Friday, February 10, 2017

Do You Really Need an Elevator Pitch?

Back in the days when I attended industry trade shows, I always spent some time roaming the exhibit floor checking out our competitors. I would make note of their exhibits and collect their handouts for later analysis. Occasionally I would learn something from competitors that I wanted our firm to emulate. More often, I learned what not to do.

For example, I was frequently entertained by competitors' responses to a common question: "So what does your firm do?" Their answers more often than not indicated that not much forethought had gone into them. The large national firms that we usually competed against seemed to struggle most. Their most common answer? Some variation of "we do a little of everything."

I suppose that response was intended to impress. It always had the opposite affect on me and, I suspect, on others. So I worked at perfecting my so-called "elevator pitch," a 30-second summary of what distinguished our company. It was unique and to-the-point, and I could deliver it flawlessly, whether manning the trade show booth or mingling at a networking function.

Yet it never quite felt right to me, perhaps because it was more like reciting lines of a script than conversing. Maybe it was because it was designed to provoke still further inquiry about my firm, shifting the focus from the other party. Eventually I came to believe that the importance of having a pre-rehearsed elevator pitch was overhyped.

That conclusion flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Google the term elevator pitch and you'll find that the overwhelming sentiment is that having one is essential—both for your firm and yourself. And don't get me wrong, I think being able to respond in a coherent and concise fashion to the question "What do you do?" is far better than the run-of-the-mill answers I usually hear.

So my advice is this: Give some thought to how to effectively introduce yourself and your firm with an economy of words, but without coming across like telemarketer. A few tips to keep in mind:

Avoid the hype; state simply what you do. Many sales experts advise starting your pitch with a slogan or hook that sets you apart and creates immediate interest. To say, "We design spaces that bring out the best in the people who occupy them" certainly is more memorable than simply saying, "We're an architecture firm." But what first impression are you really creating? For many, that kind of line comes across as cheesy. Better to stick with the facts without seasoning them with unsubstantiated or arguably trivial claims.

Be specific without trying to be comprehensive. Of course, there's a better answer than merely stating, "We're an architecture firm." You should add a few details to at least distinguish your firm from every other architecture firm out there. For example: "We specialize in educational facilities, anything from vocational schools to universities to military training centers." But what if your firm works in several other markets? This is where many feel they have to choose between taking five minutes to answer or summarizing with something like the aforementioned "we do a little of everything."

A common mistake in marketing departments across our industry is trying so hard to be inclusive of all the firm does that they give too little attention to what the firm does best. When your window is only 30 seconds or so, you can't afford to be comprehensive without sounding generic—unless your firm is narrowly specialized. So highlight your strengths. If these don't align with what the other party might be looking for, you can add something like: "Plus we have worked with a number of manufacturing companies like yours" (if that's true, of course).

Quickly shift the attention to the other party. For many, the ideal elevator pitch has the other person asking further questions, giving you more time to toot your own horn. I don't agree. Many of the questions asked in conversation between strangers have more to do with being courteous or trying to keep the conservation going than actually being interested in the other party. If your elevator pitch practically begs an explanation, don't assume that follow-up questions are an expression of real interest.

The one thing you can be certain about is that the other person is interested in himself or herself. Therefore, the best way to have a conversation that might lead to something more is to encourage the other party to do most of the talking. Quickly answer the introductory question about you or your firm, then shift the focus away from yourself. Ask great questions that show genuine interest, not the usual salesy interrogation. There will be a time for you to do more of the talking, but try to avoid doing that at the start of the conversation.

Be memorable for what you don't say. I like this advice from consultant Michael McLaughlin: You're more likely to make a favorable first impression if you demonstrate more interest in the other person than in what you have to say. People who ask insightful questions, who really listen, and who seem genuinely interested in others are in short supply. Be one of them if you really want to stand out. It's much better than even the most clever elevator pitch.

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