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Elevator Pitch

Prepare a couple of sentences that you keep ready to introduce others to your new idea.

I remember when I came back from my first Agile conference. I was so excited, I couldn't wait to talk to my team and tell them about all the new ideas that were buzzing around in my head! The first person I saw when I came back on Monday morning asked, "Hey! How was the conference?" Words started tumbling out and thoughts began competing for air time. I saw myself overwhelming the poor guy, but I couldn't stop. Half of what I said didn't make sense, and I stammered and said "Um" a lot. "Okay, I guess you had a good time! Maybe we can talk later!" he said, before striding away with relief. It was a dose of reality for me. I needed a better way to answer the question he asked—and fast!

You're an [Evangelist] or [Dedicated Champion] working on your new idea. You are constantly encountering others who ask about your initiative. These people are busy, and time is limited. You know a lot about your topic and could talk about it for days, but you have to transport the core ideas quickly.

At some point in your change initiative, someone will, by chance, appear on your radar screen. Since you're excited about your new idea, you don't want to waste time stumbling around for the right words to make your case.

We face this challenge all the time. Someone we want to influence asks, "What's that new idea you've been talking about?" You've got a small window of opportunity to get your message across in a way that makes the other person want to know more.

A similar issue—time constraint—prompted the inverted-pyramid style of most newspaper stories, in which the essentials come first: the basic facts and the conclusion lead the detailed story. In the days of the telegraph, the whole story took a long time to transmit. The essentials were sent first, since they were more important than the details for getting to press immediately.

Today, we're accustomed to sound bites. According to a study by sociologist Kiku Adato, in the 1968 presidential election the average time each candidate spoke without interruption on the network news was 42.3 sec. By the 2000 campaign, the average time had shrunk to 7.8 sec. The people you want to reach have been raised in the sound-bite culture. They're used to professional politicians, ad makers, and entertainers getting to the point in a matter of seconds. You need to do the same. [17]

If you don't have a clear message ready to share, your excitement about the idea could cause you to rattle on and on. This behavior gives the impression that you really don't know what your goal is for this idea. You need to understand your key message as well as have the ability to explain it to other people.

Most of us struggle with the answer to the question, "What do you do?" because we know so much about our complicated lives that we feel the listener needs a lot of background to understand us. Without a prepared short introduction, we either overload our listeners or we stumble around and give little worthwhile information.

Therefore:

Craft a short speech that contains your key message.

In a few sentences, describe simply and clearly what your idea is all about. This statement could contain answers to the following questions:

  • What is your idea?
  • What problem does it solve? (Make a connection between your idea and the situation it addresses.)
  • What is your vision for the end state? (Where will this initiative take the organization?)

Keep it simple. [Just Enough] is always the watchword. What Mark Twain wrote in 1880 applies today: "I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words, & brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way, & the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff & flowers & verbosity creep in." [18] Beware of jargon, buzzwords, and long convoluted sentences. You'll be more effective the clearer and simpler you are.

Practice your elevator pitch out loud, until it flows smoothly and conversationally. You want to be convincing. Don't stumble around for the right words. But also try not to sound too rehearsed. Make sure that your personality and enthusiasm come through.

Just deliver your elevator pitch and then allow a space to let the listener ask for more information. Don't crowd the listener by pushing for the "close."

Initially, your short speech will be the same for each person you encounter, because you want to get everyone on the same page. When someone wants to know more, continue your conversation with a customized message that meets the specific interests and needs of a particular domain [Personal Touch]: developers, testers, team leads, managers, marketing and business folks. When you meet someone in a new area, do your best to address their needs; make a note to create new "follow-ons" for your pitch.

You will need this approach when you start your work, but that's not all. Since you will always have opportunities to talk to new kinds of people and learn more about your innovation, you will want to update your pitch continually and the follow-ups to keep them fresh.

Post your elevator pitch on your website or outside your office [In Your Space] and have it ready for publication.

Be sure to [Stay in Touch] to address any issues that might arise as a result of your brief introduction. Stay open to comments in conversations. Use your elevator pitch as a key to open doors for learning that swing both ways.

Here are some examples of elevator pitches:

"I connect people to computers. I create simple, effective user interfaces that make it easier for them to do their jobs. Would you like me to simplify your workplace?"

"I keep your company out of the Dilbert comic strip! I'm a management consultant specializing in change. If your company is experiencing rapid growth or change, I can offer experience and wisdom to keep your employees happy and your profits in the black."

Search for elevator pitch examples on YouTube—you can find videos of innovators giving their pitches in an elevator and then being evaluated on the effectiveness of their message.

You can start a dialogue that will help your cause. You'll increase your credibility with your audience because you'll make it easy for them to understand your key messages and take action. You will get everyone on the same page and begin to think about tailoring meaningful responses to any follow-on questions.

However, you can turn off people if you're too glib and self-confident. Your job is to make the elevator pitch part of a [Personal Touch]. Your goal is to build a relationship. If you come across as a marketing guy just trying to make a sale, it will get in the way.

I was on a panel at an Agile conference recently. To open, we were each asked to give a 30-second definition of Agile. Preston Smith started with a problem statement: "If you're delivering late and not meeting customer expectations, blah, blah, blah, then having shorter iterations and working with the customer, blah, blah, blah." I thought it was a very good elevator pitch. It was short. It was convincing. It told me that he had thought about it and had his answer at the ready. The rest of us were good, but we stumbled around and lost the audience. Preston grabbed their attention and kept it—for a brief, convincing moment.

Mary was working on a climate-change project that required her to talk with natural scientists, social scientists, businesspeople, and the general public. She devised the same elevator pitch to begin her conversation with each person—a summary of the project, the problem she was addressing, and her vision for how her work would contribute to the issue of climate change. She quickly learned the questions each type of professional was likely to ask; in case they asked for more information, she did her best to prepare a collection of individualized responses.

In his book The Heart of Change, John Kotter says: "What works? […]Visions that are so clear that they can be articulated in one minute or written up on one page." [19] This is good advice for other things, including an Elevator Pitch.

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