04/18/2012 05:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2012

5 Reasons to Take Down the Elevator Pitch

Consider yourself among the fortunate few if you haven't heard of the elevator pitch in business; nor spent hours crafting the perfect commercial to answer the question, "What do you do?"

After attending hundreds of events, meeting thousands of people and watching countless elevator pitches fall flat, it is clear that this concept, while good in theory, just doesn't work in mingling environments. The more trust required for someone to buy your product or service, the less effective the elevator pitch will be. In fact, the more damage it can do.

For years the business "establishment" has taught this technique. It's worth questioning if those who preach the pitch have ever delivered an elevator pitch whilst hobnobbing with movers and shakers in the community? Not likely. If they did, they missed the obvious clues of disinterest after five seconds of spewed rhetoric.

There is no doubt that a business owner, job hunter or professional service adviser needs to be able to clearly articulate his or her value in a short amount of time, but there is a time and a place for an elevator pitch. The best time to share your summarized prose is during group introductions, at speed networking functions, in prospect meetings or when you're riding in an elevator with a superstar investor. Just not at mingling functions and here's why.

1. Profitable networking is not the same as short-term selling.

The 30- or 60-second elevator pitch stemmed from this scenario: "If you ran into your ideal investor in an elevator and you ONLY had the ride to say something that was impressive enough that the investor would accept a meeting and invest in your company, what would you say?"

Most networking functions do not equate to short elevator rides and most people you meet are not your target investor. Using a pitch that is rooted in a crunch-time sales scenario moves you into that cheesy sales guy category that has given networking a bad rap.

Sometimes you get lucky and a new contact self-identifies as a qualified prospect. Most of the time that doesn't happen and thus, your one-sided communication to sell or educate the contact about your product or service falls on uninterested ears. People don't go to events to be sold.

2. People will connect with you first, what you do second.

Trying to summarize your value proposition and thus differentiate yourself based on what you do is setting yourself up for superficial, transaction-based relationships. Long-term, mutually beneficial business relationships begin with a sense of likeability. The natural get-to-know-you experience gets by-passed as soon as you move into a mini-sales pitch. Rather than being equals at an event, the tone shifts to a prospect-supplier dynamic. That's fine when the person self-identifies as a qualified prospect eagerly looking for the solution you provide. However, if they aren't in buying mode, and mostly they are not, then rarely can you shift the dynamic back to equals.

Instead, give a short, less than five-second answer that merely shares your core deliverable. If you are a tax accountant, simply say you're a tax accountant with xyz firm. If you sell life insurance, say you sell life insurance. If they don't ask for more details, then move on and focus on a topic that will entice a get-to-know-you conversation. If they like you and they are in need of a tax accountant, then they'll make the indication.

3. "What do you do?" is a default question.

"What do you do?" is a generic, safe question that will glean enough information to start the exploration of a connection and/or potential fit for business.

When people ask "What do you do?" while mingling, they are not asking:

  • What is your value proposition?
  • Why are you better than your competition?
  • Who is your ideal client?
  • What scenario would make me a candidate for your service?
  • What would prompt me to buy your product?

These are the very questions that a properly crafted elevator pitch aims to answer. The time to answer these questions is when the contact asks or when you know enough to identify him or her as a potential prospect or referral source.

4. Developing Trust is the Priority

Trust is the hardest and most important element in a new relationship to achieve. How do you establish trust when the first question you're asked is returned with a canned-over-communicated elevator pitch? This is especially true for professions that require the highest level of trust such as financial professionals and consultants.

A textbook elevator pitch is so obvious and inauthentic in the moment. You'll notice the person takes a deep breath, changes his or her tone and shifts the body language as the brain starts swirling to find those memorized words practiced in front of the mirror. People have actually gotten so tripped up on their own elevator pitch that they'll start over again and ask for a re-do mid-conversation. How does that create the foundation for a trusting relationship?

5. It stops the conversation.

When you wholly answer the question, "What do you do?" in a way that leaves the prospect feeling like they "get it" entirely then you've missed the opportunity to engage them in a deeper conversation about your area of expertise. You've taken away their chance to ask questions about your profession that are relevant to their circumstances and interests.

It's not uncommon for a financial adviser to accidentally offer an elevator pitch when introduced to a competing adviser. It's fun to watch this happen, but it doesn't serve any purpose. Those who have pitched their competition have a sure-fire sign to know that they're not engaging when networking, they're jumping into sales mode with anyone who will listen.

Not convinced the elevator pitch needs to go down? Go to an event with the top business leaders in your community and watch how they mingle and emulate what they do. I assure you they are not walking into events ready to throw out a carefully crafted elevator pitch. They are simply looking for the people with whom they connect enough that they want to connect again. Eventually they'll not only be able to articulate their value, they'll be able to show it.