Elevator Speeches: Wrong on So Many Levels

An elevator speech, or pitch, is a succinct and persuasive outline for a product, service or project. The term is often credited to journalist Michael Caruso, who would suggest story ideas to Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown after hopping on the elevator with her.

Not so, according to Dr. Graham Wilson in his exhaustive history of the phrase. Apparently, the earliest known use was in a modestly selling book entitled The Art of Getting Your Own Sweet Way, published in 1972 by an intrepid member of the "quality improvement industry," Phillip Crosby. In the second edition, he writes, ''...all quality improvement people should have a pre-prepared speech selling the benefits of their new approach... that they could deliver in the elevator if they find themselves unexpectedly in the company of a senior executive for a few floors.'' 

There is no shortage of examples and advice on how to perfect an elevator speech, and there are even "generators" that will write it for you. Basically, elevator speeches are supposed to be 20 to 30 seconds long and should contain the following components:

  • The goal of the speech.
  • An explanation of what you or your organization does.
  • Why you are unique.
  • Ask the listener a question.
  • Practice.
  • Offer a business card or other takeaway.

Pretty easy, right? The problem is that the actual delivery can feel forced and awkward. Many people are now using a different model that is more conversational, and gets your point across without someone at a party or meetup wondering why they just got a 30-second speech all about you.    

If we compare the two methods, here are the results:

1.  Elevator speech (thank you, Elevator Speech Generator):

Hey, I’m Lisa. I work at the Denver Public Library, and sometimes people ask me if public libraries are relevant these days.

We are busier than ever, considering that we have a huge computer lab with more than 100 computers and a maker space. The Reference Department also offers one-on-one appointments for small businesses, nonprofits, patent research and students.

The library also has lots of online resources that aren't available through the Web, such as free eBooks, audio eBooks, and streaming movies. You can have access to all of these things with your library card.

Here's my card, if you have questions about any of these services.

2.  Conversational Method:

Hi, I'm Lisa, and I work at the Denver Public Library.

Wow, what a great job—do you get to sit around and read books all day?

Definitely not—we're too busy finding great books for customers and helping with all kinds of information needs. Just the other day I looked up the nutritional value of rutabagas for someone. Have you ever been involved in a nonprofit? I specialize in helping those.

Yes, I volunteer at Maxfund animal rescue, and I know they need money to expand their educational programs. How could you help them?

We could have a look at the Foundation Directory Online and help them find some foundations that have a similar mission and who would be a good match for funding. If you'd like to learn more, here's my card.


Here are some resources if you'd like to learn to convey what you do through an engaging, two-way conversation instead of the tired, one-way street of the elevator speech:  

Got questions? Ask Us online or call Reference Services at 720.865.1363. 

Written by Lisa on September 21, 2017


Anonymous on September 30, 2017


LOL What a great job..come on lameness

Bob Marley on October 5, 2017


You don't explain why elevator speeches are wrong on so many levels.

Lisa F. on October 7, 2017


You got me there, Bob. I just couldn't resist the pun. They're only wrong on a few levels - they're awkward, sound canned, and are not all that wonderful for the recipient. IMHO.

Sieeda on October 10, 2017


Did'nt understand the how they were wrong on many levels also?

Joyce Deming on October 11, 2017


Great post, Lisa! If I had a nickel for every time some asked me if, as a librarian, I sit and read books all day, I'd be retired and sitting on a beach reading books all day! Thanks for the new take on the elevator speech.

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