Aug 132008

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

The Elevator Speech

According to current doctrine, everybody is supposed to have an elevator speech – that monologue that you can reel off during a two or three floor ride – hopefully going up rather than down. I’ve never cottoned much to boiling down a life into three to five minutes of crisp prose – I’ve always been fascinated by the details of life and the amazing diversity that humans have become. So I admit that I hadn’t put much effort into generating one. But recently I have been asked the same question a number of times: “What exactly is it that you do?”

After getting asked for the third or fourth time within a week, I decided that I owed the questioners something approaching a succinct response; so I pulled together a few short paragraphs. The effort produced a fair amount of self-knowledge and generated a couple of lessons that I see as well worth learning – some about what an elevator speech can do and others about what it can’t. Well, for what it’s worth, this is what I came up with:

I am a virtual Chairman of the Board. I help founders build their ideas into successful businesses. Neither an investor nor a consultant, I support entrepreneurs as a full member of their team; as an owner and a decision maker.I help to incubate start-ups. In that role, I provide leadership and experience. I invest my time, and, in return, I receive an equity stake in the business. Because of that stake, I think like a team member and win or lose with the founders.

Start-ups require high-speed execution and unrelenting perseverance if they are going to succeed. Things can easily become chaotic. My role is to keep my head above water and provide insight, direction and stability.

I bring to each team the experience I’ve gained in raising money, setting strategy, building and leading teams, establishing strategic partnerships, developing products and services and bringing them to market, arranging mergers and acquisitions and doing deals. And I make all my contacts available.

In a fundamental way I act as a company’s virtual chairman. I am active in the business but don’t play any day to day operating role. I am involved in all planning and major decision making.

When I advise a start-up the business for me is the founders. The company is an expression of their collective vision. I see my role as supporting that vision. My specific work in each company depends on the backgrounds of the founders and the particulars of the business.

What’s it good for?

OK – it’s our floor and we can get off the elevator now! I see two benefits from pulling together and smoothing out and elevator speech. First and foremost, I have a relatively coherent answer to the “What exactly is it that you do?” question. People seem mostly satisfied with and understand my response. A few are intrigued and want to know more. It is a conversation starter that sometimes leads to deeper (and mutually beneficial) discussions. Second, I am relieved of the discomfort that the question used to bring. I would search for a place to start my story and work to cover important points. Sometimes I picked a good starting spot and sometimes I didn’t. The results were, at best, uneven. So I found myself doing better during the initial four or five minutes. But I’ve come to suspect that that is an illusion of progress!

There are major limitations when elevator speeches are used in networking situations. An elevator speech doesn’t tell the whole story – it is only an invitation to further conversations. And the person you are ‘presenting to’ may have little or no interest in making that journey. A second and related limitation is that they almost always seem to come in pairs – yours and mine.

Possession of an ‘elevator speech’ can indicate a predator on the prowl. Few people go to networking events to ‘give’ business – mostly they are looking to ‘find’ it. Some can’t wait until you are through with yours so that they can launch into theirs and begin ‘prospecting’. Others don’t seem to have the ability to go beyond their elevator speech. Like people we have all met who are very good at initial meetings but nothing more, these people seem to wander around the room depositing their ‘elevator speech’ in any available ear. If you probe deeper there doesn’t seem to be anything there.

But my two most serious problems with elevator speeches are 1) they are inappropriate in networking situations and 2) they are almost always anti-humanist. The idea of an elevator speech was developed in the venture capital industry – a short, crisp and focused presentation that was designed to attract the initial interest of a potential investor in your business proposition. In a networking environment you are presenting, first and foremost, yourself as a person that I might come to know, like and trust enough to do business with. I have come to believe that elevator speeches get in the way of that process. The anti-humanist nature of the elevator speech comes through as the speaker seems to turn into a ‘talking head’ advancing a specific business proposition. Upon its completion I know next to nothing about the person. I would rather hear a ‘vision’ that the person has for their life. But then I’m one of those who believe that people (particularly their insights, passion and dedication) are the most interesting parts of any business.

When you meet me, don’t tell me what you do – tell me who you are! When you meet people find out whom they are before you find out what they do – if you don’t like who they are, what they do will be unimportant.

© Dr Earl R Smith II


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