well, the benefits to you include expanding your network, prompting subsequent meetings with decision-makers and influencers and even gaining a greater understanding of the value you offer.

As a VP with a Fortune 100 client recently put it, "Our best opportunities to sell are the more impromptu discussions with customers - in airports, in the hallways of the customers' buildings, at a conference, running into them at a mall."

One structure I have seen and used effectively in training is more conversational, easier to learn and more consistently delivered in the field than is some 60-second spew. Each component is maybe 10 to 15 seconds in duration, and the flow is designed to draw the other person into a conversation:

  • Introduction. This is who you are and your identity in the marketplace, not necessarily your title or how long you've been with an organization.
  • Credibility point(s). This might include the growth of your business or an objective example of success from a customer's point of view.
  • Provocation. This is something less expected, offering your unique point of view and leading to ...
  • Transition. This is where you compare notes and explicitly engage the other person (e.g., "That's what I'm seeing. Is that consistent with what you're seeing in your organization?").

Now, this is harder than it might seem. You and your team will need to chart out your message, practice it and try it out on other people, including folks of different generations and outside your industry or business type. A good introductory message will also change over time.

But please - no matter what Harvard says - don't use the word "inceptive."

(Jim Karrh is the founder of Karrh & Associates and director of MarketSearch, both of Little Rock. Visit JimKarrh.com or email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com.)