Is the “elevator pitch” dead?

My friend and colleague Liz Ryan of WorldWIT has an interesting and provocative posting over on the New West site wherein she notes in her article entitled The Least Interesting Thing About You that:
“We’ve been misled, mis-directed and outright lied to – in that most of what we’ve been told about networking is a load of Colorado mountain goat dookie. But the worst bit, the part that really steams me, is the conventional networking wisdom that says “Immediately upon meeting a person, tell him or her what you do – your 30-second business pitch.”
Is it really the death knell of the elevator pitch? When you’re at professional networking events, do you turn up your “curious questioner” communication style, or do you fall back on knowing exactly how to answer queries about what you do, what your business is about, or similar with your canned 30-60 second pitch?

My response to Liz was thus:

Liz, Liz, you should know that it’s darn dangerous to oversimplify and clumb so many different people into a single box. You’re right that engaging someone is far smarter than spewing out a memorized four or five sentence description, but you really need a third category of encounter here, at least:
HIM: Hello Jane, I’m Andrew. What do you do?
YOU: Um, I, um, work with companies marketing their, um…
HIM: Ah, so you’re in marketing?
YOU: Yeah. We try to help companies, um,…
HIM: You work for an agency? Cool. We work with agencies a lot, but have I told you about the latest win we had when we were pitching Big Important Fortune 500 Company?
YOU: uh…
HIM: Great! So about six months ago…
The fact is, not everyone is particularly eloquent and one of the great values of an ‘elevator pitch’ is that it can help people boil down their business to its essence, and then communicate that clearly.
Now, clearly having some sort of interpersonal skills are useful too: the “HIM” in my example is no better than the “YOU” in your first example; they’re a bore and not someone you want to connect with, but isn’t that a communications style issue, not a fundamental flaw with an elevator pitch?

Having had a few hours to think about it further, I think that the truth lies somewhere between our two positions (as it often does!)
That is to say, one of the very best ways to interact with people is to ask them questions and do what is sometimes called active listening and other times called reflective listening, but generally is a way to demonstrate to them that you’re not just hearing what they’re saying, but processing it, thinking about it, and reflecting back your interest or curiosity in their topic. This is also a splendid strategy for dates (after all, who doesn’t like talking about themselves to an interested listener? 🙂 but that’s another story.
Where I think this breaks down is that as a consultant who helps people crystalize their business vision into a coherent “pitch” or statement or two, I encounter far too many professionals who really can’t speak off the cuff about what they do or what their business is about. It reminds me of the old joke about asking a “consultant” what they do, just to have them answer “whatever will generate a paycheck” or similar…
If I could coach people about how to network more effectively, I would definitely encourage them to be able to present their business in a brief sentence or two, but to also know how to ask questions and demonstrate a genuine curiosity in the other person. It might well be the case that away from the networking event you couldn’t care less about a specific topic, but if it might mean a good business connection, some high paying work or even a reference or two, isn’t it worth being pleasant and polite?
Oh, and my elevator pitch for my consulting work? “We help companies decide what they want to be when they grow up and then how to communicate it into their marketplace, often using blogs or related technologies.” Short, sweet, and always good for additional questions and discussion. But perhaps Liz would prefer I answer differently.
But what about you, dear reader. When you go to networking events, are you prepared with a “canned” elevator pitch of a sentence or two to ensure that you have a consistent message for potential contacts and clients, or do you just play it “off the cuff”? Or, for that matter, do you avoid networking events completely because either a) you aren’t comfortable at them regardless, or b) they’re populated with clueless twits who are irrelevant to your business anyway?

3 comments on “Is the “elevator pitch” dead?

  1. For some reason many business networking events really do suck. I’m not sure if it’s because of your a or b reasons or something else entirely. But in my experience a lot of them are both run by and attended by people I wouldn’t choose to hang out with. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do business with them, but if I had the option of doing business with someone I actually liked over someone I didn’t, guess who I’d choose?
    That’s the idea behind Biznik business networking (our tag line, incidentally, is “a business networking group that doesn’t suck.”) Our approach is community first, business second. If you can create an environment that’s fun and fill it with interesting people who are predisposed to like each other because of some affinity link, not only will they enjoy it, but a lot of business will flow from it, too.

  2. Dave, Dave
    Yes your conversation is equally valid. Funnily enough as I go from network meeting to network meeting I realise that pitches are actually not really that useful.
    Yes people use them but they just sound so rehearsed and in quite a lot of cases almost desperate to spit them out.
    I’m not particularly reticent so your scenario shouldn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t happen to me!
    I think I take a fairly relaxed view of networking and regard it as building a long term rapport with people.
    Your thoughts on active/reflective/real listening point to the real issue – do people really hear what others say when they’re waiting to off-load their elevator pitch?

  3. Dave,
    >Is the “elevator pitch” dead?
    If only it was.
    I think that the dreaded elevator pitch has it’s place from time to time but what I don’t understand is why some people think they must have one. Too many seem to think that they must pigeon hole their interests, skills, experience and aspirations into 4 sentences. Why?
    If “all” you do is code with API’s for a single software product then sure, you’ve got a nice elevator pitch. But what if you work with corporates & start-ups on technology implementations, Chindia on some import interests, globally with real estate interests? This doesn’t make you a “bad” person, someone who isn’t focused. To me, it shows value through breadth implying adaptability.
    There is another problem I think with people feeling that they “need” an elevator pitch – exaggeration. “We work with global this, on mission critical that, for fortune 50 the other”. There’s a danger of competing in the “mine’s bigger than yours” game.
    Death to the elevator pitch I say!
    Let’s all agree to replace the elevator pitch with, for example, us giving a concise summary of our last two client projects.

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