At its best, an elevator pitch is a pithy, memorable answer to the dreaded, “Tell me about yourself.” At its worst, it’s cheesy, jargon-filled nonsense. (e.g., I’m not a writer. I’m a “word crafter on a mission to eradicate sentence-ending prepositions from the planet.”)
“Elevator speeches are infamous for sounding overly contrived and using buzzwords. People usually come up with them by writing down different variations, but when it’s time to say it out loud, they chicken out and usually mumble something generic because they can’t say it with a straight face,” says branding expert Nela Dunato, author of The Human-Centered Brand: The Practical Guide to Being Yourself in Business.
Still, when you’re on a job interview or trying to make the most of a chance meeting with a great contact, a good line or two can open the conversation and help people see why it’s a good idea to know more about what you do. Here’s how to create a memorable elevator pitch that doesn’t sound cheesy.
Look for their universal truth
When you’re first meeting someone, they don’t want to be “speechified,” says business coach Chris Westfall, author of The New Elevator Pitch: The Definitive Guide to Persuasive Communication in the Digital Age. “This idea that there’s some memorized speech where the ninth word is, ‘Abracadabra,’ and because that’s a magic word, it creates magic results,” he says. “That’s not how it works.”
Instead, look for the “universal truth” that relates to what you do and matters to your target. Universal truths are high concepts with which virtually everyone agrees. For example, people want a sense of safety in the workplace. They want freedom from risk, or to keep as much of the money they earn as possible. When you find the universal truth that connects you to your target, you’ll usually find the persuasive message you want to relay, he says.
The high concept is followed by something unexpected, he says. For example, instead of saying, “Hi, I’m a CPA. My name is Allen Smith and I help clients with their taxes,” try “You know how everybody is interested in maximizing the amount of money that they keep when it comes time to talk to Uncle Sam in April? That’s what I help my clients do. My name’s Peter Smith, I’m an accountant.”
Strike the right tone
Whether you’re pitching a recruiter, prospect, or other contact, you need to adapt the right tone. “You need to be able to explain your professional summary, your skills, why you are a fit for the role, and why you applied, all in 30 to 45 seconds,” says Jennifer Lasater, vice president of career services at Purdue University Global, a public online university focused on working adult students headquartered in Chicago. Keep the personal details to a minimum. And don’t assume the need has to be a “pain point”—that’s a common misconception, Westfall adds.
Language is important, Dunato adds. It’s typically a good idea to avoid jargon, but speak in the words your audience would use. Keep it simple, and “think about what terms they would use if they were asking their friend if they know someone who can help them with the problem they want to solve,” she says.
“While you may have had that crazy job title at your last employer, or you may have dubbed yourself the czar of words or the job search ninja or whatever it may be, you have to be able to be relatable to people, and people will see you as being pretentious if you’re creating these made up titles that don’t mean anything. You have to really think about your audience and make sure that you come off as a clear communicator,” Lasater adds.
Create a few versions
You may be using one elevator pitch for recruiters, another for clients, and others for peers or possible mentors. One size does not fit all when it comes to elevator pitches, Dunato says.
“Some introductions work well in a business setting, but you also need a way to introduce yourself to people you meet in social settings. While they may not be your ideal client, they could know someone who is, so every connection is valuable,” she says. So, try out a few versions.
Perfect and rehearse
Coming up with a casual pitch takes some work. “Write out your plan to help you get organized. Then, take the time to practice with friends, family or your career specialist–and even in front of a mirror,” Lasater says. “To go the extra mile, record yourself on your phone to pick up on any non-verbal cues that might be distracting when you’re actually giving your elevator pitch.” Such feedback, review, and practice will help you feel confident in what you have to say, she says.
Remember that an elevator pitch is meant to start a conversation, not be an entire conversation, Westfall says. “The best elevator pitch, which I’ll say it again, it’s not a pitch, it’s a conversation. The best conversation ends with your listener or your audience saying these three words. These three words are the way that you know you’ve succeeded: Tell. Me. More,” he says.