Selling is everything.
It's a lesson a former boss of mine tried to instill in me while I was still a full-time journalist, who mistakenly thought I was above selling. As I transitioned over the past few years to my new occupation as an entrepreneur, I quickly realized the truth of this sentiment. Every day I'm selling something: my company, my product or myself to various stakeholders, and for each one, I must be prepared with a suitable story to capture my audience's attention. While most meetings are planned, I've found it takes practice to have all the relevant information on the tip of your tongue in case you run into someone who could play an integral role in your career.
Enter the elevator speech.
Countless books and articles have been written on the topic, offering differing takes on the appropriate language, length and hook. The underlying logic dictates that if you have 30 seconds to win someone over – about the time it takes to reach your floor on an elevator – can you capture someone's interest?
Are there some magical key words that will pique your audience's curiosity? For tech startups, this has spawned an entire catalogue of catchy analogies, with companies saying they are like "Uber for dating" or "Facebook for dogs," to capture the imagination of investors or customers with short attention spans. Having such ideas in your back pocket comes in handy when opportunity strikes.
Such a fortuitous encounter happened to Amy Regan, chief executive officer of Skinfix Inc. in Halifax, which sells a natural, over-the-counter product to treat irritated skin. On the very last day of the Women's Wear Daily beauty summit last May, she found herself in an elevator with Christina Hennington, senior vice-president of health and beauty for Target Corp. in the United States.
"It was only Christina and I in the elevator, so we rode two floors together and I gave her my 30-second pitch," Ms. Regan recalled. "As it turned out, I hit some hot buttons for Target beauty in my pitch and she asked me to e-mail her with more information," she said. Her product is now available in all U.S. Target stores nationwide and on Target.com.
Mastering the pitch took her about a year, Ms. Regan said. "We always knew that our formulas were unique and highly effective, but our retail partners really helped to crystallize for us what was so special about our proposition," she explained.
Once you have figured out what makes you or your product special, Ms. Regan said, you should distill it down to three brief points and build your pitch around it. Anything more than three can dilute your message, she added.
Naturally, the subject of an elevator speech need not be always be a brand. You might be pitching yourself, when you are looking for a new role or promotion. But selling yourself can be even more challenging than selling a product.
Before you spend the weekend rehearsing how you would describe your top traits, keep in mind that not everyone believes in the unlimited potential of a perfect elevator pitch. Sarah Vermunt, founder of Toronto-based career coaching company, Careergasm, doesn't mask her dislike of elevator pitches.
"I've been pitched before and there's nothing worse than some poor dude getting all out of breath and red in the face telling you about his awesome idea," Ms. Vermunt said.
She said the problem starts with the term "elevator speech." A speech is something you memorize and rehearse. Ms. Vermunt insists that the objective of an elevator pitch shouldn't be simply to share information but also to make human connections, which might be lost if you are overrehearsed.
She recommends not memorizing a speech but remembering two or three key points. Don't repeat your pitch word for word, she says, and try to speak naturally.
"Nobody wants to give their money or a job to a robot. Also, if you talk 'at' somebody for too long, it starts to seem desperate, and nobody wants to give their money to that guy, either," she said.
So by all means keep the salient points about yourself, your product or your company in mind on the off-chance that your next elevator ride turns into a life-changing opportunity. But while selling may be everything, sell as a human, not a machine on autopilot.
Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler