Right elevator, right speech?

Do you want your most important message to be accepted or declined?

You probably know the concept of the “elevator speech”.   You bump into your CEO in theIMG_0641 - Version 2 elevator. He or she says: “I haven’t seen you in a while. [If you are an EHS leader, they may add, ‘I guess that’s good news.’] What are you working on these days?” You suddenly have the length of the elevator ride to make the pitch of your career. Go.

I mean, go. Stop reading this blog and recite your speech.  Now. Put down the tablet or phone (or God forbid print-out). Recite your own real elevator speech aloud. Go.

So how did that go?  Could you do it?  Was it convincing? Compelling?  Did you have to stop and think it through? Would your target audience have accepted your message, nodded and said, “Come tell me more”? Would they have declined it, nodded curtly and walked off? Was your key executive off the elevator and on to a busy day before you figured out what to say?

This isn’t a new concept, or an original one. But it’s a powerful concept that keeps coming up. In these days of multi-tasking and over-scheduling, the elevator speech is more important than ever. When I got my first job out of college, working in a governor’s office, we were pressured to scale heights of brevity and focus: everything had to be kept to one page, maybe 450 words. Later, that became one screen – maybe 250 words. Now, you may only have 140 characters – or the one minute before everyone else shows up for a meeting.

In the last few weeks I’ve encountered the concept:

  • Working with a young promising consultant, lost in a larger company with no clear version of his personal “brand” and why anyone should use him in their work – especially Partners encountered casually and infrequently
  • With a client who is stuck and needs to open up alternate career paths within her company without raising red flags – which means sending the right messages in brief interactions with executives
  • In my own day-to-day life, explaining my own plans as I hit age 60 and 20 years with my company, shaping (and correcting) assumptions about my future held by people who really don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about my future

Ask yourself two questions:

#1. Do I actually know my own elevator speech?  

Do you update it? Do you practice it? If your most important player – boss, CEO, customer, whatever – came in right now and said “so what’s up?” do you have that at the tip of your tongue?  The best opportunities often come when we are least expecting them; it’s too late to prepare then. So prepare now. Write out a draft of your elevator speech – two sentences, three at the most. Then:

  • Cut it down. You probably cheated and wrote out four or five sentences, cleverly disguised by semi-colons.
  • Find it. Your key words are buried in there somewhere. The real message is probably 20 words in. Try deleting everything before that.
  • Keep it positive. The young consultant started out with what he does NOT want to do. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to the hardware store to buy “not windows”. I go to buy a door, or a hammer or light bulbs. You buy a positive, not a negative. Assume your audience is just like you.
  • Keep it consistent. You may tailor the language for some audiences, but the core message has to ring true to any audience – and can’t contradict your core message to other audiences.
  • Teach it. You are probably not the only person carrying your message. If you are a leader, do your people know your elevator speech? Do they have their own elevator speeches ready, and are they consistent with yours while in their own honest voice? Listen to the message they convey – is it the message you want or need carried throughout your organization?
  • Try it. Practice your speech on others. Listen to what they say and refine your speech. After all, what matters isn’t what you think you said, it’s what they heard.

The best way to practice is with others in the same boat. At an ERM Forum years ago, we paired off EHS VPs from multiple companies to practice their elevator speeches with each other. We then asked them what they heard. One VP commented: “We sound like supplicants. We don’t sound like we believe we belong at the table.” Another, reflecting on the challenge of condensing complex reality into a simple message in the length of an elevator ride, sighed: “We need to move to a taller building.”

#2. Do I get on the right elevators?

Sometimes it’s about finding the right elevator. You probably won’t bump into the CEO if you’re riding the freight elevator.

For EHS and sustainability leaders, the challenge is getting on the business elevator. The people who need to hear your elevator speech may not be the people you spend time with. What are you doing to create the opportunities to use that great speech, once you have it?

And sometimes it’s about knowing when not to deliver your speech. For years I worked in downtown Philadelphia. My favorite elevator was horizontal: the 6:44 AM R5 commuter train from Bryn Mawr to 30th Street Station. Two of the most powerful men (and yes they were all men then) in my company took that train. They walked to the station from their houses on the Main Line. I had to drive 15 minutes from my decidedly un-Main Line house to park there, but it was worth it. Over the course of a year, I’d talk casually with them a few dozen times waiting for the train. Three or four times a year, one of them would ask a question or make a comment that gave me an opening. I had my elevator speech ready and I delivered it. I like to think that those opportunities had a lot to do with my rise through the company and the success of my programs. But I’m sure my success owed even more to all the other times when I just shut up and let them read their newspapers.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients]


  1. Hi Scott – this was a great post. I remember back to the exercise you led at our Sustainability Reporting Group workshop last winter and practicing how we talk with our clients. Practicing this type of thing is awkward and we don’t do it enough, but is terribly important. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *