The Elevator Speech is the Swiss Army Knife of Job-Search Tools

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by Katharine Hansen, PhD

Elevator Speech (also referred to as Elevator Pitch and Career Brand Sound Bite) — a 15- to 30-second commercial that job-seekers use in a variety of situations (career fairs, networking events, job interviews, cold calling) that succinctly tells the person you are giving it to who you are, what makes you unique, and the benefits you can provide.

By now the Elevator Speech is a fairly well-known tool, not only for job-seekers but for organizations and individuals with products and services to sell. Authors of numerous Internet articles on the Elevator Speech offer speculations on the origin of the term — ranging from the notion that we often run into important people in elevators to the more common explanation that the Elevator Speech is a clear, concise bit of communication that can be delivered in the time it takes folks to ride from the top to the bottom of a building in an elevator.

Whatever the exact origin, the Elevator Speech is an exceptionally useful and versatile tool in numerous situations:

  • Events designed specifically for networking.
  • The casual networking opportunities we encounter nearly every day — the kids’ soccer games, plane flights, waiting in line to buy tickets, and on and on.
  • Career or job fairs.
  • Cold calls to employers.
  • Cold calls to absent employers: resume writer Rita Fisher suggests that leaving your Elevator Speech in the form of a voicemail message virtually guarantees that the employer will call back. Hint: Assuming your speech is sufficiently compelling, call after hours when you know for sure you will get the employer’s voicemail.
  • Opportunities within your own company to talk with higher-up honchos, let them know you’re doing a great job, and position you for promotion.
  • Job interviews, where the Elevator Speech can provide the answer to at least two common interview queries: “Tell me about yourself” and “Why should I hire you?”

Wide variation exists among experts as to the ideal length of an Elevator Speech. Some authors say as few as 15 seconds; others say up to three minutes. There’s no reason, however, that you can’t employ both short and long versions. Different situations, after all, may well call for diverse approaches.

In my book, A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market, I describe the Sound Bite and the Commercial. The Sound Bite is equivalent to, let’s say, an Elevator Speech for a low-rise building or a building with a very fast elevator.

It’s is a very short introduction of yourself used in situations where you are meeting a lot of people and probably not spending a great deal of time with any one of them. Events specifically designed for networking were made for the Sound Bite, which lasts about 15-30 seconds and may or may not be the prelude to a lengthier conversation. The trick is to make your Sound Bite so intriguing that people will want to spend more time talking with you. The Sound Bite also might be incorporated into an initial phone conversation with a prospective new member of your network.

At its most basic level, the Sound Bite’s structure is:

Hi, my name is ___________. I’m in the _______________ field, and I’m looking to_____________________.

The last blank would be filled in with your current career aspiration, whether it is to stay within your field and move up or move into a different career.

A college student or new graduate might add the following to the basic structure.

Hi, my name is ___________. I will be graduating/I just graduated from ____________________with a degree in _____________________. I’m looking to_____________________.

You can stick with the Sound Bite’s basic structure and see where it takes you. It may not take you far, however, because it lacks two things: a “hook” and a request for action.

Beware of a Sound Bite/Elevator Speech that inspires the thought “so what?” in the listener, as the above examples might.

If, however, you add an element of intrigue — a “hook” — by incorporating your Unique Selling Proposition, the ensuing conversation now has considerable potential. Let’s look, for example, at how a conversation might go that starts with an intriguing Sound Bite:

Networker #1: Hi, my name is Carmen Southwick. I make dreams come true.
Networker #2: How do you do that?
Networker #1: I’m a wedding planner. I plan dream weddings for couples. I’ve been working for myself, but I’d like to get in with one of the big resorts that hosts weddings.

Let’s look at another example:

Networker #1: Hi, my name is Ned Peters. I’m a warm-and-fuzzy man.
Networker #2: How so?
Networker #1: I manage a pet store and love to watch children’s eyes light up when I put a little animal in their hands. I’m training to use pet therapy in hospitals and nursing homes and hope to break into that field.

And one more:

Networker #1: Hi, my name is Betty Joiner. I’m responsible for this country’s future.
Networker #2: This I’ve got to hear about.
Networker #1: I’m a teacher! I love shaping the minds of the next generation, but I’m also interested in getting into corporate training.

The concern, of course, with the intriguing sound bite is that you’ll sound corny or hokey. And, in fact, chances are you will. I’ll admit that when I first researched these sound bites/elevator speeches, I found them very corny. But they work by hooking your conversation partner into finding out more about you.

