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Why the ‘elevator speech’ doesn’t lift your brand

Drew Letendre

When you really think about it, the idea of an elevator speech is a bit preposterous. People rarely speak on elevators. More often than not, what takes place on elevators is awkward silence (or awkward conversation). So it is unlikely that a conversation about your company, even less about its brand, will take place there. Even if it did, it would be short-lived, unless you were on a slow lift to the top (or bottom) of a very tall building.

So called ‘elevator speeches’ are far more likely to take place on airplanes and they rarely begin with a prompt like: “Who do you work for and what do they do?” neatly delivering the cue to tee up the canned ‘commercial.’ Such speeches (in reality, conversations) begin, ‘So, what do you do?”

It’s then up to you to steer the conversation along the path to a ‘corporate capabilities capsule’ (whether of the nuts and bolts sort—like boilerplate—or the more provocative and visionary kind—like the janitor at NASA who says he’s ‘helping to put a man on the moon’ — an ultimately outlandish but ‘provable’ claim, assuming you tolerate a very long chain of causal connections in his explanation).

But, let’s suppose you manage to have this conversation, be it on a plane, train, in a cab (or even in an elevator). Is there any real, measurable benefit to the company you work for? Can it add value to your overall brand strategy? What’s the likelihood that your conversational companion is someone who might be interested in purchasing what you sell, make a favorable referral to someone who would, or purchase shares of your stock? Probably very slight.

So then, what is the big deal about elevator speeches? They rarely happen in elevators. They rarely happen outside of elevators! When they do happen, the results are either dubious or nebulous (or both). And the audience may fall well astray of the ‘target’ you’re aiming for.

It may be that the value of the elevator speech is more for internal consumption and employee engagement than external promotion. It is culturally valuable to have a workforce well schooled in what their company stands for. Your employees simply should understand and be able to clearly articulate 3 to 5 fundamental facts about the company they work for:

  1. What business your company is in and what its unique value is
  2. What benefits it delivers—and to whom
  3. Why your company exists, what larger purpose it is meant to serve
  4. What its strategic vision is

While they may not be tested on this, employees should at least have a context and framework within which their own roles, identities, responsibilities, and career ambitions will seem rational and supported. They should have this sort of tool kit to meet most conceivable, informal business communications scenarios. That would be a value.

As it turns out, the elevator is in your building, the speech is what is on everybody’s mind, and that is why it is so quiet.

So, “Whom do you work for and what business are they in?” Contributions welcome!  (I’ll publish outstanding examples with permission) Next time, I’ll discuss an example of what should replace the ‘elevator speech.’