You just have to decide whether or not you’re comfortable with incorporating an intriguing line into your Sound Bite. If not, go for a more basic Sound Bite/Elevator Speech. One way to test the effect is to try both approaches out on members of your inner circle.

Even the intriguing Sound Bites/Elevator Speeches above lack an important element — a request for action. Here are some action items that can be appended in various situations:

At a career fair: “I’d like to take your business card, as well as leave my networking card and resume. Would it be possible for me to get a spot on your company’s interview schedule?

In a networking situation: “What advice do you have for me? Can you suggest any employers I should be contacting?”

Cold-calling an employer: “When can we set up a meeting to discuss how I can help your company?”

Telephone or e-mail situations: “May I send you my resume?” (For in-person situations, you should always have resumes handy.)

The Commercial, a.k.a, Elevator Speech for a high-rise building or slow elevator, is a longer version of the Sound Bite and can be used in networking situations in which you have more time to talk about yourself, such as when you are visiting in the office of a prospective member of your network or having lunch with a contact. It can be a great job-interview response to “Tell me about yourself” or “Why should I hire you?”

It’s also an effective response when you’re conducting an informational interview and the interviewee turns the tables and starts asking questions about you. The Commercial can piggyback on top of the Sound Bite; you start out with the Sound Bite, and your conversation partner asks you to tell more about yourself, so you segue into the Commercial. This introduction is typically one to three minutes long and contains more about your background, qualifications, and skills than the Sound Bite does.

Obviously, you don’t want your Commercial to sound memorized. But you are, after all, talking about yourself, so the material is not hard to remember. It helps to write it out first — outline form is fine; then read it over a few times, and practice saying it without reading or memorizing it. Practice saying it in front of friends and members of your network, too. It’s not a big deal if you forget a detail, as long as you remember the main points you want to get across. Here are a couple of samples, which range from about 200-300 words:

Hi, my name is Michaela Shaw. I’ve had many years of experience in the electronics industry. During this time, I was drawn to the field of information systems. I enjoyed the challenge and new technologies that I learned while working with the company systems administrator in my job as a database controller. I loved receiving and implementing the system-management training I gained while working with the Hewlett Packard board test system. The spark ignited, and I began to focus my efforts on obtaining additional training in computer information systems. I am achievement and detail oriented. I work extremely well in a team environment and have been a team leader on several of my projects. I further developed my communications skills, which were extremely important in my past work experience, throughout my academic career. I have worked with the latest technologies in my classes. For example, I helped design a database interface application in Visual Basic for one of my school’s programs. When assigned a project, I possess the skills to see it through to top-notch completion. I am prepared to make a significant contribution in the next step in my career.

Hi, my name is Mateo Santiago. My background to date has centered around preparing myself to be the most well-rounded marketing professional possible. I have specifically prepared myself for a career in marketing by taking competitive undergraduate classes and by gaining invaluable real-world experience. To improve my written communication skills, I completed four upper-division English classes in addition to the two core classes required of business majors. Since many Texas businesses today work with people of Hispanic origin, I chose to enhance my desirability and versatility as a potential employee by acquiring a Spanish minor. I have also prepared myself to transition into the work force through real-world experience involving travel abroad, internships, and entrepreneurial opportunities. While interning with a private organization in Ecuador this past summer, I developed a 15-page marketing plan composed in Spanish that recommended more effective ways in which this company could promote its services. I also traveled abroad on two other occasions in which I researched the indigenous culture of the Mayan Indians in Todos Santos, Guatemala, and participated in a total language immersion program in San Jose, Costa Rica. In addition to my travel and internship experience, I also obtained considerable professional sales training as a result of my own entrepreneurial pursuits. During this past summer, I telemarketed for Riella Tire Supply of West Texas, a work experience that prompted me to develop conflict-resolution and personal-selling skills. Furthermore, I have established and maintained two businesses — Santiago Lawn Service and Full Throttle Auto Detailing, which exposed me to valuable real-world experience with cold door-to-door sales calls and relationship selling. As you can see from my academic and extracurricular backgrounds, I have unconditionally committed myself to succeed as a marketing professional.

Want to learn much more? See Fantastic Formulas for Composing Elevator Speeches and Elevator Speech Do’s and Don’ts.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Katharine Hansen, PhD, Creative Director Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at) Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

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